Late 16th or early 17th century: The potato was introduced to Ireland by way of the New World.
17th and 18th centuries: Potatoes became an increasingly important part of the rural Irish diet. This occurred in tandem with rapid rural population growth and shifts towards small, short term leases of land for the rural poor.
Late 18th and early 19th centuries: Regional famines due to potato crop failures became increasingly common. In 1830, British Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley (Duke of Wellington) reported “I confess that the annually recurring starvation in Ireland, for a period differing, according to the goodness or badness of the season, from one week to three months, gives me more uneasiness than any other evil existing in the United Kingdom.”
1838: The British Parliament passed legislation collectively known as the “Irish Poor Laws”. These created 130 Poor Law Unions in Ireland, based in local communities. Within each Union, local administrators would be responsible for erecting a workhouse for the indigent poor and collective poor relief taxes from local landlords to support these institutions.
1843: The high water mark for Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement, which collapsed in the aftermath of the British government’s ban on the mass meeting at Clontarf and O’Connell’s subsequent arrest.
1844: First reports of a potato blight due to the phytophthora infestans fungus in America began to circulate. These were followed by similar reports from eastern Europe, the low countries, and Scotland.
August and September 1845: Newly-cultivated potatoes in Ireland began to rot due to the fungal blight; about half of the Irish potato crop failed.
October 1845: Conservative Party Prime Minister Robert Peel commissioned scientific surveys of the blight. These commissions recommended complicated (and eventually unsuccessful) cultivation and storage methods to preserve potatoes from the fungal infection.
November and December 1845: In violation of his party’s strict protectionist trade principles, Peel ordered tens of thousands of tons of corn from the United States to be imported to Ireland and sold at a reduced rate. Peel’s government also created the Irish Board of Public Works to create employment for rural poor. In theory, wages earned on works projects (e.g. road building and drainage projects) could be used to purchase government subsidized American corn. Peel also nominated Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, as point person for matters relating to poverty and relief in Ireland.
Spring and Summer 1846: Trevelyan ordered a reduction in corn imports and public works projects.
July 1846: Peel’s government collapsed and elections returned a Liberal majority to the British Parliament. Liberal Party leader Lord John Russell became Prime Minister but retains Trevelyan as coordinator of Irish relief.
August 1846: The new crop of harvested potatoes again rotted shortly after digging, resulting in a nearly complete loss of the crop nationwide.
Winter 1846-1847: Russell and Trevelyan began to restrict corn imports and demanded greater contributions for Irish relief from local landlords and Poor Law Unions. In January and February 1847, the British government announced the end of corn important public works projects and the creation of a new soup kitchen initiative, which would provide relief to the poor. Regular reports of mass starvation and overwhelmed workhouses began to circulate in the British Parliament and newspapers.
Spring 1847: Charitable groups in England and the United States began to raise emergency funds for Irish relief.
August 1847: A new round of parliamentary elections in British results in a Liberal landslide, returning many members committed to laissez-faire principles of economic non-intervention. Russell’s government, under pressure from his own party, began to scale back state-funded soup kitchens in favor of local relief collected from land holders in the Poor Law Unions. This same month, the potato crop again failed, resulting in a complete loss of the crop.
Winter 1847-1848: Diseases related to malnutrition and overcrowding in workhouses began to spread rapidly. Under pressure from the localization of relief efforts, Irish landlords began to evict tenants and encourage emigration in order to reduce their tax burden.
June 1848: Russell’s government announced the end of soup kitchens and other state sponsored relief.
July 1848: The Young Ireland Rising failed and its leaders were deported or imprisoned. Poor Relief Unions in the west of Ireland began to report budget shortfalls and started to scale back local relief efforts and close workhouses.
Fall and Winter 1848-1849: Cholera epidemics began to spread in urban areas and the west.
February 1849: Russell’s government announced that £50,000 of the budget would be earmarked for Irish projects and that this would be the last state involvement with the famine.
Summer 1849-1852: Although the potato blight appeared on a very limited scale, eviction rates escalated and the summer months saw unprecedented emigration rates. According to the 1851 census, Ireland’s population had fallen from 8.1 million to 6.5 million over a ten year period.
