The Irish Potato Famine

Mrs. Johnson is a free-lance writer in Memphis, Tennessee, currently working toward a master’s degree in English.

Every year from 1845 to 1851 a deadly blight attacked Ireland’s potato crop, causing severe famine. About a million people died and at least a million others emigrated. Historians offer various explanations of how such massive suffering could have occurred in a province of Great Britain, then the richest nation in the world. Although their explanations vary, most historians insist that if the British government had abandoned free market principles, few, if any, Irish people would have died. Yet evidence shows that free market principles did not increase the suffering of the Irish, but, rather, alleviated much of the misery that the famine caused.

It is not my purpose to determine the reasons for Ireland’s distress. I do intend to show, how ever, that free market economics did not murder a million Irish people, despite what many historians say. I will present a brief history of the tenant-farmers, the people who suffered most during the famine. Next, I will demonstrate that the British government did not consistently uphold free market principles. I will then discuss how free enterprise reduced the effects of the famine. First, however, I will show how a few historians describe the impact of free market principles on Ireland’s misery.

Some historians who favor government intervention suggest that the British leaders were caught up in forces beyond their control. For example, Kevin Nowlan writes: “The history of the great famine does not sustain a charge of deliberate cruelty and malice against those governing, but it is a chastening story of how fashions in social and economic ideas and human limitations can combine to increase the sufferings of people.” (p. 133). Likewise, Thomas O’Neill says of Parliament, “The fetish of free trade had tied their hands” (p. 257). Yet those who would make such statements blame the system of free market economics without acknowledging that Parliament did not strictly follow that system and without mentioning that the Irish people bore some responsibility for their own situation.

Lawrence McCaffrey is one historian who explicitly condemns Parliament for supporting free enterprise. Whereas Nowlan refrains from charging the British leaders with deliberate cruelty, McCaffrey compares them to the Nazis. Likening the famine-stricken Irish to the Jews in Nazi Germany, McCaffrey says that both groups suffered “ideological murder.” He continues,


Certainly the Nazis were more ruthless, heartless, and consistent in the application of racist principles than Trevelyan and his colleagues were in enforcing the dogmas of political economy. But an Irishman dying of hunger or crowded into the bowels of an emigrant ship in the 1840′s would have had scant consolation in knowing that his predic ament was not the result of race hate, but the price he must pay to maintain a free enterprise economy. (p. 66)

McCaffrey admits that Ireland’s situation was complex, and he censures those Irishmen who see the prejudice of Englishmen as the cause of all Ireland’s misery. Yet he oversimplifies the situation by placing all the blame on Parliament for adhering to free market principles.

Background: Irish Tenant-Farmers

The situation of Irish tenant-farmers explains how the failure of a single crop could devastate an entire country. Since most of the farmland in Ireland belonged to a few wealthy English and Irish landowners, the majority of the Irish agricultural population did not own land and had to trade their labor for the use of a dwelling and a garden plot. Although some of these tenant-farmers paid rent by raising and selling a pig, many worked in their landlords’ fields of oats, rye, or other grains. For their own families they planted only potatoes, which cost little and yielded more food per acre than most other crops (Woodham-Smith, p. 35). Also, potatoes thrived on this rented land: ground unfit for the landowners’ grain or animals (Green, p. 103).

For most rural laborers, then, their potato crop was the only source of food. Tenant-farmers lived in constant danger of famine, not only because they depended upon a single article of food, but also because the potato “in its very nature [is] peculiarly liable to fail in certain seasons” (O’Brien, p. 223). The crisis that began in 1845 was not Ireland’s first potato famine. An 1851 census reported that the potato crop had failed in some degree at least 24 times since 1739 (Woodham-Smith, p. 38). Every summer more than two million people went hungry until the new crop came in (Woodham-Smith, p. 165). So the failure of the potato crop yearly from 1845 to 1851 greatly increased the misery of a country already burdened by extreme poverty.

Although historians emphasize Parliament’s free market stance, the best way to describe the British economy of 1845 is that it was a fusion of free market principles and certain govern mental interventionist measures. Parliament’s critics assert that free market policies increased the ill effects of the famine. Yet evidence shows that government intervention in the form of the corn laws, the navigation laws, and the poor laws intensified Ireland’s difficulties.

When the potato crop failed, Parliament adhered to free market principles by refusing to close Ireland’s ports. Critics insist that Parliament should have prevented the export of other crops, arguing that the Irish people should have benefited from Irish produce. However, not only did those crops rightfully belong to the landowners, they were also needed to feed English laborers (O’Neill, p. 257). If Parliament had closed Irish ports, famine, rather than being prevented, would have been transferred from Ireland to England. The suggestion that the government buy Ireland’s produce and distribute it among the Irish would have solved the problem of paying the landlords (Woodham-Smith, p. 75), but not the problem of feeding the English laborers.

