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Summary Article: potato famine
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Famine in Ireland, historically dated 1845–49, although now believed to have lingered until 1852, caused by the failure of the potato crop, the staple of the Irish diet, over four consecutive seasons. Nearly a million people died from malnutrition-related diseases such as a cholera, dysentery, and typhus and at least the same number again emigrated, mainly to America. The former Irish population of 8 million had thus fallen by at least 2 million. The famine devastated Ireland for many years after. The British government was slow to provide relief and provoked Irish hostility in consequence.

Causes The failure of the potato crop was caused by potato blight – the parasitic fungus phytophthora infestans. The blight spread to Ireland from Britain and the European continent, its spores being carried by insects, wind, and rain. Symptoms of infestation in the plant included black spots and a white mould on the leaves; the potatoes would rot rapidly into a pulp.

However, the underlying cause of the disaster was the weakened condition of Irish agriculture. The effects of the Navigation Acts, absentee English landlords and the extortions of their land agents (which included rack rents – excessive and frequently increased rents), absence of compensation for improvements, restricted rental holdings, the anti-Catholic measures of the penal code, and large families, with consequent subdivision of land through partible inheritance, had combined to create a system of impoverished, tiny Irish allotments, whose tenants had little opportunity to diversify and relied largely on potatoes for subsistence. Pigs, an important source of cheap meat and income for Irish farmers, were also fed potatoes as a basic fodder. When a potato blight destroyed the crop four years running from 1845, the result was famine. Cereal harvests remained excellent, but the prices were too high for the poor.

Action Although in 1845 Robert Peel's Tory government reacted with a grant of £100,000 to purchase Indian corn from the USA, and the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846, the Liberal government of John Russell placed responsibility for dealing with the disaster on the Irish landowners, under the terms of the 1838 Poor Law. Efforts to cope collapsed as the starving flocked to the local poor-law boards and as workhouses became overcrowded and rampant with disease. Private philanthropic organizations and, for the most part, all religious denominations, particularly the Society of Friends (the Quakers), worked to provide relief. However, deaths began to mount in late 1846, and the famine reached its peak in 1849. Massive emigration occurred, particularly to the USA.

Aftermath Although living standards rose after the 1850s and average real wages increased, emigration drained Ireland of over 4 million people between the early 1850s and World War I. The famine left hardened resentment of the union with Britain and the British government's failure to stem the disaster or alleviate the misery of the Irish people, despite Britain being the world's richest nation at the time. Its immediate legacy was to radicalize Irish nationalism, which resulted in the opinion that ‘the Almighty sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine’. Underground secret revolutionary societies sprang up in Ireland and in places of Irish emigration, such as the Irish-American Fenian movement.

Some historians believe that the disasters of 1845–51 merely represented the culmination of a long-term crisis resulting from rapid population and gradual economic stagnation. However, others are more critical of Britain saying that the underlying poverty of Irish agriculture and dependence of a large proportion of the population on the potato were the result of British rule. Commemoration of the Great Famine in 1995 was marked by an apology from the British prime minister to the Irish people.

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The Continuing Quest: Ireland and the Struggle for Home Rule

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