The Great Famine refers to the historical failure of the potato crop in successive years spanning from 1847-1849. There were many other crop failures over the next thirty years as week, which cumulatively altered Irish society, and, it could be argued, world culture, for the Famine caused over a million deaths from starvation and another million to emigrate to England, Canada, the USA, and Australia.
There are many scholarly works on the causes and effects of the Famine, which this article cannot hope to cover. But in the most simplistic of terms the Great Irish Famine was caused by humans and inflicted onto their fellow humans as a result of prejudice, poor judgement, greed and some degree of maliciousness. It was a confluence of bad weather, poor agricultural management, absentee landlords and politicians more concerned with profit and tax collection than people. While the weather may have been seen by some pious souls as an act of God, to politicians concerned about maintaining control of a colony agitating for more independence and ‘Home Rule’ it may have seemed a solution. The Irish population were increasingly agitating for self-rule since winning Catholic Emancipation in 1829. With the practice of Roman Catholicism no longer outlawed and suppressed, Irish patriots campaigned for political self-determination. With the British Empire of the 19th Century stretching from Hong Kong to Capetown, from Vancouver to Tierra del Fuego, the prospect of granting independence to their closest colonial outpost was unthinkable.
The summer weather of the late 1840s was warm, rainy and humid. This is classic potato blight conditions. The Irish peasantry of the 19th century was tied into what we would call today an agricultural monoculture. Instead of many potato seed varieties, they used one, called The Lumper. The problem with The Lumper was that it was not at all blight resistant. When you rely on a single crop and a single seed variety then you cannot pay your rent. When you don’t pay your rent then you get turned out by the landlord. Taxes don’t get paid and then the landlord is under pressure. And so the chain of despair climbed up the social ladder.
In communities where one or two families may experience hard times some of the pressure could be spread around the extended family. When crops failed in county after county as the blight spread like plague across the land, the economy experienced extinction. The workhouses, the only source of social safety net available at the time for the indigent, were full. Fever, the cohort of malnutrition, swept fatality through communities. The lucky ones left looking to survive in new countries. The USA, not being part of the British Empire, was the favored place for emigration.
But, as today, the top percentile of the population insisted on remaining in their place and not sliding down the status scale. In the face of such stony-faced lack of compassion to human suffering, the stage for a century of violence, civil war, and social dislocation was set.
With workhouses overflowing and homeless people roaming the countryside, some relief efforts were launched, including huge cauldrons or 'Famine Pots' of stirrup, an oat-based gruel. While there was some famine relief, many of the Protestant churches who organized relief insisted that beneficiaries convert. The Quakers were the only Protestant sect to freely give relief without strings attached. Elizabeth Bewley, of the Bewley's Tea Rooms family, traveled to London to raise fund for famine relief among English Quakers. In the face of this catastrophe however, with the majority of the best land held by Protestants and with conditional ‘Christian’ relief, one can imagine the bitterness that would erupt into sectarian violence in the 20th century.
The Great Famine decimated Irish social fabric. Much of Irish culture was exported, preserved and transformed in immigrant communities scattered across the globe. Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “The Great Hunger” is a tale of rural life for the remnant that remained, the Famine survivors left behind in Ireland, as they lived in the early 20th century. While not being ‘about’ the Famine, this long poem is an eloquent and often difficult study of a population spiritually and emotionally famished as a result of economic impoverishment. Read it and weep.