Famine in Ireland

Author: Evelyne Ojwang
World Information Transfer UN Intern, fall 2011


The Great Famine in Ireland of 1845 and 1852 began with blight on the potato crop leaving acre after acre of farmland covered with black rot. Due to poverty, farmers exclusively depended on potatoes for sustenance. Approximately one million lives were lost from hunger and disease including cholera and typhus.1 The Famine also spurred new waves of immigration, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.2

While the blight catalyzed the famine, other arguments suggest that inadequate policy response from the British government, scientific ignorance, enforced poverty, and rural suppression exacerbated the consequences of the famine.

While the Irish poor classes suffered from starvation, historians point that many Irish landowners exported the limited and badly needed grain to England for profit. The loss of crops left the farmers with no income to pay their rent. As a result many farmers lost their lands.

The famine changed the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island’s demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine entered folk memory and became a rallying point for various nationalist movements as Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Charity and Remittances

As the famine worsened, relief effort was needed at large scale. English efforts to provide relief were inadequate, and the little help already underway was abandoned in the midst of the famine. The Irish saw the British relief efforts as inadequate, as it was caused by centuries of political and economic oppression of the Irish. The famine was of a great magnitude and could only be saved by a government intervention. The British government was committed to a laisezz la faire economics; they couldn’t offer intervention in economic affairs. Non profit organizations none the less helped save many lives during the famine. The Society of Friends distributed over 200,000 worth of food and clothing. Irish charities donated over 300,000 of relief. The British associations donated over 400,000 but were used by government to prop up bankrupt unions, which should have been their responsibility. A considerable proportion of this money had been donated be Irish people in the colonial services and the military. Remittances from relatives and friends living abroad amounted to millions and saved many from starvation by providing money for food or emigration.4

Media Reaction

International aid poured in to add to the money raised in Ireland and Britain. Prints in the London Illustrated News showed pictures of the Famine throughout the world. The new print media had generated what were probably the first global efforts at Famine relief. Yet, not enough money was raised and not enough help was given to stop the tragedy. Newspaper accounts informed the Irish American’s of the horror back in Ireland. This resulted to individuals sending private donations in form of money and ship tickets to assist family and friends. The long drawn-out years of Famine also produced the first recorded examples of “compassion fatigue” and “donor fatigue.” Even the Quakers, who had done so much to bring economic aid to Ireland, could not maintain their economic level of support. As with today’s famines in Africa, people seem to tire of the media coverage.

There is a debate about the economic help given by the British government. The idea of society was very different then. Essentially, God not people was supposed to have established the economic framework of society. The government had a policy of laissez faire, let the market decide the prices. However, unemployed men, let alone sick and starving women and children, could not pay the market price demanded for food in the Ireland of 1847. The British state failed to create a government structure capable of dealing with the starvation of its citizens. It also failed to change its economic thinking in the face of spectacular starvation. Most important of all, the government failed to import sufficient food to feed the 30-40% of the population put at risk because the blight had destroyed their food source.5


1. Gráda, C. (2010). Ireland. In P. Demeny & G. McNicoll (Eds.),Great Irish Famine New York: Macmillan. Retrieved from http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/ograda.famine
2. Great famine (ireland). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Potato_Famine. ibid
3. ibid
4. WARFIELD, B. (n.d.). History corner: The great irish famine. Retrieved from http://www.wolfetonesofficialsite.com/famine.htm
5. What economic features in ireland caused the famine to be so terrible?. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://irishfamine.ca/ireland/what-economic-features-in-ireland-caused-the-famine-to-be-so-terrible