The Great Hunger

By Meadbh Gallagher, An Phoblacht/Republican News, 7 September 1995

The Irish famine, An Gorta Mor, was unparalleled. No famine ever claimed such a high percentage of a country's population. Only two famines this century have claimed more lives. Below, Meadbh Gallagher looks behind the stories of its horror to the thinking which allowed it to happen.

The Cure

POVERTY WAS THE DISEASE. Over four million died of it. Over two and a half million became refugees, fleeing Ireland to seek new lives abroad. This horror took place in the space of five years, beginning this week 150 years ago.

Poverty is never a natural disaster. Impoverishment was the cause. Poverty for the many was, as always, the byproduct of wealth for the few. But the catalyst for what we call An Gorta Mor, was natural. It was a blight, a fungus growth which began to take effect on potato crops in Ireland in September 1845.

The blight had visited other European countries, but none of these experienced famine. Ireland's poor depended upon the potato for survival—for over three million people it was their only food. When blight damaged nearly half the crop in 1845, millions of peasants faced a winter of partial famine not new to their experience. Continuous rain until March 1846 provided ideal conditions for the spread of the fungus and the worst conditions for those already succumbing to starvation and disease.

In 1846 there was total crop failure and total famine. By 1847, the blight was less severe, but the effect of the famine had multiplied. Most vulnerable were the poorer, densely populated, Irish-speaking areas in the south and west. Two thirds of the peasant farmers of Connacht were cottiers, surviving on less than five acres of land.

Throughout the island, 130,000 families were trying to survive on less than one acre. This massive class of the poor and the poorer grew grain to pay their rent. For as long as they could sell their grain, they could pay the landlord and avoid eviction. The grain they sold was exported to feed the working class of England, whose staple diet was increasingly bread. On the worst land, the Irish peasants grew potatoes, their food. About 40% lived in one-room mud cabins without windows or chimneys. They shared that cabin with an average of ten other people.

The English establishment had a word for this extreme poverty. They called it pauperism. Economic advisor to the British government, Nassau Senior, railed against the cancer of pauperism. The establishment's magazine of wit, Punch, described Irish paupers as the blight of their own land, and the curse of the Saxon. Pauperisation was blamed on the paupers themselves.

The size of the Irish peasant population had come to be seen as a threat to the economic viability of Britain as well as the future incomes of Irish landlords—in 1841 Ireland's population was one third that of Britain's. With a mindset reminiscent of the right-wing response to the spread of AIDS amongst the gay communities of the US and the general population of Africa in the early 1980s, establishment Britain deemed the famine to be the cure for Irish overpopulation. The permanent undersecretary to the British Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, a civil servant with responsibility for Irish famine relief, believed the famine was divine retribution. The overpopulation of Ireland, he wrote, being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.

Aided by a natural blight on potato crops recurring three years in a row, Trevelyan and other servicers of the creed of political economy directed Irish land into totally different patterns of use over a relatively short period of time. The fact that millions of Irish peasants were in the way of this land clearance was of little consequence to the end game. Mass eviction was encouraged. In one case, in March 1846, the entire village of Ballinglass was evicted in order to turn the land use to grazing.

Some landlords paid their tenants' emigration fares. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerstown was typical. Half his income came from his Irish estates and in 1847 alone, his agents 'emigrated' 2,000 people from his Sligo land. To Nassau Senior, who regarded the unfolding horror as an invaluable experiment for political economists, a million deaths would scarely be enough to do much good. Trevelyan's superior in 1848, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Wood, wrote to an Irish landlord: I am not at all appalled by your tenantry going. That seems to me a necessary part of the process... We must not complain of what we really want to obtain.

The prime minister, Lord Russell, whose father had served as Viceroy in Ireland, was content to hide behind evasive parliamentary rhetoric when confronted with factual accounts owhat was happening in Ireland. And these accounts were ever fo rthcoming. By 1848, Russell's own appointee in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant Clarendon, was calling his government's policy there extermination.

During the period of the Great Starvation, two British governments held office; one Tory, under Robert Peel, the second Russell's Whig administration. Laissez-faire economics was the creed of the day and neither government deviated much from this. The role of parliament was to protect the interests of the few against the plight of the many. Politicians of the day were busy replacing the interests of landlords with those of traders. Under the banner of free trade, one form of protectionism was being swept aside to make way for another. Supply was to feed demand, but demand was only recognised as such when it came with purse in hand.

The Irish peasantry had no purchasing power. Neither did they have political power. Their impoverishment was helped by their disempowerment, and the support they lent to Catholic middle-class agitation led by Daniel O'Connell had done nothing to change their status. O'Connell, himself a landlord of some ill-repute, summed up his politics thus: I desire no social revolution, no social change. In short, salutary restoration without revolution, an Irish parliament, British connection, one King, two legislatures. The politics of the man they called the Great Advocate was hardly ‘power to the people’.

