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Summary Article: Irish Potato Famine
from The World's Population: An Encyclopedia of Critical Issues, Crises, and Ever-Growing Countries

The Irish Potato Famine, which took place between 1845 and 1850, was the last major famine to have occurred in the developed Western world. The famine is believed to have caused between 500,000 and 1,000,000 fatalities and induced another 1 to 2 million people to leave Ireland. As a result, Ireland's population declined by more than 25 percent in less than 10 years.

A funeral taking place in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, at the height of the Irish Potato Famine in 1847. An estimated one million people died in Ireland during the famine, and as many as two million emigrated to the United States and other countries between 1845 and 1850. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The potato is actually native to South America, but was introduced into Europe in the 17th century. Potatoes thrived in the cool, wet climate of Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom, and they allowed the production of more food production per acre than did grain crops. By 1700, the potato had become a staple crop for day-to-day sustenance. As Irish peasants increased their consumption of potatoes, Irish potato production increased, and Ireland's population grew very rapidly between 1700 and 1845. Many Irish potato farmers were tenant subsistence farmers, and many had very small farms. The small size of these Irish farms was due in part to a UK law requiring that landholdings be divided equally among male heirs. Over several generations this made many farms too small to be sustainable. However, much of Ireland's agricultural land was given over to production of grains and livestock for export. Considerable amounts of land in Ireland were given over to raising cattle to meet England's demands for beef.

Potato crop failure was not unusual in pre-famine Ireland. Between 1728 and 1840, more than 40 potato crop failures were reported in various parts of Ireland. Most of these, however, were localized and short-term crop failures. However, a blight caused by a fungus destroyed most of Ireland's potato crop each year between 1845 and 1849. The blight caused potatoes to turn black on the vine and rot, making them inedible. Recently, scientists have identified the pathogen responsible for this unique and devastating blight.

Because of the crop failure, people could not eat the potatoes that they cultivated and people had little or no money to buy food. Contemporary observers as well as historians today fault the British government for slow and inadequate response to the famine, especially given that grain crops and livestock continued to be exported out of Ireland during the famine years. Historians recognize that the famine and its devastating effects on Ireland triggered Irish nationalists and protests against British rule. These anti-British actions culminated eventually in the independence of the Republic of Ireland after World War I.

Ireland in 1845 had about 8 million people. Between 500,000 and 1 million died between 1846 and 1849. At least a million other people emigrated, many to the United States. According to the U.S. census of 1850, a quarter of the residents of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were born in Ireland; 37,000 immigrants from Ireland arrived in Boston in the year 1847 alone, and in that sense the large-scale movement of Irish people to Boston and other American cities can be regarded as a diaspora. Many Irish immigrants were victims of discrimination. Businesses refused to hire Irish immigrants, posting signs reading “No Irish Need Apply.” Many faced unsanitary living conditions, and lived in expensive, dangerous houses and apartments owned by unscrupulous landlords. During the 1850s, 60 percent of Irish American children in Boston died before reaching the age of six.

Despite these difficulties faced by Irish emigrants, out-migration continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century, and by 1900, Ireland's population had declined to about 4 million. Only in recent years has Ireland's population begun to approach its pre-famine levels. Today, about 6 million people live on the island of Ireland, including the Republic of Ireland and British Northern Ireland.

See Also: Diaspora, Famine, United Kingdom, United States of America

Further Reading
  • S. Donnelly, James . The Great Irish Potato Famine. Sutton Publishing Stroud UK, 2005.
  • Kinealy, Christine . This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52. Gill and Macmillan London, 1994.
  • Copyright 2014 by Fred M. Shelley

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