Ireland’s 19th Century Famine (1879)

Ireland’s last famine had been in 1845-1852 which caused mass hunger and deaths, yet twenty-seven years later in 1879; they had not fully recovered, and would be struck down once again.

The country’s poor farmers, lived as tenant farmers, and were subject to landowners whether they had a roof over their head.  Any improvements to the land or their homes became the property of the landlord upon termination of lease or eviction.

Farm produce and prices had seen a growing economy between 1852 through to the 1870’s, and tenants had seen their rents increase.  With high crop yields, and good sales, everybody was happy.  Suddenly without warning, the weather conditions changed in 1874, covering most of Europe, which saw poor harvests in the following years.

What they had dreaded most, was just around the corner, waiting to strike.  Blight, hit the potato crops of Ireland once again, and the people knew what was coming next; starvation and famine, as many had lived through the previous famine, and lived to tell the tale.

Help came from abroad; Wheat from USA and Ukraine, Meat from Argentina and Australia, to keep the prices down for producers, and help a country weather a bad storm.

Back in the 1850’s, a new form of tenancy agreement had been laid down.  The old lease was referred to as “lease of three lives” which is exactly what it meant within any family unit.  This was replaced by an annual or eleven month lease, thus long-term security had gone.

Twenty-seven years had passed, and the farmer’s and labourer’s had become organised.  Now they were represented by the “National Alliance” better known as the “Land League” (Much like our unions of today), led by Charles Stewart Parnell.  The land league was financed by donations from America, but their actions against landowners, was nothing short of hostile.  They physically blocked evictions in mass and burnt leases in public places, showing their contempt.

One of the worst area’s was Connacht, for it suffered from poor quality of land, more rain than most other parts of Ireland, which equalled poor farmers, and reduced crops and levels of food.

When the first signs of bad crops appeared in the Connacht area in 1879, they knew what was coming… hunger and famine.  They didn’t need to be told, you could see the frightened look upon their faces, and the fear in their eyes.

Parnell’s Land War brought British political reforms for Irelands small farmers and tenants to a head.  William Gladstone, the then British Prime Minister had to act, before it got seriously out of control.  The former Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act of 1870, was replaced in 1881, with the “Occupation and Ownership of Land in Ireland Act,” which was designed to create official rent reductions, and would recognise the interest of tenants, on leased land.

Parnell, further enhanced his demands upon the British Government, by promising to stop disruptions across the land, if all unpaid rents were cancelled.  They had no choice, but to agree.

The “Wyndham Act” of 1903, was brought in to help Irish Tenant Farmers, and would see an end to their unstable lifestyle.  Over a period of time, they would see their life of poverty fade in the distance behind them.  Tenants could purchase land from their landlords, at a fair price set by the government, and pay the money to the government, spread over many years, without causing any hardship.


Many of the world’s poorest countries have relied on a single crop for survival in much the same way as Ireland did during its famine years.  This has proved to be a disadvantage, as weather and diseased crops can wreak havoc across countries, and thousands of people face hunger, and the thought of famine.

Ireland’s 19th Century Famine (1845-1852)

The people, the country had never properly recovered from the 18th century famine of 1740-1741, where up to a million people are believed to have lost their lives.

Ireland became governed by the English in 1801, and many considered the country was on the verge of starvation, with an ever increasing population.  A high number of the workforce was unemployed, and living standards were low.

Irish Catholics are believed to make up eighty per cent of the population during the 19th century, and most lived in conditions bordering on the verge of poverty.

The impoverished tenants were paid low wages to work the land.  Whilst other’s leased the land from the landowners.  Much land was owned by the Protestants.  Large estates tended to be owned by Anglo-Irish families, who lived in England, and were referred to as “Absentee Landlords.”

In 1843 a Royal Commission was set up under the Earl of Devon, with regards to the occupation of Irish lands.  Those attended were landlords, for not a single tenant was present.