Firsthand Account of the Impact of the Famine in the West: The London Illustrated News, 1849-50
In December 1849 and January 1850, the London Illustrated News printed accounts of the impact of the famine in Clare and Galway based on correspondence from their reporters. These illustrated accounts documented severe depopulation as well as destitution among the surviving population.
Full accounts from the London Illustrated News available at:
15 December 1849
Kilrush, which gives its name to a Poor-Law Union, will be celebrated in the history of pauperism. With Clifden, Westport, Skibbereen, and other places, it forms one of the battle-fields of Ireland, in which property, under the guidance of legislation, has fought with poverty, and been worsted in the conflict. It is our purpose to describe the progress of the contest; and, as Sterne took a single victim to make mankind sensible of the horrors of slavery – as a single case of flogging women did more to rouse the people of England against the iniquities they had countenanced in the West Indies, than many volumes of general description – we presume that we shall make the condition of Ireland, and the working of the Poor-Law there, more effectually known by selecting a single Union for remark, than by parading before our readers a great multitude of statistical facts….
From this general view we pass to an example of the manner in which the out-door paupers live. In the workhouse the people, till the last arrival, were tolerably well taken care of; and such is the general destitution, that they were well housed, clothed, and fed, in comparison with the mass. Our second Sketch represents what is called a Scalpeen. There is also something called a Scalp, or hole dug in the earth, some two or three feet deep. In such a place was the abode of Brian Connor. He has three in family, and had lived in this hole several months before it was discovered. It was roofed over with sticks and pieces of turf, laid in the shape of an inverted saucer. It resembles, though not quite so large, one of the ant-hills of the African forests. Many of the people whose houses have been levelled take up their abodes in such places; and even in them there is a distinction of wretchedness. A Scalpeen is a hole, too, but the roof above it is rather loftier and grander in its dimensions. It is often erected within the walls, when any are left standing, of the unroofed houses, and all that is above the surface is built out of the old materials. It possesses, too, some pieces of furniture, and the Scalpeen is altogether superior to the Scalp. In such, or still more wretched abodes, burrowing as they can, the remnant of the population is hastening to an end, and after a few years will be as scarce nearly as the exterminated Indians, except the specimens that are carefully preserved in the workhouse. Those whom starvation spares, disease cuts off….
The present condition of the Irish, we have no hesitation in saying, has been mainly brought on by ignorant and vicious legislation. The destruction of the potato for one season, though a great calamity, would not have doomed them, fed as they were by the taxes of the state and the charity of the world, to immediate decay; but a false theory, assuming the name of political economy, with which is has no more to do than with the slaughter of the Hungarians by General Haynan, led the landlords and the legislature to believe that it was a favorable opportunity for changing the occupation of the land and the cultivation of the soil from potatoes to corn. When more food, more cultivation, more employment, were the requisites for maintaining the Irish in existence, the Legislature and the landlords set about introducing a species of cultivation that could only be successful by requiring fewer hands, and turning potato gardens, that nourished the maximum of human beings, into pasture grounds for bullocks, that nourished only the minimum. The Poor-law, said to be for the relief of the people and the means of their salvation, was the instrument of their destruction. In their terrible distress, from that temporary calamity with which they were visited, they were to have no relief unless they gave up their holdings. That law, too, laid down a form for evicting the people, and thus gave the sanction and encouragement of legislation to exterminate them. Calmly and quietly, but very ignorantly – though we cheerfully exonerate the parties from any malevolence; they only committed a great mistake, a terrible blunder, which in legislation is worse than a crime – but calmly and quietly from Westminster itself, which is the centre of civilization, did the decree go forth which has made the temporary but terrible visitation of a potato rot the means of exterminating, through the slow process of disease and houseless starvation, nearly the half of the Irish.
