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What Was the Irish Potato Famine?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Irish Potato Famine occurred during the years 1845-1849. A fungus on the crops of potatoes, which essentially destroyed the crops, primarily caused it. Those who had little land to begin with and small food supplies depended upon this crop as their main food source. Thus the death of the crop translated to deaths in the thousands of the Irish people.

There is no clear record of the number of deaths from the Potato Famine since members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) destroyed most church records in 1922. The estimates range from 500,000, to 1.5 million deaths due to starvation. Because of the discrimination against Catholics by the British government, measures to stem the starvation were not employed as effectively as was needed.

Unlike other incidences of famine, the Potato Famine occurred in a country at the height of its social and political power. Thus it can be clearly stated that failure on the part of the government is a causal factor for some of the deaths occurring.

As well, the Potato Famine began the mass emigration of the Irish to Canada, the US, and Australia. Approximately 1.5 to two million people emigrated. Thus the Irish population was reduced from a figure of close to seven million to one of slightly over four million. The numbers are shocking upon inspection. As a result of the famine, Ireland lost nearly one-third of its population. The deaths themselves account for about 10-20% of the population in total.

Much of the causes for the famine are fairly well known. Many had too little land, and relying on a single crop is always risky. Ireland’s land consists of many areas, like bogs and sheer rock that are simply not arable, thus reducing the ability to produce a sustainable crop.

Prior to the Potato Famine, the British declaring that no Roman Catholic could transmit his whole estate to the eldest son had continually reduced landholdings. Traditionally large families had to subdivide estates repeatedly to evenly distribute the property between sons. Thus families who might have held large estates 50 years before the famine, now held very small ones. Many barely had enough land prior to the Potato Famine to produce adequate food.

Additionally, there were inadequate social welfare systems set up before the Potato Famine. There were few poorhouses, and those poorhouses that existed demanded that a person abandon their land to the government.

Britain attempted to establish work programs to help the Irish buy necessary food. These programs were abandoned. They were unsuccessful largely because pay was given on a weekly basis. Most were too weak from starvation to work for a week. Many died in the trenches or roads they were attempting to dig without ever receiving one paycheck.

Most credit the end of the Potato Famine to the decline in population due to either death from starvation or emigration. Britain as well, had sent some food and funds to Ireland. Again, however, the Irish were taxed for this support, and this further impoverished some. This population destabilization did decrease demand for food, and new crops of potatoes were successfully grown. Some Irish, however, cite the Potato Famine as a reason for continued enmity with Britain.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon335560 — On May 21, 2013

Protestants died in the famine as well.

By anon332852 — On May 01, 2013

Where did the potato famine begin?

By anon273080 — On Jun 04, 2012

What did Australia have to offer to the Irish potato famine people?

By anon96557 — On Jul 16, 2010

Because they ate them? Their main food source.

By anon64807 — On Feb 09, 2010

i suppose that it was so frequently used because it was the only thing that their type of weather could grow properly.

By anon64485 — On Feb 07, 2010

The IRA did not destroy church records. The Republicans in the Four Courts set the building alight, destroying civil records. Not church records.

By anon31384 — On May 04, 2009

Why was the potato so important to the Irish?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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