The Great Famine of the 1840s and is unfortunately one of the most well-known parts of Irish history. With a death toll of over a million, the Great Famine certainly deserves recognition. This tragedy was the worst famine of the 1800s in all of Europe and dropped Ireland’s population by a quarter in under five years.
In the 1840s, Ireland’s population contained many poor rural families who relied heavily on the potato as a staple of their diet. Ireland’s potato crops consisted of only a couple types of potatoes, which meant they did not have the genetic diversity that may have kept disease from spreading. In 1845 the potato blight, a fungal disease that attacks both the leaves and the edible root of the plant, set in and destroyed most of that year’s crop. The blight continued to ruin crops in the following years as well, eliminating the most plentiful and accessible food source for Ireland’s masses.
The potato blight was far from the only factor that led to the million deaths. While the loss of the potato left many without a source of either food or income, there was technically no shortage of food in Ireland. In fact, foods such as dairy, meat, and grain were still being exported from Ireland to Britain during this time. These products were considered property of the lords who owned the land farmed on, most of whom were British, and the Irish populace which suffered from the potato blight was too poor to afford these types of food. At the time, free trade was highly valued, and profit was put before the welfare of the Irish people.
The British government did lend some aid, but it was generally along the lines of “too little, too late.” The English of the time saw the Irish as inferior and unimportant people. This attitude led them to ignore the famine in the beginning, believing Ireland capable of dealing with it on its own, and later to give only the bare minimum assistance, far less than what was truly needed. This clear message of disdain from the British led to a spike in Irish resentment against them, and the famine turned many Irish people against British rule.
Classism was a large factor in the famine. The famine left many families out of work, and therefore they were unable to pay their rent, and callous landowners evicted their tenants in droves. No job and no home combined to further impoverish families and keep them unable to buy food or afford medical care when they fell ill due to nutritional deficiencies, and many of the poor chose to take a chance on emigrating to mainland Britain or to North America in order to save themselves. In fact, almost as many citizens emigrated as died during the famine, creating a population drop that would be felt for decades.