The Context and Development of Irish Literature:
History, Poetry, Landscape

Chapter Three:  Revolution, Emancipation, Starvation, page 5

This was also the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which began largely in England. The effect on Ireland was a sharp decline in the value of its agricultural produce--so much of which was now available through the British mills and factories--and a subsequent drop in the value of land. Due as well to England’s unfair protection laws which made Ireland dependent only on English trade, Ireland became almost wholly subsistent on a single crop, the potato. In the late summer of 1845, a new fungus appeared in Ireland that produced a potato blight, turning hard potatoes into green mush and destroying the crop for three of the next four years. The typical Irish peasant, who existed in a tenant farming system on very small holdings, could not pay his rent if the potato crop failed.  Thus he was evicted and his holding gobbled up by the landlord in most cases.  The impact on Ireland was staggering: 1,000,000 Irish died from starvation or disease, and another 2,000,000 emigrated, largely to the United States, England, and South America. Thus in a five-year period, Ireland lost nearly 40% of its population, largely in the rural, undeveloped west--meaning also that the largest concentration of Irish speakers was decimated, a blow from which the language has still not recovered.

The response of the British was insufficient, to say the least: current laissez-faire economic thought resisted providing government relief, feeling that the economy and market forces should be relied upon to remedy the problem.  Consequently, in 1846 the government instituted the Public Works Schemes, whereby food would be distributed to starving Irish only if they worked a full day on a government project.  This led to the construction of the infamous Famine Roads, roads in the Irish countryside that lead nowhere, but were built only to employ Irish so they could "earn" their bread and soup.  (View Famine Roads.)  Indeed, the Government refused to place an embargo on the export of grain from Ireland; thus during the famine parts of Ireland were actually exporting food.  In 1847 food kitchens were established, providing up to 3 million meals each day; but soon the government ended this practice, insisting that further relief come from the workhouses and through the Poor Law. (Intriguingly, the Poor Law and Workhouses were established in 1838, well before the emergence of the Potato blight.)

It is likely that British resentment of the Irish further blunted English response. In addition, Anglo-Irish and British landlords, many of whom ruled their estates in absentia, increased their rate of evictions of tenants who could not meet the escalating rents--estimates range to nearly a million peasant Irish evicted during the period. Landlords then bought up and consolidated estates, so that the number of large estates tripled during this time, and the number of small, family-owned farms was reduced from over 300,000 holdings to only 88,000--a staggering transformation of the traditional Irish countryside.  

View Images of the Irish Famine.

Previous Page   Next Page