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The Irish Potato Famine-
Causes

On this page I will talk about the underlying causes of the Irish Potato Famine. First, a recap on the scenario.

Background

The Great Famine that killed in the region of 2 million Irish people was triggered by a failure of the Irish potato crop due to an infestation of Phytophora infestans, a microscopic fungus, also called the potato blight.

The ruins of an Irish famine cottage in County Mayo, Ireland.

All over the countryside you can still see traces of the Irish potato famine like this abandoned cottage on the shores of Loughnafooey in County Mayo. Population density was  much higher then which meant that especially in the Westernmost counties every scrap of land had to be settled and used for growing the high-yielding potato crop to feed large poor families.

This fungus made potato plants and tubers rot. The infestation had probably been brought to Europe by boat from America and swept across the continent. But in no other country were peasants so completely dependent on the one crop only. In Ireland the failure of the potato crop would have a catastrophic impact. It would lead to one of the worst famines ever. Why?

Around two and a half million Irish people depended solely on the potato for food. They literally had nothing else to eat. Poverty under the English colonial power was extreme.


Underlying Causes For The Irish Potato Famine

The chief underlying reason that lead to the Irish Potato Famine was the question of land ownership in Ireland. Catholics were prohibited from owning land under the Penal Laws of the 18th century. The land in Ireland was held by English and Anglo-Irish landlords many of whom were absentees living in London. The absentee landlords were not interested in improving the land, all they wanted was an income from rent. Many of them rarely or never visited their lands. They often engaged middle men, renting them large tracts of land on a long term lease. These middlemen divided the land into small parcels and rented it out at maximum profit to peasants in need of land. Many peasants worked just to pay the rent.

The shocking finding was that as many as 2.5 million people suffered regular food shortages for some months every year and during those times would be in need of assistance. The general population of Ireland at the time was between 8 and 9 million, so this means a third of the population was in this situation.

Traces in the landscape of old potato ridges dating back to the Irish Famine, County Roscommon, Ireland.

About 2.5 million Irish were dependent on the potato as their only food. All over the country, potatoes were grown in lazy beds. The ridges of abandoned fields are still visible in the Irish landscape such as on this picture taken in County Roscommon.

During the Irish Potato Famine, Ireland continued to be the biggest exporter of wheat and oats to England. Irish agriculture continued to feed English cities.  Ireland also exported livestock such as oxen, sheep and pigs. Poor Irish peasants were producing this food working for extremely low wages, but the poor Irish peasants did not have the money to buy this food.

This social system where Ireland was exploited to the last was kept in place by English attitudes towards the Irish and Irish affairs: they were seen as the lowest of the low, and were treated accordingly by the government in London.

The rich and powerful, and many civil servants and politicians followed the teachings of political economists of the time, such as those of Thomas Malthus who is quoted here:

“The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.”

The attitude taken shows that many of the powerful at the time saw Famine almost as a ‘good force of nature’ and chose not to interfere as millions were suffering and dying.

The Irish Potato Famine was by no means the first famine to hit Ireland. There had been regualar famines, and there were warning signs. A report was comissioned in 1833 and completed by a Royal Commission in 1836 on poverty in Ireland.

The shocking finding was that as many as 2.5 million people suffered regular food shortages for some months every year and during those times would be in need of assistance. The general population of Ireland at the time was between 8 and 9 million, so this means a third of the population was in this situation.

One of the few and inadequate government responses to the early warning signs that famine lay ahead in Ireland was to put in place an inadequate Poor Law system based on workhouses. Entering the poor house was the only way to receive aid. To enter the poor house, a family had to give up any part of their holding larger than a quarter of an acre (under the so called Gregory Clause), which had the effect of increasing destitution rather than alleviating it. Also, while in the work house, people had to undertake hard labour in order to receive aid.

There weren’t enough places in poor houses even at the time the system was put in place in 1834. The work house system was designed to cater for 1 percent of the population. During the Irish Potato Famine the system was hopelessly overloaded. The museum at the workhouse in Skibbereen in Cork contains a simple square, 22 inches by 22 inches. That was how much room any one of the inmates had in relation to the surface area of the building. Of course, famine related diseases such as typhus spread rapidly in workhouses and contributed to many deaths during the famine.

During the famine years, Ireland continued to be the biggest exporter of wheat and oats to England. Irish agriculture continued to feed English cities.  Ireland also exported livestock such as oxen, sheep and pigs. Poor Irish peasants were producing this food working for extremely low wages, but the poor Irish peasants did not have the money to buy this food.

This social system where Ireland was exploited to the last was kept in place by English attitudes towards the Irish and Irish affairs: they were seen as the lowest of the low, and were treated accordingly by the government in London.

The rich and powerful, and many civil servants and politicians followed the teachings of political economists of the time, such as those of Thomas Malthus who is quoted here: “The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.” (As quoted in The Famine Plot by Tim Pat Coogan ) The attitude taken shows that many of the powerful at the time saw the Irish Potato Famine almost as a ‘good force of nature’ and chose not to interfere as millions were suffering and dying.

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