“A Wholesale Calamity”: The Irish Potato Famine

In 1845 when the potato blight hit, the Irish relied heavily on the tuber as they had done in the past. It was their main, and for the majority, only source of food. It was also their means of paying rent. When the potato failed and continued to do so men and women, young and old, died of starvation and disease.

Infected Potato Courtesy Wikipedia

The potato crops had been doing well in1845. It promised to be a good harvest, and already last season’s crops had been sold at the market. The first inklings of a coming disaster was reported from the Isle of Wright, where potatoes had rotted. Then Dublin added it’s woes to the list, but still it was believed to be a local outbreak and so no cause for worry. All over Ireland crops were still doing well. But when it came time to harvest, their hopes were shattered. The potato plant and tubers had all rotted overnight and decomposing fields were giving off rank odors. Other potatoes appeared to be fine upon harvesting, but rotted within a day or two. The blight was the result of the fungus, phytophthora infestans, a quickly spreading disease that was believed to have originated in Germany.

In England the government didn’t take the news seriously, thinking the reports riddled with exaggeration. When they did realize the extent of the blight, officials scrambled to come up with a solution. How were the peasants to survive with their enormous dependence on the potato? As they would soon learn, many would not survive. When it became evident that people were beginning to starve, ‘Indian corn’ was sent for. Importing the grain from the US, Britain sought to use the corn as a means of controlling food prices. By selling it cheap, merchants would have to bring down their rising prices to compete with the government. There was a drawback, though. Indian corn was hard and had to be ground, rather ‘chopped’ up, to be made into meal. But Ireland was potato country and didn’t have much call for mills. Britain had to act quickly as the starving Irish were eating the rotten potatoes, cabbage leaves and scouring fields for turnips. Incidentally, the rotten potatoes made many people ill and killed livestock when eaten.

When the Board of Works was set up to employ the many jobless Irish, it received an enormous amount of applications. Unfortunately, the Board of Works was understaffed and overworked so the majority of the applications went unanswered.When the works was finally up and running it proved just as disorganized. For example, the roads built were worthless, leading to no place in particular. As the famine progressed and the amount of workers rose steadily, the Board of Works was unable to pay much and soon ran out of money. By February 1847 there were no fewer than 700,000 employees. It was then decided that the works needed to be gradually closed down .

Meanwhile the 1846 potato crops appeared to be doing unusually well. But in July it was almost for certain that there would be no crops as the blight had struck again. With the second potato failure the government resolved that it would provide no food, except in western Ireland where conditions were worse. And then it would only be distributed in very small portions and when it was absolutely necessary. When food was made available people came from miles around to get it. Charles Trevelyan, head of Treasury, passed off 1843 military rations on starving people in Roscommon when they became violent. But with hardship and famine also being experienced throughout Europe,  corn became hard to obtain. The price had soared and was quickly bought up by other European nations. The government would later resort to soup kitchens as they saw it as more reasonable and cheaper. But even then thousands went hungry.

Skibberdeen, 1847 Courtesy Wikipedia

Winter came and anything that could be eaten was quickly vanishing. The winter would prove to be unusually severe. It would seem that everything was against Ireland. Works employees were having it rough. Their clothes were mere rags and they were starving. Women and children were also being employed by the Board of Works. On December 15th Magistrate Nicholas Cummins went into Skibberdeen armed with a little food. There he found ‘skeletons’ laying in their homes. He, at first, thought they were dead.

I approached the horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man

He further reported that two dead were found in a house and woman had buried her dead 12-year old daughter. Death was all about. All over Ireland the dead were being frequently discovered.

Workhouses were so full that orphans were turned away. Other workhouses went bankrupt and were closed up. Fever followed the famine, mainly typhus. Dysentery was also running rampant. Due to the Irish Fever Bill ‘fever hospitals’ were set up. The children were greatly effected by starvation and many were unable to speak. They were quiet sufferers, dying quietly. The children were often described as looking like little elderly people. Their limbs were swollen as a result of starvation.

