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The Irish Famine-
Poverty In Ireland Preceding The Crisis

The historic crisis of the Irish Famine was preceded by many years of stark poverty in Ireland- the subject of this page.

Background

Potato ridges dating back to the days of the Great Famine, in County Roscommon, Ireland.

Physical traces of the Great Famine on the Irish landscape can be seen to this day. When you fly over Ireland, or even as you drive through the countryside you will often spot ridges in the soil, on grassy hills or on boggy fields, and you might have wondered what these are. You will notice such ridges especially in the westernmost counties with poor soil. You can see them on my photo above. These ridges are the left over traces of old potato beds in fields that have probably not been worked since the time of the Irish famine or shortly after.


Facts About Poverty in Ireland Before The Onset Of The Irish Famine

  • The large class of peasant farmers in Ireland had become dependent on the potato as a staple during the 18th century. They did not have enough of an income to be able to buy in food and needed to grow their own. The potato was easy to grow even on poor soil such as in the West of Ireland. Strong enough to break through the grass, it would be grown in so called ‘lazy beds’, where the farmer drove the spade into the grass of the field and slipped the seed potato in behind the spade.
Abandoned Cottage, County Roscommon, Ireland.


  • The 2.5 million very poor peasants (cottiers) lived in cabins with no window and just a single door, where the smoke from the fire was let out through a hole in the roof or in the wall. They slept on the mud floor on straw in the clothes they wore during the day. Having furniture was rare. There were no tenancy rights (except in Ulster) and people could be evicted without notice. Any improvement they would have made to the property became property of the landlord and they would not be compensated.
  • Coming up to the Irish famine, more and more peasant farmers were renting holdings smaller than 5 acres. (24 percent by 1841) To feed a large family, they needed a high yielding crop like the potato. To give you an idea of how poor people were: about a third of the population had nothing to eat other than potato, and nothing to drink other than water, according to a report by the Royal commission in 1836. This is a third out of a population of between 8 and 9 million people, a huge number.
  • There were regular famines in Ireland due to failure of the potato crop, the last bad one had occurred in 1741. There was also regular smaller scale scarcity of food. Among this very poor part of the population, families usually ran out of potatoes by March or April and had little or no food from then on until the new harvest in July.
  • Peasants that were living near the sea shore might have collected seafood to supplement their diet. Fishing technologies however had been forgotten after two centuries of extreme cultural oppression, and these people were too poor to own fishing equipment.

Read More About
The Great Famine

Read here about the causes of the Irish Potato Famine, about facts about the reality of the Potato Famine, about how the government mismanaged the Great Famine worsening the crisis, about how the famine changed Ireland, and finally about how it triggered the murder of landlords.

  • Wages in Ireland were about a quarter of those in England at the time. Irish labourers were often working for below subsistence wages. This meant that despite working hard for long hours, they would often end up in debt or, at best, would just be able to pay the high rent for their land. They would pawn their belongings to help their family survive. Those that had work were the lucky ones, there was huge unemployment.
  • Despite this extreme poverty, travellers of the time reported that the Irish were very hospitable, sharing whatever food was around with the visitor. They had strong traditions such as song and dance and storytelling. People married very young and had large families which contributed to a huge growth in population.
  • If you would like to find out more about the Famine, here is a brilliant read that brings this period in history to life- Tim Pat Coogan: The Famine Plot.

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