Between 1845 and 1852, a massive famine triggered by potato blight swept through the poor, rural areas of Ireland. The famine caused an estimated million deaths and spurred a new wave of mass emigration from the island. Many set sail for the United States, where they would become one of the largest ethnic groups in America. The remaining Irish were left to put their lives back together, knowing that the British Empire had done little to save the dying. The famine became a pivotal moment in Irish history, setting the stage for later independence movements.[1]

Conditions in Ireland Before the Famine

Poor Irish farmers planted potato crops to enrich the soil and feed their growing families. The tuber made up only 20 percent of Ireland's agriculture, but most other crops were exported.[2] In 1845, an estimated 4.7 million of Ireland's 8.5 million inhabitants relied on potatoes as their staple food. Of those, 3.3 million lived almost exclusively on milk, fish, and potatoes. The average male labourer consumed 12 to 14 pounds of the root each day. Even pigs were raised on potatoes.[1]

Despite general poverty and religious persecution, Irish families boomed in the decades before the famine. The potato gained popularity after traveling to Europe from Andean South America. It found an eager market in Ireland, which had long struggled with famine and a damp climate.[3] A single acre of potatoes and a milk cow could feed a family of eight. The population of Ireland ballooned to 8.5 million, the highest in the island's history. The poorest families in southern and western Ireland lived in one-room thatched cottages. A prosperous middle class existed elsewhere, particularly in Protestant areas.[4][5]


The Potato Blight of 1845

The harvest of 1845, with so many families dependent on its success, brought disaster. Phytophthora infestans, or potato blight, destroyed most of the potato crop prior to harvest. Across the countryside, devastated families scrounged to save as many tubers as possible before winter. For many, it was not enough. The blight remained in the soil for several years, bringing new hunger with every failed harvest.[1][3]


Riots, Hunger, and Emigration in Ireland

The extent of the damage was initially downplayed by the British government, and aid to the starving came slowly. Relations between the Catholic Irish and the British had always been strained. Faced with their own economic troubles, the British were reluctant to intervene in the famine. They continued to export surplus food grown in Ireland, despite the hunger. Their slowness to respond drew increasing anger from the Irish and their sympathizers. Some accused the government of intentionally worsening the situation to encourage Catholic emigration.[5][6]

As the years went on with no relief in sight, public unrest broke out. In 1846, rioters took to the streets and began plundering stores of potatoes, grains, and other foods. Rising food prices and low employment left the most vulnerable members of society with few other options. While their clothing aged into tattered rags, the Irish protested for relief from their poverty. Those who did not find it often chose to leave for Europe or America. There, they could hope to find work and send money home to their families.[6]

Consequences of the Irish Famine and Diaspora

The millions of Irish men and women who left their homes in the 19th and early 20th century formed the Irish diaspora. Despite facing initial hostility in many nations, they thrived and expanded quickly. There are now an estimated 80 million Irish descendents living around the globe.[7] The famine and diaspora have lingered in Irish memory through the modern era. Today, memorials to the Great Hunger can be found across Ireland. Many also stand in cities with significant Irish heritage like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.[1]


  1. James S. Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Stroud: The History Press, 2013).

  2. Daniel Webster. Hollis, The History of Ireland (Westport Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001), 94.

  3. Virginia Deane Abernethy, Population Pressure & Cultural Adjustment (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005), 96-99.

  4. Llewellyn Woodward, The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).

  5. Robert Lynd, Home Life in Ireland (London: Mills, & Boon, 1909), 10-14.

  6. Christine Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology, and Rebellion (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2002), 123-132.

  7. Sara O'Sullivan, Contemporary Ireland: A Sociological Map (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007).

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