15 Things To Know About the Irish Famine


One of Europe’s 19th century worst catastrophes and a wake-up call to Ireland’s agricultural diversification was the Irish Famine. Taking place from 1845 to 1852, these six or so years were life-changing for Ireland and the Irish people.

What’s more, the Great Famine disrupted the culture of Ireland. For instance, the country’s population was affected by emigration and deaths associated with hunger or diseases. Their language also became less popular because of the declining population.

Besides the effects on culture, the Irish famine left behind lessons for generational reference. In this article, we give a glimpse of the accounts of this Irish historical event. From where it originated, what caused it, the economic and social effects of the famine. Find out more insights into the Irish Potato Famine.

Here are the 15 Things To Know About the Irish Famine.

1. Irish Famine had its roots in North America

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This famine was caused by potato blight that spread across Europe. According to research reports from recent studies, there was a strain of water mold in 1845 that was introduced to Ireland from North America.

Subsequently, this plant pathogen scientifically known as Phytophthora infestans began to infect plants. Thus the plants’ stems and leaves developed large tears and growths. For the potato crop, the tubers started to rot and because of other fungi and bacteria in the soil, the rotting spoiled the crop yields.

Moreover, the cool and moist climate in Ireland during 1845 supported the thriving of mold. Hence it destroyed the potato crop that year.

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2. Irish Famine became Europe’s 19th-century most severe famine

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The Great Famine lasted several years from 1845 to 1852. It was not the first famine in the region but it became the most devastating, especially in Ireland.

Furthermore, the potato crop which was the country’s staple crop failed in successive years. This resulted in starvation in Ireland and other parts of Europe. Also, throughout the famine about 1 million people died of hunger while another 1 million are estimated to have fled the country.

3. With insufficient supply yet Ireland was still exporting food

Historians are divided on the issue of how much quantity of food Ireland exported during the Irish Famine. Some argue that the exported amounts were enough to feed its starving population.

Additionally, historians agree that food exports were being shipped from Ireland during this period. Further, these exports benefited part of the Irish population mostly the wealthy members of their society at the time.

4. The Irish famine rendered citizens homeless

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There were mass evictions in Ireland as a result of the Great Hunger. Ireland embraced a landlord-and-tenant policy on land ownership in the 18th century. Thus in this concept, there was a middle-man or the ‘landlord agent’ who was the link between the tenant and landlord.

To add on, the Landlord left all responsibility to the agents including collection of levies on their property. The elite of the society were the English and Anglo-Irish families and they were the landlords. Since they lived far from their land, the agents exploited the tenants and were driven by profit.

With the increasing hunger and poverty during the famine, the tenants were unable to pay the fees required for land leases. So the agents evicted the tenants from their homes. About half a million people were affected by the evictions during the famine.

5. Ireland’s legal framework oppressed the poor

During the 19th century, there was little or no welfare system and benefits provisions for the needy. The country had the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 or popular as the Gregory Clause. This clause offered government support to those who owned nothing.

On top of that, the help offered was in the form of workhouses. In return, they did manual labor in exchange for the houses provided. Thus most poor people gave up everything they owned to match the criteria needed to receive help from the government.

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6. The famine triggered Ireland’s huge emigration

Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This Irish famine drove people out of Ireland into other countries. Many of the emigrants settled in America and Canada. They traveled in what became known as ‘coffin ships’ because many people perished along the journey. They also starved or were affected by diseases while en route.

Over and above that, many of those that survived the journey settled in the Eastern States of America. Such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Other states they inhabited were Ohio, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

7. It sparked the Irish diaspora

As per statistics, about 40% of those born in Ireland were living outside their country in the 1870s. In 1995, the nation’s President Mary Robinson called out to the over 70 million people of Irish descent spread around the globe. In the modern day, the number is estimated to be over 80 million people.

8. It triggered a world financial solidarity for Ireland

Many world leaders sent contributions on their behalf and that of their countries or their organizations. For instance, the United States led by President James Polk, offered financial donations and also sent relief ships loaded with food and clothes.

Moreover, the other notable leaders who showed their support to Ireland were Russia’s Tsar Alexander II and UK’s Queen Victoria. This philanthropic list also included Pope Pius IX of the Catholic Church and the head of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdulmecid.

9. Laissez-faire philosophy did no help to salvage the situation

Ireland was under British leadership during the Irish Famine. In cases of food shortages in Ireland such as the 1782 to 1783 situation, there was a food export ban imposed.

Additionally, from 1845 when the famine struck, the Tory government tried to put in place strategies tried before. The government also attempted amendments to Corn Laws tariffs to increase corn and maize supply in the country. Since the situation worsened, this leadership was ousted in 1846.

The Whig government took over in 1846 and they championed the laissez-faire economic philosophy. This ideology holds the view that economic success is prevented by government intervention in business and market operations.

Furthermore, the laissez-faire free-market capitalism concept prevented the government’s intervention in the food supply challenge. So the people were left with no food and with no help from the government.

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10. Ireland’s population has never recovered

The country had an estimated population of about 8.5 million people before the famine. As a result of starvation or because of diseases, about 1 million people died and a significant amount emigrated. As per May 2023 statistics the country’s population is slightly over 5 million people.

11. It became the center of pop culture

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The events of the Irish famine have triggered narrations of the Irish culture in different forms and passing on of the same to generations. Through literature, music, and other artistic ways the Irish heritage is spread across the world to different generations.

12. The famine crossed borders to neighboring countries

The Irish famine was not limited to Ireland alone. It spread to other parts of the British Empire, especially the northern and central Europe countries. These countries were Belgium, the Netherlands, northern France, southern England, and more.

13. It propelled Britain’s and Ireland’s tensions

The Irish famine heightened a strenuous relationship between Ireland and the ruling British government at the time. Some of the concerns by critics are such as the laissez-faire economics adopted by the government during the famine.

14. The famine was exacerbated by several factors

Though the Irish famine was caused by potato blight, other factors contributed to its devastating effects. They included the overdependence on potato farming for food and little agricultural diversification. The land ownership system that involved land agents also added to the effects of the famine.

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15. The National Famine Commemoration Day honors victims

Judith Bourque, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ireland has set aside a day that they celebrate the victims of the Irish Famine. This event takes place once every year.

The Irish famine is a historical event relevant in Ireland, Europe, and the world. It’s an emphasis on resilience, compassion, and world solidarity during a crisis. This historical happening remains a 19th-century important occurrence throughout history.