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The Great Irish Famine—An Epic of Death and Emigration

The Great Irish Famine—An Epic of Death and Emigration

 The Great Irish Famine​—An Epic of Death and Emigration


IN THE shadow of Ireland’s “holy” mountain, Croagh Patrick, * stands a most unusual ship. It looks like a small 19th-century sailing ship with its prow pointing west toward the Atlantic Ocean. But this ship will never set sail. It is firmly fixed in a bed of concrete. Interwoven among the masts are striking representations of human skeletons.

The ship is a large metal sculpture that was officially unveiled in 1997 to memorialize one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Ireland​—the Great Famine. The skeletons and the ship are symbols of the death and mass emigration that marked the tragic years of 1845-50.

 Ireland is not unique, of course, in experiencing famine. Many countries have suffered in this way. In many ways, though, the Great Irish Famine was exceptionally tragic. In 1845, Ireland’s population was about eight million. By 1850, perhaps one and a half million had died as a result of the famine! A further million had emigrated in search of a better life, mainly to Britain or the United States. A great famine? Most certainly.

What caused so great a famine? What help was given to its victims? What can we learn from this calamity? To appreciate the answers to these questions, let us first briefly examine what Irish life was like in the years before the famine.

Before the Great Famine

By the start of the 19th century, Britain had extended its dominion over a large part of the earth. That included Ireland. Much of Ireland was owned by English landlords, many of whom resided in England. These absentee landlords extracted high rents from their Irish tenants and paid low wages for their labor.

Thousands of small farmers, or cottiers, lived in abject poverty. Unable to buy meat or many other foods, the people grew the cheapest, easiest, and most substantial crop they could under these circumstances, the potato.

The Importance of the Potato

The potato was introduced into Ireland about 1590. It was very successful because Ireland’s wet and mild climate suited its growth and the potato could be grown in very poor soil. It was used as food for both man and animal. By the mid-1800’s, just under a third of all arable land was being used to grow potatoes. Almost two thirds of them were for human consumption. The average Irish male ate potatoes every day​—and little else!

Since so many people were totally reliant on the potato for food, that situation was a recipe for disaster. What would happen if the crop failed?

First Crop Failure

The potato crop had occasionally failed before. Short-term relief measures coped with this, and when the next year’s crop was good, hardship had been minimal. Thus, when the potato crop failed in 1845, the authorities saw little reason for concern.

But this time things were much more serious. We now know that the fungal disease, phytophthora infestans​—otherwise known as blight—​caused the 1845 crop failure. This airborne fungus spread rapidly from one field of potatoes to another. The infected potatoes literally rotted in the ground, and those in storage were said to be “melting away.” Since only one variety of potato had been sown, the entire national crop was affected. And since the seed for the following year came from that year’s harvest, this fungus had a devastating effect on future crops as well.

 Second Crop Failure

The poor-quality seed potatoes that could be rescued were sown the next year, 1846, but blight also destroyed this second crop. As there was nothing left worth harvesting, many farm workers lost their jobs. Farm owners simply could not afford to pay them.

The government set up various relief works, hiring many of these poor folk​—mainly for road building—​so that they could provide for their families.

Some could only get work in workhouses. These institutions employed destitute people. In return for their labor, workers received food and lodging. The work was harsh. Often, the food was rotten, and the accommodations were very primitive. Some workers did not survive.

These measures did provide some relief. But there was worse to come. The winter of 1846/47 was extremely cold, and it curtailed most of the outside work. Various government agencies distributed free food. After two years, however, government funds for this relief work began to run out, and all the aid provided was hopelessly inadequate for the ever-increasing flood of physically weakened people. Then another devastating blow hit Ireland.

Absentee landlords​—many facing large debts themselves—​continued to demand their rents. Many of the tenants were unable to pay, and as a result, thousands were evicted from their land. Some tenants simply left the land and went to the cities hoping for a better life. But with no food, no money, and no housing, where were they to go? For growing numbers, emigration became the only option.

Emigration En Masse

Emigration was not new. Since the beginning of the 18th century, there had been a steady trickle of emigrants from Ireland to Britain and America. After the winter of 1845, the trickle became a torrent! By 1850, 26 percent of the residents of New York were Irish​—there were more Irish-born citizens there than in Ireland’s capital city, Dublin.

During the six years of the famine, five thousand ships made the hazardous 3,000-mile [5,000 km] journey across the Atlantic. Many of the ships were old. Some had previously served as slave ships. They only continued in service because of the emergency. Little improvement had been made in their claustrophobic living quarters. There was no sanitation, and passengers had to survive on only the barest rations.

Thousands of passengers, already weakened by the famine, became sick. Many died while at sea. In 1847, ships bound for Canada came to be called coffin ships. Of the 100,000 or so emigrants they carried, over 16,000 died either at sea or soon after landing. Letters sent back to friends and relatives in Ireland told of these perilous conditions​—but still the emigrants left in droves.

A few landlords assisted their former tenants. One, for example, chartered three ships and contributed toward the passage of a thousand of his tenants. Most emigrants, though, had to struggle to find their own fare. Often only one  or two from a large family could afford the passage. Imagine the heartbreak at the dockside as thousands of family members said farewell​—likely never to see one another again.

Disease and a Third Crop Failure

After two successive failed potato crops and mass evictions, the decimated population had to contend with yet another savage blow. Disease! Typhus, dysentery, and scurvy claimed more lives. Many of the survivors must have thought that things could not possibly get worse, but they were wrong.

Encouraged by a successful crop in 1847, farmers trebled the acreage of potato planting in 1848. Then came catastrophe! That summer proved to be very wet. Blight struck once more. The crop was lost for the third time in four seasons. Government agencies and charities were stretched to the breaking point. Even then, the worst was not over. In 1849 a cholera epidemic claimed the lives of a further 36,000.

The Aftermath

That epidemic, however, marked a turning point. The next potato crop was successful. Slowly, things improved. The government enacted new laws that canceled all debts resulting from the famine. The population began to grow once more. Although the blight affected a few crops in following years, there was never again anything approaching the scale of the horrors that accounted for the loss of over a quarter of Ireland’s population during these tragic years of famine.

Today, all over Ireland, broken-down stone walls and ruined houses stand as stark reminders of the harsh times that resulted in the widespread Irish diaspora. In the United States alone, over 40 million can claim Irish descent. U.S. President John F. Kennedy as well as Henry Ford, inventor of the Ford motor car, were directly descended from emigrants who sailed from Ireland on famine ships.

The repeated failure of the potato crop was, of course, a major factor in this sad story of death and emigration. Another important factor was what the ancient Bible writer described as ‘man dominating man to his injury.’ (Ecclesiastes 8:9) Thankfully, we are assured in God’s Word, the Bible, that the Creator of the earth and all its produce will establish a paradisaic new world, bringing lasting peace and prosperity to all. (2 Peter 3:13) Also, the ancient psalmist foretold: “There will come to be plenty of grain on the earth; on the top of the mountains there will be an overflow.”​—Psalm 72:16.


^ par. 3 See The Watchtower, April 15, 1995, pages 26-8.

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A monument to the Great Famine

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Searching for potatoes, as depicted in the “Illustrated London News,” December 22, 1849

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Distributing clothing to destitute families

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and page 15: From the newspaper The Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849

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“The Emigrant Ship” (Painting by Charles J. Staniland, c. 1880)

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Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, West Yorkshire, UK/Bridgeman Art Library

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Ruined houses are a stark reminder of harsh times that resulted from the famine years

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Top sketch: Courtesy of the “Views of the Famine” Web site at