The Irish Potato Famine and Emigration
During the Victorian era, England experienced tremendous growth in wealth and industry while Ireland struggled to survive. The reasons for Ireland's inability to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution are complex, and have been the subject of debate for more than a century. Many English viewed the Irish as stubborn farmers who refused to embrace the new technology. The Irish, however, believed the English had sabotaged their efforts to industrialize. The truth of why the Irish fared so badly while England became the most powerful nation in the world probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.
It's a common assumption that Ireland's mass exodus during the first half of the l9th century was the result of the disastrous potato blight of 1845, but the famine was actually the proverbial last straw. Until the 17th century, the Irish, like much of feudal Europe, consisted of many peasants under the rule of a minority of wealthy landowners. When Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in the mid-17th century, those landowners who refused to give up Catholicism saw their property confiscated and then redistributed to the English Army. By 1661, 40% of Ireland was owned by England. Many Irish peasants-stayed on as tenant farmers, working the land and paying rent for the small plots of land where they lived and grew their own food. But as crops became less profitable, many landowners began taking back the land from the Irish poor in order to graze sheep and cattle for English consumption. This led to a series of evictions, where tenant farmers were forced off the land that sustained them, often with no warning at all. One of the worst, now known as the Ballinglass Incident, (after the west coast village in County Galway), took place on March 13, 1846, about 6 months after the potato blight appeared. Anticipating mass starvation from the previous failed crop, Mrs. Gerrard, like many landowners, feared nonpayment of rent from her tenants, and suddenly leveled 61 houses occupied by 76 families. The following is an eyewitness account taken from The Great Hunger.
The inhabitants were not in arrear of their rent, and had, by their industry, reclaimed an area of about four hundred acres from a neighbouring bog. On the morning of the eviction a 'large detachment of the 49th Infantry commanded by Captain Brown' and numerous police appeared with the Sheriff and his men...the people were officially called on to give up possession, and the houses were then demolished --roofs torn off, walls thrown down. The scene was frightful; women running, wailing with pieces of their property and clinging to door-posts from which they had to be forcibly torn; men cursing, children screaming with fright. That night the people slept in the ruins; next day they were driven out, the foundations of the house were torn up and razed, and no neighbour was allowed to take them in. (p. 71-2)
Tenant farmers who weren't evicted...