This magnificent book was given to me as a 2012 Christmas gift by my wife, Finola, and daughter, Mary Elizabeth.  I only managed to find the time to read it a year later, over the Christmas holiday of 2013.

Because of the topic it covers, and the scale of its ambition, it has to be seen as one of the most important books published in Ireland so far this century.

The famine of 1846 to 1850 set the course of Irish history to this day, and had a dramatic long term impact on the political history of Britain, as well as on the demographics of the United States.

A blight on the potato crop was the proximate cause of the failure of the potato harvest, and thus of the Irish famine.  Potato blight was first detected in the area around New York in the United States in 1843.

It came to Europe in June 1845, in a consignment of seed potatoes sent to Belgium, which must not have been adequately examined before shipment. In subsequent months, it spread all over Northern Europe, and to Britain. The first Irish case was identified in the Botanic Gardens in Dublin in August 1845.  

Thanks to the availability of the potato, which produced more human nourishment per acre than any other crop, Ireland’s population had grown rapidly, from 5 million in 1800, to 7 million in 1821, and to 8.7 million in 1846.

Ireland had become dependent on the potato for food, to a degree that was not the case in other European countries, which also suffered from the blight at the same time. For example, in Cork alone, there was a larger area of land sown with potatoes, than the entire area of land under any form of tillage on the whole island of Ireland today.

The reasons for Ireland’s development of an over dependence on this one crop, over the previous century, might usefully be further explored in a future edition of this book.

It is probably pointless to ask why so few Irish people in 1845 assumed the potato crop would never fail,  just as it is pointless to ask why so many Irish people, and their bankers, assumed, in 2005, that house prices would never fall.  Humans are by nature optimistic, and tend to assume that present conditions, whatever they may be, will continue indefinitely. This applied to Irish landlords, who were running up debts, on the assumption that the potato generated prosperity was invulnerable, just as much as it applied to their tenants, who subdivided their holdings among their children, on the same basis .

In a mere 20 years, from 1820 to 1840, the population had increased by over 50% in parts of North Kerry, west Clare, west Galway, and Sligo.

Interestingly , the highest absolute densities of persons per 100 acres, were not to be found in those counties, but  in a broad belt of land stretching from south of  Belfast, across Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan into Longford and Roscommon. Those areas had over 50 people per acre, whereas the density of population per acre was below 10 in some areas of Meath, Kildare, Wicklow, Kerry, Mayo and Galway.

In Meath and Kildare, the system of agriculture required fewer people. Meath land had instead to provide feed for 100,000 cattle in pre famine Ireland. In the other four counties, the soil fertility was well below the national average.

200 hundred years before, the distribution of the population had been very different. In 1660, the highest concentration of people per acre in Ireland was to be found in Meath, Dublin, East Cork, East Antrim and South East Wexford, where the population density was then 5 times that in the western counties.

In a sense, over two centuries, the Irish population had, willingly or otherwise, shifted from living on land which could feed it in a variety of different ways, to live on land which could feed it in only one way, by potato production.

Meanwhile large areas of the best land were shifted from meeting local food needs, to export production of livestock and grain products for the British market. 74% of Irish exports went to Britain by 1774, whereas only 38% had done so in 1683.

In 1841, Armagh was the county which had the highest density of people per square mile of arable land, over 1000 people per acre, as against only 187 people per square mile in Kildare and 201 in Meath. In contrast, Armagh’s population density in 1660 had been below the national average.

Armagh would have had the linen industry to supplement its food production. This may explain why it could support such a high population in 1841, and also why it survived the famine better than his high population density might suggest. But the same cannot be said of Cavan, and Longford, which also had very high densities.

Some nationalist writers see the Irish famine as something connived at by the British Government, in the hope that it would clear Ireland of its surplus population, and thus make land available for higher value crops and livestock of which would be saleable to industrial populations of Britain.

While the British Treasury did spend money on famine relief, about £9.5 million in fact, it tried to shift the main burden on to Irish ratepayers (mostly landlords, many of whom were already bankrupt, before the famine started and their rents dried up). Furthermore, the £9.5million spent of relief, was less than the £10 million the Treasury spent on maintaining its military establishment in Ireland.

Clearly, the assumed mutual solidarity on which the Act  Union between Ireland and Britain had been enacted in 1800, did not exist when it came to spending sufficient amounts of British taxpayers money to save Irish lives. In a sense the Famine doomed the Union.

While there was a view in some quarters in London that Ireland was overpopulated, and Malthus had argued that the world as a whole was going to face a crisis of over population, I doubt if there was ever a deliberate plan or conspiracy to allow famine to reduce the Irish population. It was more that policy makers in London believed that Governments should be reluctant to interfere with natural economic processes.

The prevailing economic ideology in London in 1846 was of support for the free market. The view was that the market should be allowed to find its own level, scarcity would lead to higher prices, higher prices would call forth more production, and thus the scarcity would solve itself. One should not interfere with the market by providing free food because that would give people dependent on government, and by keeping prices artificially low would deter new private sector solutions.