With no alternative, the Irish turned to immigration. Thousand and thousands fled to Canada, England and the US. Fare was much more affordable to Canada owing to Britain’s desire to populate the area. Fare to the US was a great deal more. Traveling aboard coffin ships, fever spread quickly and scores of immigrants died en route. Landlords ’emigrated’ their laborers to get them off the land, but the immigrants were not very well received. In Canada, the US and England the immigrants lived in squalid conditions and spread fever. There was always the fear of an epidemic. In Liverpool the ill-prepared Irish soon outnumbered the Liverpudlians. However, authorities sent them back to Ireland, even the half dead. In Ireland those who could no longer pay rent were evicted and their homes demolished. With nowhere to go they made their homes in holes in the ground.

In 1847 the crops had done very well, but so few had been planted that it didn’t amount to anything. By1848 an abundance of potato crops had been planted as people hoped for the best. Still the crops were again afflicted with the blight. That same year the Commissariat department, which had been aiding the Irish, pulled out. In mid 1849 the Quakers, who had been operating soup kitchens, also closed up shop having done all they could. The Quakers no longer had any funds to help the suffering Irish. The worst part of the famine ended in 1849, but bad conditions continued throughout the years. In 1851 the famine was declared officially over. In the end it is believed that 1,000,000 souls died.

Source: Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger : Ireland 1845-1849.

88 thoughts on ““A Wholesale Calamity”: The Irish Potato Famine

  1. Thank you for this article.
    The Great Famine is one of the saddest stories of Ireland, but has also led immigration to the United States and Canada, and changed the fate of the Irish who survived the crossing of the sea. Some have even made careers in policy thereafter, the Kennedy family is a good example.

    There is a beautiful documentary, but sad, about an Irish family who really existed and immigrated to Canada. It can see here if you’re interested: http://www.deathorcanada.com/


  2. Thanks alot J.G ! And that’s right I never though bout this before, but I’m Irish too actually, at least that’s what my mom and grandma have told me.


    • My only connection with Ireland is through my ancestor, Thomas Jones who was born and raised in Strabane, County Tyrone, now Northern Ireland. He immigrated to Rhode Island in the 17th century. Wiki lists him as Irish, but his bloodlines were Welsh.


    • Ah, My great-grandfather’s family was supposted to be Irish and one time I looked at it on Ancestry.com and it did show that my ancestors on his side of the family was Irish but I don’t know if they were the ones who migrated when the potato famine was at it’s worst or if they had migrated before the famine. It’s amazing how many things happened to our ancestors that we did not know about.

      Yes, it’s can be very interesting to find out who your ancestors are, you sometimes never know who they may have been.
      About a few years ago, my mom’s family on her dad’s side did some checking on our ancestors and found out that we had some ancestors that we didn’t know about. And they found out that on her dad’s side, one of them was a assiant to George Washington, which I though was so cool and that alot of them were from England. And on my grandma’s side they are from Ireland and also the closer ancestors to us were partly Native Amercian.

      And from my dad’s side is supposted to be Scotland and French Canadian.

      As you can tell my ancestors seemed to come from all over the world.


  3. Reblogged this on nebraskaenergyobserver and commented:
    Back on St. Patricks Day, I referred to the Irish Potato Famine and what it meant in the US Immigration stream. I had neither the room nor the information to go into any depth on it however.

    J.G. Burdette has however and its an interesting and heartbreaking story. If your interested in US and/or Irish history you should go and read this (and the comments).


  4. I’ve heard that the blight that afflicted Ireland’s potato crop came over from the US. It may have originated in Germany, but my understanding is that it was first noticed in the US, New York, I believe, in 1843. Obviously, there was quite of bit of shipping and travel between New York and Ireland in that era, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case.

    I knew that immigrating from Ireland to Canada was much cheaper than immigrating from Ireland to the US, but didn’t know why until I read your post. Thanks for the info.


    • Yes that outbreak in Ireland most likely came from the US. With the advent of steamships an infected potato may have made its way to the UK where it quickly spread. Usually in the era of sail the disease would die en route, due to the long voyage. The disease, however is believed to have originated in Germany, immigrated to the US and then back to Europe. Thanks for reading.


