Lessons of History: The Great Irish Famine

Who Is to Blame for This Great Disaster?

History is a subject that often arouses strong emotions. What seems to some people to be a topic of limited academic interest is for others the source of deeply held and passionate feelings. The task of the historian is to try to establish, as dispassionately as possible, what actually happened in a given time and place and to give an explanatory account of why and how what happened came to pass.

It is at this point that the trouble starts since this inevitably involves an evaluative judgment, which can be controversial. It is nowadays fashionable in some circles to assert that the idea of honest or true historical accounts is a delusion, that all historical narratives are driven by an agenda and should be seen as mythical or quasi-fictional. This view is persuasive insofar as many widely accepted historical narratives are of this kind and are constructed with an eye to having an effect in the present rather than explaining the past. This does not mean, however, that historical scholarship as traditionally understood is impossible, merely that it is difficult. The study of history can actually undermine popularly accepted views of the past and reveal that, in Artemus Ward’s expression, much of what people know “just ain’t so.”

The history of Ireland is a case in point. Until recently Irish history was dominated by an account of how the Irish resisted, and eventually threw off, the oppressive rule of the English and their collaborators. Recently this has been questioned by a new generation of Irish historians and a new, more nuanced picture has appeared.1 This has led to a deeper understanding and has meant that we now draw very different conclusions and lessons from the past.

The classic example of this is the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. The basic facts of the event, one of the most tragic in modern British history, are not in question. In 1845 the Irish potato crop became infested with a fungal parasite (Phytophthora infestans), causing a partial failure of the crop that year.

Unusually wet weather meant that there was a total harvest failure the following year, and again in 1847 and 1848. The result was the death of over 1.5 million people from starvation or famine-related disease. The same number of people emigrated, many to the United States. Because of this and subsequent emigration, Ireland has never recovered demographically: there are 6 million people in Ireland today, compared to 8 million in 1841.

In traditional Irish history the blame for this great disaster is placed firmly on the British government. For exponents of this view such as Cecil Woodham-Smith, the death and suffering happened because of the incompetence, callous indifference, and rigid attachment to laissez faire of the British government and its Irish chief secretary, Charles Trevelyan.2 For some the culpability was even more serious. For nationalist historians the British policy was genocidal and the outcome intended or welcomed. This view is still widely held, and not only in Ireland. In 1996 an act was passed in New York State requiring that all schools teach the Irish famine as an act of British genocide.3 The reality is more complex, more interesting in some ways, and leads to very different conclusions about events both then and today.

British to Blame?

In one sense the British were to blame for the disaster. The blame however lies not with Lord John Russell and his colleagues in 1846, but much earlier, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

After the defeat of James II in 1690 a series of “penal laws” were passed by the Irish Parliament, dominated by the Protestant minority who had supported William III. The first, in 1695, took away the right of Catholics to bear arms. Another forbade Catholics to go overseas for education and prohibited them from teaching or running schools within Ireland. The most important however was the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704). This prevented Catholics from buying land or inheriting it from Protestants, or from leasing land for more than 31 years.4 At about this time the potato was introduced as a major crop. The combination of the legislation and the new crop was ultimately disastrous.

The penal laws, together with other legislation, created a set of powerful and perverse incentives. Because Catholic tenant farmers could not own land or hold it on anything but short-term leases, with little or no security of tenure, they had no incentive to improve their land or modernize agricultural practice. All the benefit would go to the hated alien class of Protestant landlords in higher rents or more expensive leases.

The potato made it possible to support a family on a very small piece of land, with a labor-intensive crop. This combination of legal institutions and the potato had the following effects. Irish agriculture did not improve or develop, but remained a subsistence, labor-intensive activity. The land was repeatedly subdivided since there was no incentive to improve production and profitability by consolidating farms, and a family could survive on a small area because of the high yield of the nutritious potato.

By 1841, 45 percent of all holdings were of less than five acres. The lack of capital and the restraints on the Catholic majority meant that Irish commerce and manufacturing did not develop, and by 1841, 5.5 million out of a population of over 8 million were totally dependent on agriculture. The final, extra twist was the impact of the Corn Laws, the system of protection for English agriculture set up in the early nineteenth century that prohibited the import of grain until prices reached a particular level. This had the effect of preserving the flawed Irish farming system.

By the early nineteenth century Ireland was a Malthusian time bomb waiting to explode. There were several local failures in the 1820s and 1830s and the eventual disaster was almost inevitable.

Laissez Faire to Blame?

How culpable were the British ministers of the 1840s? They are charged with having given inadequate, limited relief because of their commitment to a doctrine of laissez faire. However, given the scale of the problem and the acute nature of the crisis once the harvest had failed for a second time in 1846, there was little they could do. Moreover, the root of the problem, as most contemporary observers agreed, was the nature of the Irish land system, and to support the system would only lead to further famines in the future. A policy that had the effect of keeping large numbers on the land and preventing agricultural improvement was bound to have disastrous results. Moreover, the Corn Laws prevented large-scale importation of grain into Ireland until after they were repealed in 1846 (partly because of perceptions of their impact on Ireland) and so the initial response of market forces to the acute food shortage caused by the blight was so blunted as to be minimal.

What should we learn from this terrible story? First, governments are not as powerful or effective in relieving disaster as many believe. The cry “We must do something” is very seductive, but often “doing something” will be ineffective, may even make matters worse, or will preserve the factors that produced the problem in the first place.

Second, laws that affect economic choice can have far-reaching and frequently perverse results. In particular, actions and laws that create the wrong kind of economic incentives can be truly disastrous and produce effects that are hard to reverse. The laws passed by the vengeful Protestant minority after 1690 created a set of institutional incentives in Ireland that continued to work for over a hundred years until they culminated in a disaster that was by then probably unavoidable.

Finally there is one serious lesson for contemporary policymakers. Many people today are foolish enough to advocate the deliberate support of traditional subsistence peasant farming in many parts of the world and resistance to measures such as free trade, which would lead to modern commercial farming. “Five acres and independence” may seem an inspiring slogan. Ireland in the 1840s shows that it is a recipe for eventual catastrophe on a terrible scale.


  1. David George Boyce and Alan O’Day, eds., The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy (London: Routledge, 1996). See also Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800–1850 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1983).
  2. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 (New York: Harper Row, 1962).
  3. William D. Rubinstein, Britain’s Century: A Political and Social History 1815–1905 (London: Arnold, 1998), p. 90.
  4. S. J Connolly, ed., The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 438.