The crisis during the Great Famine was made worse by government mismanagement. Since 1800 the union with Great Britain had been in place. But there were too few Irish MP's to make a difference on any decisions affecting Irish affairs.
One of the few and inadequate government responses to the
early warning signs that a potato famine lay ahead in Ireland was to put in place an
inadequate Poor Law system based on workhouses.
There are famine memorials all over the country like this one at Annaghdown, County Galway.
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
Also, while in the work house, people had to undertake hard labour in order to receive aid. There were not 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 with some 25 percent of the population living in dire poverty.
During the Great 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 and dysentery spread rapidly in workhouses and contributed to many deaths during the famine.
The Potato Famine has left traces in the landscape such as these potato ridges (look for the parallel lines on the distant hill) at Lough Gur, County Limerick, Ireland.
Read here about the causes of the
Irish Potato Famine, about poverty in the
period leading up the the Irish Famine, facts about the
reality of the Great Famine, about how the famine changed Ireland,
and finally about how it triggered the murder of landlords.
To make matters worse, the government introduced a ‘rates
system’ in 1847 in an attempt to get landlords to contribute to the
cost of relief for the poor. Rates or taxes were charged on rental income from
the smallest parcels of land, those that brought in less than 4 Pounds a year.
With no tenant rights in place, this new law gave landlords
an incentive to evict the poorest tenants, and to rent the land out in larger
parcels in future. The worst areas for evictions were the overcrowded lands in
County Clare, County Roscommon and County Mayo where tens of thousands were
turned out on the roads with nowhere to go.
The Great Famine did not come as a surprise to
the government in London. There had been warnings on many occasions during the
last decade before the Famine. A Royal Commission had been set up in 1833 to
report on poverty and the need for government aid in Ireland. The commission
interviewed some 1,500 people and took three years to compile a thorough
Irish agriculture provided some 80 percent of
the meat consumed in English cities as well as lots of wheat and oats. Exports
were not stopped even though Daniell O’Connell and those around him campaigned
strongly to retain the food in the country to feed the poor.
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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