It was said, that the Irish labourer’s family lived on potato and water, their cabins offered little protection against the elements, and a bed or blanket would be classed as a luxury.

The agent or the middleman, leased large areas of land, from the landowner’s, and fixed rents accordingly.  Holdings of land were often broken down into smaller lots, to create larger income, a system known as conacre.

Tenants property improvements, became the property of landlords, when lease expired or ended, so hardly any improvements were undertaken.  Their security was none, they could be turned out, whenever an agent or landlord wished … they lived in fear of that day coming.

The 1841 census showed Ireland’s population sat a little over eight million, and some six million depended on agricultural work, but did not receive a liveable wage.

They would work for a landlord, and receive a patch of land to feed their family.  It was so small; they had no choice but to grow potatoes.  This forced many people into a peasantry lifestyle.  That piece of land was the difference between life and death.

A report by the English Government in 1845, just before the famine struck Ireland, concluded that one third of all small holdings were insufficient in size, to support families, once rent had been paid.

By the late 17th century, the potato supplemented the principal food diet of milk, butter, bread, and grain products.  By the early part of the 18th century, it became the main food for the poor.

The potato crop failures in Ireland were widespread across the land in 1841 and 1844, and the cause was confirmed as that of “Blight.”  It was put forward, than the infection more than likely originated from America, for Blight had killed off large crops in 1843 and 1844.

By the early autumn of 1845, most of Europe including Ireland had seen their potato crop struck down by this deadly disease, and by December 1846, three quarters of their potato crops had been destroyed, and some three million people faced hunger.

Ireland asked England for help, stating if we belong to the realm, what the exchequer can do for us.  Dublin asked for ports to be open for imports, and money for public works.  Lord Heytesbury, considered they were premature in their request, but it would be investigated. 

John Mitchell a young political writer, raised the question of the Potato Disease, and if something was not done soon, millions of people would starve, and famine would spread across the land.  In desperation to get his words across, he produced leaflets which included the phrase: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”

They were indeed dangerous words, and he was charged with Sedition, and sentenced to 14 years and transported to Bermuda, under the charge of the Treason Felony Act.

The Prime Minister at the time was Robert Peel, and he had been shocked by the findings on the report of conditions in Ireland.  This led him to purchase £100,000 worth of maize and cornmeal from America on the quiet, for his own party would not agree with his actions.  The first shipment arrived in February 1846.

Later that year Robert Peel wanted to change the rules of the Corn Laws, which was keeping the price of bread high, thus stopping cheap grain being imported.  Ireland’s people needed help, and his actions placed him on the opposite side of the fence to his own party … but he was doing, what he believed in.

On the 25th June 1846, he lost a vote in the House of Commons, and on the 29th June, as the famine worsened and his hands were tied, he was forced out of office.

Lord John Russell, replaced Robert Peel, and introduced a range of public works projects, so hundreds of thousands of Irish dug holes, and broke up roads, to earn money to feed their families in the short term.  Then administrators under his command halted the public works program, which meant no work, no money to buy food.  So they introduced workhouses and soup kitchens through the Poor Law.

The costs involved in the administration of the Poor Law fell upon the landlords, who in turn evicted their tenants to reduce their liability.

The Times newspaper, stated that England had created mass poverty, allowing landlords to suck the very life-blood from the Irish people.

There was a clause within the Poor Law, making it illegal for those holding a quarter of an acre or more of land, from receiving relief…

So it was, if you leased land, from the landowner, and became an agent.  Then leased the said land to tenant farmers, you had no choice, but to eject your tenants, return the land to the owner, before you can apply for relief. 

Records showed that during the worst years of the famine, Ireland still continued to export food, to England.  Their potato crop had failed, even so they exported enough grain crops to sustain the population.  It was referred to as a “money crop” not a “food crop.”  Therefore it was shipped abroad, while their people starved; men, women and children.

The relations between England and Ireland provoked much anger and hostility, as Ireland starved, and the English survived on Irish produce.