That would have been the thinking of Charles Trevelyan, the London based Treasury official most directly concerned with the Governments response to the Irish Famine. It is a line of thought that has many echoes in current economic thinking. Indeed it is a policy that might even have worked in England, where there was a well developed market in food, and an infrastructure for getting food to where it was needed.

The problem with this thinking was that it had little applicability to the conditions of  Ireland in the 1840’s. In large parts of Ireland, there was no market economy through which food could be sold. In the worst hit areas, a cashless barter economy existed, whereby tenants bartered their labour on a land owner’s farm, in return for the use of a given area of his land for potato production for their own use.  As long as potato yields stayed high, both landlord and tenant had an incentive to keep subdividing holdings among young adult members of the tenant’s family, thereby providing more labour for the landlord, and keeping extended families near home. But once the potato failed, the tenant had nothing to eat, and no money to buy anything.

The most eloquent critic of the Government’s policy, quoted in this book, is actually a member of the establishment and the senior British official in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant himself, the fourth Earl of Clarendon, who wrote to his Prime Minister, Lord John Russell , in 1849,seeking more funds from Parliament for Famine Relief, saying

“ I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard the suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland and coldly persist in a policy of extermination”

If there was a conspiracy to use the famine to reduce the population, he was certainly not part of it. It was not so much a case of conspiracy, as of people being misled by abstract principles and prejudices, that could be seen by those on the ground not to work in Ireland of the 1840s. It is noteworthy that landlords, who actually lived locally in Ireland, were much more supportive of relief efforts, than those who owned Irish land but did not live locally.

The Famine reduced the population of Ireland dramatically, and in three ways, through starvation, disease and emigration. Famine related diseases spread to people who themselves may have had adequate nourishment. Many staff of work houses, and clergy of all denominations, died of  famine generated diseases.

The maps used in this book show that the  pattern of loss of life through  across different areas of the country did not follow some simple formula, like land quality or population density.

Donegal, with poorer land and higher population density, had a lower rate of “excess mortality” during the famine years than Meath had. The Aran islands, off the Galway coast, had an increase in population in the famine years, while thousands starved on the mainland and on other offshore islands, like Clare island in Mayo.

The county that had the biggest overall population loss, from a combination of ,eviction  and emigration, was Roscommon, which lost 31% of its population in ten years. But in terms of death by famine alone, the biggest losses were in Galway and Clare.

Many in those latter counties were simply too poor to meet the cost of emigrating. In Connacht for every 3 people who died, 2 emigrated. In Leinster, in contrast, more than two people emigrated, for every one person who died.

It was not solely the Catholic Irish who died or emigrated. The Presbyterian parish of Kilwaughter, near Larne in County Antrim, lost 36% of its population in the famine years, a higher rate of loss even than Roscommon, but in a smaller area.

In the county I know best, Meath, the population decline was most marked in the North West of the county, in the Kells, Oldcastle and Moynalty areas. There was a general decline across the middle of the county, with some exceptions like Donaghmore and Duleek, which saw their population increase over the Famine decade, for reasons I cannot explain. Villages, like Bohermeen, Kilberry, Syddan and  Ardcath, that existed before the famine, were no long there after it. All that remained in those places, until recently, was the lonely church, that used to be the centre of a  village.

One response to the failure of the potato crop was the eviction of tenants who could no longer pay their rents. This was probably more likely where the rent was paid in cash rather than in labour services. Thus, two fifths of all the evictions in Ireland in the famine years were in Munster, as against a quarter of the total in Connacht, a fifth in Leinster, and only one tenth of the total in Ulster.

These evictions, in the midst of starvation, were facilitated by the means test system,that was used to decide who could get famine relief supplies. Once one still had a sizeable holding, one did not qualify for relief.

The evictions had a poisonous effect on relations between tenant and landlord, and contributed to the bitterness of the “Land War” later in the nineteenth century. They also influence Irish attitudes to the legitimacy house repossessions for unpaid debts, to this very day.

Tipperary was the county which had the highest rate of evictions, and the highest rate of agrarian protests in these years. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the county in which the War of Independence started in 1919.

Could a potato famine ever happen again somewhere in the world?

Are there lessons to be learned today about the risk of relying for subsistence on one crop?

John Feehan, a biology lecturer in University College Dublin, argues in one of the essays in the book, that the potato is likely to play a growing role in the world’s diet, as we struggle to find affordable food, for a population that could rise by an extra two billion by 2050.

China is now the world’s biggest potato producer in the world, and India produces twice as many potatoes as the USA. A virulent strain of potato blight was identified in Mexico in 1992, which overpowers the blight resistant genes in the potato plant, and is able to withstand conventional fungicides. Feehan concludes that” a twenty first century version of the Great Famine is a real possibility”.

By its combination of maps and text, this book enables one to understand the Famine in ways a simple narrative history could never achieve.

A reader, who is familiar with a particular country and its land, can compare the famine experience of the locality with it looks like today. It would be interesting of an interactive web version of the book could be published, which would enable readers to drill down further into particular parts of the map to access the underlying local data on which they are based.

Edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy
Published by Cork University Press

This book review first appeared in the “Dublin Review of Books”,

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