starving to death: the “luck” of the Irish

“The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

— Irish national activist, solicitor & political journalist, John Mitchel



My family came to America from Ireland in the early 1900’s so you’d think I’d have some firsthand tales to tell about the Great Hunger. But, alas, my family is not a sharer of stories, photos or heirlooms handed down from one generation to the next.

They say history is written by the victors, and my lack of understanding of the Irish Potato Famine proves this true.  This day every year when all Americans are honorary Irishmen is a perfect time to reflect on the actual history of the most influential Irish event I know.

Of course what we call the Irish Potato Famine, the Irish instead call the Great Starvation. The Irish rejection of the term Famine is very specific; a famine is a natural disaster. And, certainly the consecutive years of failure of the potato crops land-poor Irish families relied upon to feed their families were a natural disaster.

What was not a natural disaster was the reason the Irish were stuck depending on one crop for nearly their entire sustenance in the first place. The Irish have a long history of healthy, diversified agricultural practices and certainly would not be caught with their entire food supply dependent on one single variety of one single crop if they had a choice.

England initially conquered Ireland in the twelfth century, but that domination became particularly horrific under the reign of Elizabeth I and William of Orange, when the land was systematically confiscated and handed over to English subjects.

By 1750, 95% of the land was controlled by the English. But the most devastating blow to Irish political and economic power occurred with the passage of the Penal Acts of the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Penal Acts made it illegal for the Irish to own property (or even a horse of any value), to marry a Protestant, gain an education, carry firearms, or practice their Catholic religion.

Essentially, Ireland was turned into an island plantation designed solely to serve the financial interests of England.

Irish land was re-purposed to house the cattle required to feed England’s insatiable appetite for beef. The desperately poor Irish were forced to rent mud hovels and were kept from land, work and enterprise. They were viewed by the mostly absentee English landowners as a blight spoiling their property values.

Of course, there were some half-hearted gestures by the English to help. “Work Houses” were established to provide employment and shelter but were so repugnant, demeaning and restrictive they were a desperate last resort, yet still too few to have a meaningful impact.

Outdoor soup kitchens called “food depots” were created but unfortunately these were poorly funded, manipulative and arbitrarily closed leaving the hungry worse off than before.

The British refused to feed the Irish because they believed it would make them “dependent” on government handouts. And, when Americans tried to send food, the British turned it away saying it would ruin the capitalist system and lower the price of food.

This is all bad, but by far the worst insults of all?  The exportation of food and the systematic policy of evictions.

Believe it or not, Ireland during the famine years was a net exporter of food.  In 1845 alone Ireland exported 200,000 head of livestock, 2,000,000 quarts of grain, thousands of barrels of “corned” beef (named for the corn-sized chunks of salt used in the preserving process) and several hundred million pounds of flour – all under military and naval escorts.

To enforce the evictions, English landlords would send detachments of police, usually under the dark of night, to tear off the roofs of the homes of their Irish tenants and throw their belongings in the street.

This policy of eviction was made into law in 1847 with the passage of the Gregory Clause which required all Irish who wanted to be eligible for “food depot” handouts to relinquish all land rights of more than ¼ acre.

Not often explained as such, the Great Hunger could be most accurately compared to the German Holocaust. It was a conscious and systematic extermination of one group of people by another.

There were an estimated 8 million people in Ireland when the famine started. When the famine ended 1 million remained. It is estimated that 4 million emigrated. The rest died of hunger and related diseases.


Facts and statistics don’t nearly convey the tragedy these resilient people endured. 


According to one Polish observer,  corpses lined roads with green mouths from eating grass, whole families standing in snow in complete nakedness having pawned their clothes, or a starving mother half insane thrusting her dead child forward and begging for a coffin.


All in the then wealthiest nation in the world.


Yikes. Somehow, the Irish did survive and heroically endured the unspeakable. Leaving their tiny emerald island by the millions, they forever changed the face of the United States, Canada, and Australia. And in doing so planted the great Irish spirit of magic and mirth around the world. With a side of melancholy, some feisty fisticuffs and a pint or two…

Another thing you may not know is that the only people eating corned beef in Ireland to celebrate St. Paddy’s day are American tourists. The Irish will be having their national dish of bacon. Of course, bacon in Ireland isn’t quite like bacon in the US. Let Darina Allen, the Julia Child of Ireland show you how to do it up in true Irish style.  

Want to know more? Check out The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845 – 1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith.

Am I the only one surprised to learn the tragic degree of repression and tragedy? And how we’re still struggling with the same issues of monocrops, land grabs and feeding our poor?

Previously on St. Patrick’s day:

22 thoughts on “starving to death: the “luck” of the Irish

  1. No, you’re not the only one. The myths of the so-called potato famine don’t begin to tell the true story. The control of land of land by nations and corporations, leaving it unavailable for production of healthy food, is as much a threat today. Thanks for sharing such good info. Understanding the past can only help us make better decisions in the future.

    1. I read that land grabs continue in some of the poor countries today. People go hungry for a complex series of reasons, of which a simple lack of food production doesn’t seem to be an important one.

      1. Land grabs are going on right here at home too. The blog Climate Connections is overflowing with stories of one grab after another worldwide.

        I almost can’t bear to follow, but I can’t bear to unsubscribe either. Seems the more things change, the more people stay the same…

        Thanks for the comment and repost argyle :)

  2. Thanks Jackie for sharing this, what a great information for St. Patty’s Day. I thought you looked Irish the first time I saw your picture. My gggg grandparents came from Ireland too some time before 1819.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Gordon, it isn’t exactly a cheery par-tay of a story. Your people got here much earlier than mine – I wish I knew more first hand about how they survived and what they did.

      I’ve got a double dose of recent immigrants on both sides.

  3. Such a good point to make on St. Patrick’s day! I didn’t know the specifics of the incident, but it does remind me a lot of Amartya Sen’s work – after observing that in recent history there have been no famines in democracies he created this theory that defined famines as the lack of access to food, not the availability per se, and wrote extensively about the fact that famines are inherently linked to abhorrently unequal distribution of means and the complete unaccountability of governments. Thanks for the informative post!

  4. Reblogged this on Agrigirl's Blog and commented:
    Happy St. Patrick’s Day. This morning Jackie of the Auburn Meadow Farm posted regarding the event that many of us know as the Potato Famine. I find it fascinating but also chilling to learn about the reliance on mono-crops and the influence of wealthy industry in that great tragedy. Can we learn from this?

  5. Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… I’ve written before about how potato blight killed the Irish crop, largely because this vegetable is propagated vegetatively so it’s clonal. Nearly everybody in Ireland was growing the same potato variety, ‘Lumper’, which didn’t resist the late blight Phytophthora infestans. Your post here brings in the essential human side to this story. I don’t condone what my English ancestors did, and of course i can’t put it right because I wasn’t alive then. I do appreciate reading about this terrible history on St Patrick’s Day, which seems to be far more important in the Irish-American diaspora than it is to Irish people who live here in England. Here’s a telling of the history

  6. Thanks to Tammy (Agrigirl’s blog) I am reading your great post. Thank you for telling us more about the tragedies that the Irish People had to face and endure for centuries. If only we would learn from history. Sadly, power and greed are stronger, today as then.

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