Landlords found themselves responsible for paying rates, where tenant’s rents equalled less than £4.00 per year in 1846/47.  This led to mass evictions, thousands evicted, homes levelled and burnt before their very eyes.  It was not surprising that some tenants rebelled, and some landlords died.

During the height of the famine, the Irish fled their homeland for pastures new.  It is known that some 100,000 (1847), 90,000 (1849) and 104,000 (1850) fled but this was just a small number known to have escaped to; England, Scotland, America, Canada and Australia.  More often the younger family members were the ones who would seek out a new life.

The famine was responsible for depopulation of an overcrowded country … and as many as 1,500,000 are known to have died.

In 1852, and the famine was over, as Ireland and its people started getting back on its feet.  Then in 1854, nearly two million left their homeland, to avoid starvation and poverty, in the future.


If one takes a look at the history of Ireland, and to this day many questions remain unanswered as to who is directly responsible for the famine that swept through their land.

The exportation of food during the famine to England, as the Irish died from starvation, is a part of history that will never be forgotten!

Poverty in the 19th Century

Life in the 19th century was hard for those who had the misfortune to live through it.  Families tended to be much larger than these times, people having ten children or more.  However, it was an accepted part of life, that some would die in their early years, from childhood diseases.

It was hard to put food on the table, for work was scarce, housing prices, ever increasing, and wages low.  Families were forced to share rooms to pay the rent.

The situation in Britain was not helped by those fleeing Ireland in their thousands, amidst their country’s potato famine, and settling here.  So the demand for work and housing grew out of control, and poverty became part of everyday life.

What didn’t help was people’s attitude to those worse off than themselves.  They believed in a state of self-help, through hard work and thrift.  If you were poor, it was your own fault, and you were to blame for your poverty…nobody else.

By the end of the 19th century, poverty accounted for at least twenty-five per cent of Britain’s population.  Most living below subsistence level, of which some ten percent were unable to afford basic necessities.  Some were lucky enough to put a meal a day on the table, whilst others went for days without food, hoping for charity from friends and neighbours.

It reminds me of a story, my mother and grandfather often spoke of.  Aunt Jane lived in Helstone, Cornwall and had ten children, during one of the worst times of this country’s period of poverty.  As the story goes to the best of my memory, if any of her neighbour’s were out of work, she would cook an extra fruit or meat pie, so they had food on the table, and the little ones would not go hungry.  It was her way of instilling charity into her own children.

In 1834, the Poor Law came into effect, it was the Victorian answer, how to deal with poverty.  It became the responsibility of parishes, to join together, creating regional workhouses, where aid could be applied for.

Civil liberties were denied, husbands, wives and children were separated from each other, and their human dignity was destroyed.  They were given unpleasant hard work, and wore uniforms depicting what they were…  The true poor often went to great lengths to avoid these places, for it was said, they were no better than prisons.

Charles Dickens father got into debt, and the family was imprisoned in one of these workhouses, and for years afterwards he became a champion for the poor.

William Booth formed the Salvation Army in 1878, which went out and administered help to the poor and needy.

Some schools provided poor and malnourished children with a free breakfast.  For a child who was hungry could not learn; that was a guaranteed way of getting pupils to attend school.

The Boot Fund was formed in 1890, a charity providing boots or shoes for poor children.

More and more people’s consciences were pinged by the sight of poor and destitute children living rough, on the streets of London.  They were forced to live by their wits, and crime was the name of the game if they were going to eat. 

Just like “Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens” and the character Fagin, who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children stole.

Poverty in England has been with us many centuries, and people’s attitude towards poverty has changed over the centuries.  For in the 18th century at least fifty per cent of the population lived below the bread line, and wore nothing upon their feet.  By the 19th century it had improved, and only twenty-five per cent were in dire need.  With the coming of the 20th century, people had come to accept poverty as part of life.

If we look at the country today, we can’t say poverty has been eradicated, it has improved with the passing of each century… but it will never be wiped out in our times…

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