The land is still there, in all its natural beauty and fertility. The sparkling Shannon, teeming with fish, still flows by their doors, and might bear to them as the Hudson and Thames bear to the people of New York and of London, fleets of ships laden with wealth. The low grounds or Corcasses of Clare are celebrated for their productiveness. The country abounds in limestone: coal, iron and lead, have been found. It has an area of 827,994 acres, 372,237 of which are uncultivated, or occupied by woods or water. It is estimated that there are 296,000 acres of unoccupied land; and that of these 160,000 are capable of cultivation and improvement. Why are they not cultivated and improved, as the wilds of America are cultivated and improved by the brethren of the Irish? Why are these starving people not allowed and encouraged to plant their potato gardens on the wastes? Why are they not married to the unoccupied soil, as a humane politician proposes to provide for the starving needlewomen of the metropolis by marrying them to the Currency Lads of New South Wales? A more important question cannot be asked. There is about Kilrush, and in Clare, and throughout Ireland, the doubly melancholy spectacle of a strong man asking for work as the means of getting food; and of the fertile earth wooing his labors, in order to yield up to him its rich but latent stores: yet it lies idle and unfruitful. Why is not this double melancholy spectacle destroyed by their union, and converted into life and happiness, as oxygen and hydrogen, each in itself destructive, become, when united as water, the pabulum of existence? We shall fully consider that question before we quit the subject, but we shall now only say that the whole of this land, cultivated and uncultivated, is owned by a few proprietors – that many of them are absentees – that almost all are in embarrassed circumstances – and that, from ignorance, or false theory, or indolence, they prefer seeing the land covered with such misery as we have described, to either bringing the land under cultivation themselves, or allowing the people to cultivate it. Their greatest ambition, apparently, is to get rid of the people.
22 December 1849
The evictions were numerous before the potato rot. It was not that great calamity, therefore, that superinduced them, or was the chief cause of the present desolation. The potato harvest and harvests of every kind have been lost many times before 1846, without reducing the people to their present misery. But that calamity threw the people at the mercy of the Government, and the Government used its power directly and indirectly, in accordance with the theory, to clear the land. Out-door relief was established in that season of distress, and relief altogether was coupled with the resignation of the land. The poor were required to give up their heritage, small though it were, for less than a mess of pottage. A law was passed, the 11 and 12 Vic. c. 47, entitled, “An Act for the Protection and Relief of the Destitute Poor Evicted from their Dwellings,” which provided a means of evicting them, subjecting the landlords to the necessity of giving notice to Poor-law guardians, and to the share of a common burden. Under such stimuli and such auspices, the clearing process has gone on in an accelerated ratio, and Ireland is now dotted with ruined villages, and filled with a starving population, besieging the doors of crowded workhouses, and creeping into the halls and chambers of the deserted mansions of the nobility and gentry.
5 January 1850
I crossed the Bay to Galway, and proceeded towards Clifden by a route devoid of interest, exhibiting, in a less degree than in Clare, the usual signs of devastation in progress. Mr. Martin’s property extends almost the whole way from Ouchterade [Oughterard] to Clifden, and is a mixture of mountain, moor, and fertile land, capable of indefinite improvement, with great facility of water carriage, but most sadly neglected. It is a bad sign for the next harvest, and for the people of this country, that in my whole journey from Galway I did not see more than from thirty to forty persons, including all ages and sexes; and, with the exception of ten men working under a road contractor, few or none of them were at work.
At Carihaken the levellers have been at work, and tumbled down eighteen houses. In one of them dwelt John Killian, who stood by me while I made the accompanying Sketch of the remains of his dwelling. He told me that he and his fathers before him had owned this now ruined cabin for ages, and that he had paid £4 a year for four acres of ground. He owed no rent: before it was due, the landlord’s drivers cut down his crops, carried them off, gave him no account of the proceeds, and then tumbled his house. The hut made against the end wall of a former habitation was not likely to remain, as a decree had gone forth entirely to clear the place. The old man also told me that his son having cut down, on the spot that was once his own garden, a few sticks to make him a shelter, was taken up, prosecuted, and sentenced to two months’ confinement, for destroying trees and making waste of the property.
I must supply you with another Sketch of a similar subject on the road between Maam and Clifden, in Joyce’s County, once famous for the Patagonian stature of the inhabitants, who are now starved down to ordinary dimensions. High up on the mountain, but on the road-side, stands the scalpeen of Keillines. It is near General Thompson?s property. Conceive five human beings living in such a hole: the father was out, at work; the mother was getting fuel on the hills, and the children left in the hut could only say they were hungry. Their appearance confirmed their words – want was deeply engraved in their faces, and their lank bodies were almost unprotected by clothing.