    • “I knew that immigrating from Ireland to Canada was much cheaper than immigrating from Ireland to the US”

      In regards to that, the US was going through an anti-immigration period, as well as anti-Irish. As a result the fares were raised making it almost impossible for many of the Irish to immigrate since they could not afford it. Those that could suffered prejudice or were turned away when it became known that the ships they were aboard were infected with the fever.


    • I think Northern Ireland was predominantly Protestant, whereas Southern Ireland was Catholic. That may have had something to do with it, although I’m not sure. I’ve always been curious about this too, but never done any in depth study.


  5. The apartheid of Northern Ireland came about in 1921 when through the efforts of Michael Collins the other three provinces became the Irish Free State, but were forced to retained ties with the crown. This agreement was unsatisfactory to many Irish and shortly after, civil war broke out in Ireland. Michael Collins was assassinated near the city of Cork. Eventually, under De Valera Ireland became the Republic of Ireland (Eire) and all ties to the British Crown were severed (circa 1931). In 1921 Belfast was named capitol of Northern Ireland and all records (births-deaths marriages) moved there from Dublin. In order to maintain a protestant majority many protestant Scots were enticed to move to Ulster over the years. The protestants retained there hold on power through Gerrymandering the vote. Also made it compulsory that RC’s had to be house owners in order to vote. Almost no RC’s owned houses. The same rule didn’t apply to the Protestants. The best paying work went to protestants. The Catholic church only made the problem worse by encouraging families to have many children. This only contributed to even more poverty within the Catholic areas. One reason the British wished to hold onto Ulster was the economy, Belfast was one of the largest shipbuilders in the world at the time. They were also the biggest Linen/cotton producer in the Empire. There is much more history to this story, but I’m afraid I’d get carried away if I keep writing. A couple of movies worth watching are “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” and “Michael Collins” not totally accurate but close. An interesting book is “The War Years 1939-45” by Joseph.T Carroll.
    Hope this helps answer a few of your questions. The Irishrover


  6. You might be interested to read this site concerning the so-called ‘Famine’:


    ‘Ireland starved because its food, from 40 to 70 shiploads per day, was removed at gunpoint by 12,000 British constables reinforced by the British militia, battleships, excise vessels, Coast Guard and by 200,000 British soldiers (100,000 at any given moment) The attached map shows the never-before-published names and locations in Ireland of the food removal regiments (Disposition of the Army; Public Record Office, London; et al, of which we possess photocopies). Thus, Britain seized from Ireland’s producers tens of millions of head of livestock; tens of millions of tons of flour, grains, meat, poultry & dairy products; enough to sustain 18 million persons.’

    Dealing with any facet of Irish history is a tricky thing. If you consult British-based sources, you will get only one side, and there is always much more to it than that. Even we Irish often disagree. 😛

    There is also a Facebook group you might be interested in seeing:


    Cheers. 🙂


    • Thanks for the links. And Woodham-Smith did mention the large export of food from Ireland, while people were starving to death. In that aspect it couldn’t really be considered a famine. Only a ‘potato famine’, I guess.Thanks for stopping by.


  7. A great summation of a huge topic :). Many of the Irish came to Australia on the coffin ships too, among them my ancestors. Such a long way under such terrible conditions, I am surprised that any survived the trip at all.


  8. Irishrover
    The history of Ireland is a record of cruelty, savagery and brutal occupation from the time of Cromwell until 1921. Yet we are a proud race and indeed the Irish have spread their heritage, knowledge and charm throughout the world. They have never come as an army of invaders or conquerors. They have served with bravery and distinction in many armies, have produced some of the worlds greatest writers and poets. They have overcome much to be the proud people they are today. How often do you meet people who proudly claim Irish ties?


    • “How often do you meet people who proudly claim Irish ties?”

      I had a neighbor once. But I come from a city and a State that was settled by Germans. As a result that heritage is evident everywhere you turn, from a city’s, county’s, streets, etc. names, to your neighbor’s surname. In a way my surname is out of place, as it is French. Still you do sometimes see names like McBride, Murphy and Kennedy, although it is more than likely you’ll come across names such as Peckenpaugh, Mueller/Miller and Englebrecht.


  9. Pingback: Setting Sail : Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine | Map of Time | A Trip Into the Past

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