The Irish Potato Famine

One of the effects of the Irish famine was massive death due to starvation and related disease. It is estimated that around one million people died out of the eight million plus population. There was also a high death rate among immigrants who are estimated to have accounted to addition 100,000 deaths. The massive loss of life makes The Irish Famine to be among the most deadly in the today’s world. Over a century and a half later Ireland has yet to recover from its effects demographically. This can be deduced from the fact that Ireland is the only country to have a smaller population that the figure it had in 1840 all over the larger Europe. The distribution of death across Ireland was uneven though every part of Ireland was affected. The timing of death was also wide-ranging even in the areas which were mostly hit by mortality. It was mainly caused by infectious diseases such as typhus, typhoid fever and dysentery. However, starvation also contributed to a good percentage of these deaths though the former claimed the largest toll. It is imperative to note that it is not only the poor who died during the famine but also some of the Irish who were not starving and abjectly poor. These mainly died out of famine related diseases and not starvation.

The high death toll (approximately one million) suggests that the proportion of people who died due to starvation is also high. According to distribution along gender and age group lines, women demonstrated a higher degree of resilience that men while the young and the elderly as always were more probable to succumb. Again, the famine led to migration on enormous scale. Some studies quote tentative figure on the emigrants but making exact estimates is not possible. The immigration enhanced the immigrant’s chances of survival and also the chances of those left behind. Crossing Atlantic had its own carnage though majority of those who dared made to the other side. A fraction of the immigrants lost their lives in the course of the journey aboard ships which were popularly known as coffin ships. They were overcrowded and many were half-naked. They were also poorly built and un-seaworthy further contributing to possible deaths. However, the abject poor could not afford to immigrate. They were left to the mercies of the landlords who in turn relieved them of their bill arrears or subsidised them. This coupled with immigration went a long way in aggravating the deaths from the famine.

The other major effect of the Irish famine on the people was suffering. This was especially experienced by the landless/near-landless and the rural poor. The initial victims of the famine also fall into this category. Many farmers had their total effective land reduced as their land sizes could no longer produce the same amount of produce like before. There was also a rise in the cost of labor prompting farmer to reduce their focus of tillage. The rents soared by almost a third as landlord stamped their authority. Many people including medical practitioners, clergymen and law officials lost their lives to infectious diseases. As the crisis took a deeper turn, pawnbrokers were faced with increased risk of finding unredeemed pledges. Generally, there was a drop in labor force in almost every sector including surgeons and physicians as death took toll. This shows that the hierarchy of suffering created by the famine had no “winners”.

The Irish Famine emerges as a pivotal point in the history of Ireland. It was the genesis of many social, economic and political changes which restructured Ireland. At the time of the famine, Ireland was under British rule. This is the regime which is credited with failure to contain the situation though it had the potential. Many believe that the British government failed to take effective initiatives to alleviate suffering and death witnessed during the time. This is why the famine hardened resentment towards the same regime. This paved way for success of Nationalist movements ion Ireland which initially culminated in failure. They gained a new strong component of compassionate Irish immigrants residing in America. This was marked the beginning of the long journey to the Republic of Ireland. Economically, the famine and the resulting immigration brought about great economic changes. Large scale farmers became more established and better off while the incomes of the landlords declined. There was also an improvement in estate management as landlord took more time to scrutinize their rent books. They also countered the middlemen who were also responsible for land subdivision prior to the famine. The middlemen had acquired long leases of fixed rent and this is what landlords moved in to end. Sub-tenants and middlemen were also eliminated from the land system. Along cultural line, the famine led to rapid decline in the use of Irish language. This was because areas where the language was predominant were worst hit by famine and consequential immigration. This is heralded by the initiative by the protestant clergy to stop using Irish in their religious activities in 1845. Farmers were adjusting to using English which they perceived as the language of advancement and of the future.​

Conclusively, the Irish Famine had major effect on people and the nation. The casualties were the peasant farmers who mainly relied on potato as their income crop. The destruction of the potatoes by bright meant that they had no other source of income. The resulting famine led to massive deaths due to infectious diseases and starvation. Some of these diseases include typhus, typhoid fever and dysentery. This prompted many people to emigrate from Ireland to improve their chances of survival. This led to what is famously known as the Irish Diaspora. The famine also sparked vital political, cultural and economic changes which re positioned the present Ireland. In a nutshell, the Irish famine was a pivotal famine in the history of Ireland.

Ben Davidson

Hello, I have been studying all aspects of history for about 25 years. I have a BA History from the University of Bedfordshire. My historical areas of interest are anything really, but I specialise in 19th - 20th century Britain, America and Ireland. I am also strongly aligned with most military history, really enjoying WW2 and the US Civil War. Chuck in the king or queen and Bob's your uncle.

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