The British Government Response: Selections from Charles Edward Trevelyan’s The Irish Crisis, 1848
As noted in the timeline, Charles Edward Trevelyan served as Assistant Secretary to the Treasury in the British government during the Famine years. Today he is often seen as the face of British indifference to the crisis, in part based on his writings on the Famine. The Irish Crisis, published early in 1848 after the worst winter of the disaster, reveals some of Trevelyan’s attitudes towards Irish society and culture and seeks to defend the British government from the claim that not enough was done to help the Irish people.
The Irish small holder lives in a state of isolation, the type of which is to be sought for in the islands of the South Sea, rather than in the great civilized communities of the ancient world. A fortnight for planting, a week or ten days for digging, and another fortnight for turf-cutting, suffice for his subsistence; and during the rest of the year, he is at leisure to follow his own inclinations, without even the safeguard of those intellectual tastes and legitimate objects of ambition which only imperfectly obviate the evils of leisure in the higher ranks of society.
The excessive competition for land maintained rents at a level which left the Irish peasant the bare means of subsistence; and poverty, discontent, and idleness, acting on his excitable nature, produced that state of popular feeling which furnishes the material for every description of illegal association and misdirected political agitation. That agrarian code which is at perpetual war with the laws of God and man, is more especially the offspring of this state of society, the primary object being to secure the possession of the plots of land, which, in the absence of wages, are the sold means of subsistence.
There is a gradation even in potatoes. Those generally used by the people of Ireland were the coarsest and most prolific kind, called “Lumpers”, or “Horse Potatoes”, from their size, and they were, for the most part, cultivated not in furrows, but in the slovenly mode popularly known as “lazy beds”; so that the principle of seeking the cheapest description of food at the smallest expense of labor, was maintained in all its force. To the universal dependence on the potato, and to the absence of farmers of a superior class, it was owing that agriculture of every description was carried on in a negligent, imperfect manner. The domestic habits arising out of this mode of subsistence were of the lowest and most degrading kind. The pigs and poultry, which share the food of the peasant’s family, became, in course, inmates of the cabin also. The habit of exclusively living on this root produced an entire ignorance of every other food and of the means of preparing it; and there is scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland, whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato. Bread is scarcely ever seen, and an oven is unknown.
…the only hope for those who lived upon potatoes was in some great intervention of Providence to bring back the potato to its original use and intention as an adjunct, and not as a principle article of national food; and by compelling the people of Ireland to recur to other more nutritious means of aliment, to restore the energy and the vast industrial capabilities of that country…. Those who are habitually and entirely fed on potatoes, live upon the extreme verge of human subsistence, and when they are deprived of their accustomed food, there is nothing cheaper to which they can resort. They have already reached the lowest point in the descending scale, and there is nothing beyond but starvation or beggary….
…it has been proved to demonstration, that local distress cannot be relieved out of national funds without great abuses and evils, tending, by a direct and rapid process, to an entire disorganization of society. This is, in effect, to expose the common stock to a general scramble. All are interested in getting as much as they can. It is nobody’s concern to put a check on the expenditure. If the poor man prefers idling on relief works or being rationed with his wife and children, to hard labor; if the farmer discharges his laborers and makes the state of things a plea for not paying rates or rent; if the landed proprietor joins in the common cry, hoping to obtain some present advantage, and trusting to the chance of escaping from future repayments, it is not the men, but the system which is in fault… This principle eats like a canker into the moral health and physical prosperity of the people. All classes “make a poor mouth”, as it is expressively called in Ireland. They conceal their advantages, exaggerate their difficulties, and relax their exertions….
…the famine was too strong even for the mighty demagogue, that great mixed character to whom Ireland owes so much good and so much evil. People of every shade of political opinion acted together, not always in an enlightened manner, but always cordially and earnestly, in making the social maladies of Ireland, and the means of healing them, the paramount object. In the hour of her utmost need, Ireland became sensible of a union of feeling and interest with the rest of the empire, which would have moved hearts less susceptible of every generous and grateful emotion than those of her sons and daughters. Although the public efforts in her behalf were without parallel in ancient and modern history, and the private subscriptions were the largest ever raised for a charitable object, they were less remarkable than the absorbing interest with which her misfortunes were regarded for months together both in Parliament and in society, to the exclusion of almost every other topic. It will also never be forgotten that these efforts and these sacrifices were made at a time when England was herself suffering under a severe scarcity of food, aggravated by the failure of the cotton crop and by the pecuniary exhaustion consequent upon the vast expenditure for the construction of railways…