The churches in Ireland also offered little hope to the peasantry in forcing change. The Church of Ireland was the established church, it was entitled to collect taxes from tenants regardless of their religion. It was vehemently on the side of the landlords, and it was left to the Society of Friends (The Quakers) to seek long-term relief for the Irish poor. The Catholic Church hierarchy remained largely silent on the holocaust taking place. It is worthy of note that in the ye ars following the famine, the Catholic Church multiplied its ownership of property in Ireland.

The group that offered most hope of democratic revolution in the period of the starvation, the vanguardist Young Irelanders, were themselves largely of the landlord and urban professional classes and had little grass-roots appeal. They offered high-minded ideals but no change from the property system impoverishing the people. One voice which did offer an alternative politics was that of James Fintan Lalor, but his appears as a voice in the wilderness at the time. He stated in 1848: I acknowledge no right of property which takes the food of millions and gives them a famine... I assert the true and indefeasible right of property—the right of our people to live in this land and possess it.

Lalor was also clear that this full right of ownership maynd ought to be asserted and enforced by any and all means. He saw through the Young Irelanders' rhetoric and pointed out that they desired, not a democratic, but a merely national revolution.


Resistance to the Great Starvation did take place, but it was sporadic and disorganised. In addition, both the constitutional nationalists and the British government responded predictably to it. Daniel O'Connell frequently called for more t roops to be sent to quell the secret societies which resisted landlord oppression.

The British government had heavily armed escorts accompanying Irish food transports within six months of the first potato crop failure. Within a year, a mobile force of 2,000 troops had been deployed and the military guarded food depots, export ships and harvest fields. In mid-October 1846, extra troops were drafted into ‘trouble spots’, where food riots were taking place. In November, the Chancellor, Charles Wood, wrote to his Irish Lord Lieutenant urging him to go to the verge of the law and a little beyond in suppressing revolt. A month later, a new emergency powers act was in place, the Crime & Outrage Act, voted in with the help of most Irish MPs. Fifteen thousand extra troops were sent to Ireland that same month and an additional 10,000 in 1848. The degree of destitution among the people was enough to quell any hope of organised revolt, but that did not stop the English government from crushing any show of revolt that did take place.


Local responsibility and private charity were stressed as the methods of famine relief. Between 1846 and 1853, Britain spent 9.5 million in Ireland on famine relief while its system of Poor Rates and landlord borrowings in Ireland collected 8 million for the same purpose. Much of the British exchequer outlay was originally given in loan form only, thus hindering its ability to be used where it was most wanted.

Management of the economy in the interests of the landlord and trading classes was such that Irish food exports continued unhindered while millions fell victim to starvation and disease. Between July 1845 and February 1846 alone, over 1 million worth of food was exported. In 1845, Robert Peel's administration bought 100,000 worth of Indian corn in America but this was stored rather than distributed immediately. The policy was to offer it for sale when local Irish prices rose, thus keeping prices down without affecting the ability of local traders to make a profit. ‘Poor rates’ on landlords were used to fund local relief schemes.

The country was divided into Poor Law Unions based on district electoral divisions. Each Union had a workhouse. Only people who became inmates of the workhouses could receive assistance. Each Union was managed by ex-officio and elected Guardians, overseen by a network of inspectors answerable to the English government.

Workhouses were designed to deter ‘spongers’, and conditions were so bad in them that inmates often committed misdemeanours in order to get transferred to jail, where their chances of survival were better. By 1847, providing work was of little use as people were physically incapable of working by that stage. Nevertheless, a layer of public works schemes was already in place. These were largely unproductive, as the government didn't wish to upset the chances of profit for private developers.

The system of government famine relief in Ireland was elaborate and widespread. It was designed to contain the Irish problem, not to relieve it. The physical design of the workhouses speaks volumes: at the end of each was an exit point known as the Dead House. A few years after the Great Starvation, Britain was to spend 69.3 million on the Crimean war. As today, money was thrown at imperialistic ventures whilst famine victims were left to die by ‘natural causes’.

The cause

In his analysis of the famine, James Connolly strongly argued that within the lines of capitalist political economy, the actions of the English capitalist class and the Irish landlord class were unassailable and unimpeachable. No one who accepted capitalist society and the laws thereof can logically find fault with the statesmen of England for their acts in that awful period. They stood for the rights of property and free competition and philosophically accepted their consequences upon Ireland.

In words which must surely dominate the great debate currently being waged about what has been described as ‘the Irish holocaust’, Connolly wrote: The non-socialist Irish man or woman who fumes against that administration is in the illogical position of denouncing an effect of whose cause he is a supporter. That cause was the system of capitalist property. In 1849, Queen Victoria paid her first visit to Ireland. Punch magazine pleaded with a nation ravaged by famine, Let Erin forget. Today, the call to forget is more widespread and closer to home. For the sake of an understanding of what continues to be called famine in today's world, none should forget the cause of the Irish Great Hunger, and none should ignore the cure accepted for it.