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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > March 2018 > The Great Hunger

The Great Hunger

Britain’s relationship with Ireland is peppered with drama but, writes Pat Kinsella, one episode in modern history more than any other proved a watershed moment: the 1845-49 Potato Famine

In less than a decade in the mid-19th century, the population of Ireland plummeted from 8.25 million to just over 6.5 million. Many were forced to flee their famine-struck homeland – then as much a part of the United Kingdom as Cornwall is today – in dangerously overloaded ‘coffin ships’. The rest perished. The story of how a million deaths from mostly preventable disease and hunger happened on the doorstep of the world’s wealthiest country still shocks.

BEREFT, HUNGRY, ABANDONED This figure is one several sculptures of starvation-stricken men and women, trudging alongside the River Liffey in the centre of Dublin – her haunted expression says it all

The collective impact of the Irish Potato Famine, the British government’s reaction to it, and the resultant exodus of emigrants was profound and long lasting. The diaspora of Irish people and Irish culture, all over the globe, not to mention the famine itself, generated a focussed fury that’s been articulated in nationalist politics, poetry and folk songs ever since, and remains a thread in the fabric of the modern country. Ireland continued to haemorrhage its human resources long after the famine ended, and the legacy of the Great Hunger – famine roads, ghost villages and memorials – can be seen across the land.

THE EYES HAVE IT A US poster warns of the tell-tale indicators of blight setting in
ALAMY X1, GETTY X1

WHY RELY ON POTATO?

Ireland was brought into the United Kingdom by the 1800 Act of Union. The politicians who represented the country in Westminster, the vast majority of whom were wealthy, Protestant landlords with Irish holdings, were very often based in England. Most rent collected from the poor Catholic tenants – who comprised four-fifths of Ireland's population – went straight out of the country via oft-unscrupulous middlemen and into the coffers of these absentee landlords. The profits from almost everything produced in Ireland also travelled in the same direction.

Cattle farming took place, and crops such as corn were grown, but almost all of the exportable food produced in Ireland was transported to mainland Britain. Dairy and corn-based products sold in Ireland were well beyond the meagre means of the vast majority, thanks to Britain’s controversial Corn Laws. These imposed tariffs on imported goods and kept prices of locally produced food high, for the benefit of the landowning class. Increasingly, the Irish became almost wholly dependent on potatoes. They were cheap, easy to grow and calorie dense but, as it turned out, genetically weak and prone to disease.

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About History Revealed

In this month’s issue… Who killed JFK? We know Lee Harvey Oswald pulled a trigger, but was he a lone gunman or part of a larger conspiracy? Plus: Elizabeth’s I love rival; the Irish Potato Famine; Picasso’s most prolific year; the medieval knight who’s travels made him more famous than Marco Polo; the Top 10 art controversies and the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.