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: