Ireland Starves and Lives to Tell: The Effects of the Great Potato Famine
“It must be understood that we cannot feed the people” (Kinealy Calamity 75). The mid 1800s in Ireland were characterized by extreme poverty, death, and emigration. The Great Potato Famine, also known as “The Great Hunger,” first hit in 1845; however, its effects lasted into the 1850s and can still be seen today. Prior to the famine, Irish manufacture and trade was controlled and suppressed by British government, which made Ireland an extremely poor country. Farmers in Ireland were forced to export crops such as corn, wheat, and oats to Britain, which left the potato as the main dietary staple for the people, especially the poor. Therefore, when the fungus Phytophthora infestans caused some, and eventually all, of the crop to rot over the next couple of years, the reliance on the one crop made the people of Ireland extremely susceptible to the famine. The effects were devastating, and poverty spread across the nation causing a huge increase in homelessness, the death-rate, emigration, and a change in the Irish people and country overall.
One direct effect of poverty during the Great Famine was homelessness. “The total number of people who had to leave their property was around a half million” (Kinealy Calamity 218). Those who could not afford to pay rent to their landlords were evicted and had their homes destroyed (Kinealy Calamity 190). These people often resorted to “begging in the streets, wandering from house to house, or burrowing in bogs or behind ditches, till broken down by privation and exposure to the elements [such as cold and disease], they seek the workhouse, or die by the roadside” (Litton 98). Public assistance came to the Irish people in the form of workhouses and soup kitchens. The workhouses were established under the Poor Law of 1838, and offered shelter in exchange for labor for the extremely needy (Litton 23). However, in 1847, a new rule called the “Quarter Acre Clause” was passed under the poor law which stated that “only people who occupied less than a quarter acre of land were now eligible for relief” (Kinealy “Politics” 3). In order to receive assistance and feed their families, people surrendered their land and were rendered homeless.
The total number of those who lost their homes due to poverty in Ireland during the famine did not even compare to the amount of lives lost in those dreadful years. Deaths due to malnutrition and disease were immense. The exact total of deaths is still unknown to this day (Kinealy 167). “The number [ . . . ] has been calculated as lying between half a million and one and a half million” (Kinealy 168).
People died from a variety of causes, relatively few from actual starvation. Most were felled by relapsing fever, typhus, dysentery, and cholera—their vulnerability to these diseases exacerbated by hunger, inadequate shelter, overcrowding in...