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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What caused the Irish Potato Famine?
The Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, was primarily caused by a potato disease known as late blight or Phytophthora infestans. The pathogen arrived in Europe from the Americas in the 1840s, reaching Ireland in 1845. The Irish population was heavily dependent on potatoes as a food source, and the blight led to widespread crop failures. This dependency, combined with a range of socio-economic factors, including British land policies and insufficient relief efforts, exacerbated the crisis.
How long did the Irish Potato Famine last and how many people were affected?
The Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845 to 1852. During this period, it is estimated that about one million people died from starvation or famine-related diseases. Additionally, the famine prompted the emigration of about two million people, causing Ireland's population to fall by 20 to 25 percent. According to the History Channel, the population of Ireland fell from over 8 million to less than 6 million by the 1850s.
What were the social and economic impacts of the Irish Potato Famine?
The social and economic impacts of the Irish Potato Famine were devastating. It led to a significant loss of life, a massive exodus of the Irish population, and a profound demographic shift. The famine also resulted in a change in land ownership and farming practices, as well as a deep-seated mistrust of British governance. The economic structure of Ireland was altered as the famine undermined the tenant farming system and led to increased industrialization and urbanization in the following decades.
How did the British government respond to the Irish Potato Famine?
The British government's response to the Irish Potato Famine has been widely criticized as inadequate and ineffective. Initially, the government provided some assistance, such as opening soup kitchens and providing employment on public works projects. However, these efforts were short-lived, and the government soon shifted to a laissez-faire approach, relying on the market and private charity to address the crisis. This response was influenced by a belief in minimal government intervention and the prevailing economic theories of the time.
What lessons were learned from the Irish Potato Famine?
One of the key lessons learned from the Irish Potato Famine was the danger of agricultural dependency on a single crop, which can lead to catastrophic consequences if that crop fails. The famine also highlighted the need for effective government intervention during humanitarian crises and the importance of political will in addressing such emergencies. It underscored the significance of diversifying food sources and the role of social and economic policies in either mitigating or exacerbating the effects of natural disasters.