Yet the corn laws and the navigation laws show that Parliament was less dedicated to the free market than many historians would indicate (O’Brien, pp. 265-6). The corn laws, passed to protect British agriculture, kept the price of grain artificially high by imposing tariffs on imported grain. The navigation laws protected the British shipping industry. Under these laws, only British ships could carry goods into British ports.

Such protectionist measures worked against both the English laborer and the Irish tenant- farmer. The corn laws increased the price that the English laborers paid for food. And while thousands of Irishmen were dying of starvation, food that private societies in the United States had sent to distribute to the Irish could not go directly to Ireland. It first had to be transferred to a British ship, increasing the cost of aiding the needy and lengthening the time that starving people had to do without food (O’Brien, p. 266). The combination of the corn laws and the navigation laws made it unprofitable for foreign markets to sell grain to English or Irish markets.

Only after the famine had continued for several months did Parliament finally repeal these protectionist measures (O’Brien, p. 249). With the repeal of the corn laws in January 1846, American grain was bought to sell in Ireland, thus providing food that the Irish desperately needed. A year later the repeal of the navigation laws allowed donations from foreign countries to enter Ireland freely.

The poor laws provide additional examples of government intervention in Ireland. These attempts to legislate charity were met with disapproval on all sides. Landlords opposed the bills because property taxes funded the provisions for the poor (O’Brien, p. 187). The poor despised the workhouses, which were the major provision for aid under the laws, because of the hideous conditions at those institutions. In many of the workhouses prison-like discipline was enforced; in others, overcrowding and a lack of discipline allowed immorality to go unchecked. Some parents decided that it was better for their families to remain hungry than to live among such immoral conditions (O’Neill, p. 250).

Therefore, the belief that Ireland suffered because of Parliament’s dedication to free market economy is wrong on two counts: First, in practice, Parliament was not completely dedicated to the free market, as evidenced by its willingness to retain protectionist laws and to legislate charity. Second, when the market was finally made freer by the repeal of two protectionist measures, both the Irish and the English benefited.

Direct Government Aid

The huge amount of government aid given to Ireland during the famine is further evidence that Parliament did not strictly follow free enterprise principles. In fact, Britain spent £8,000,000 on famine relief in the first year alone (McCaffrey, p. 65). Initially, Parliament provided the Irish tenant-farmers with public employment so that they could earn money to buy grain, which Parliament imported from the United States.

Parliament’s public works system was, for the most part, an exercise in futility. Since the government had stipulated that the works should not benefit any individual, most of the work involved building roads, many of which led “from nowhere to nowhere” (Woodham-Smith, p. 166). Some of the road work was so badly managed that it bordered on vandalism: “The roads of Ireland were ruined. . . . Distances which were formerly driven in about an hour and a half . . . now took four hours, and accidents were frequent” (Woodham-Smith, p. 166). Because wage payment was often delayed for several weeks, some workers died of starvation. Thomas O’Neill relates that “Denis McKennedy of Caharagh, co. Cork, who died on October 24 on the roadside, was employed by the board of works up to the day of his death and was owed wages for a fortnight” (p. 229). Another serious problem with the public works was that many people were on the payroll who did not really need help (O’Brien, p. 253).

Before the spring of 1847, it became evident that the public works system had not fulfilled its purpose (O’Neill, p. 234). And the worst of the famine had not yet occurred. Whereas blight had ruined only a portion of the 1845 potato crop, it destroyed the entire 1846 crop. By July 1847, so many Irishmen had died of starvation and related diseases that the British government began its second phase of famine relief: distributing free food. These direct handouts also defied the free market policies that historians say Parliament upheld religiously.

The Free Market in Ireland

A study of the government food distribution in July 1847 provides evidence that free enterprise aided Ireland. Although the northern counties depended upon agriculture almost as much as the western counties (Green, p. 89), less than 20 per cent of the population in the north took advantage of the government’s offer of free food, whereas in some western counties as much as 100 per cent of the population received free food (O’Neill, p. 242). Ireland’s only thriving manufacture, the linen industry, made the difference for the north (McDowell, p. 14). Because of this industry, many people in the north had a secure source of income and, thus, could buy food instead of relying on government aid. The linen factories, which in 1850 employed almost 20,000 people (O’Brien, p. 327), did not provide the only opportunities for spinners and weavers. Northern tenant-farmers could earn money by producing linen at home (McDowell, p. 15).

The “balanced economy” that the linen industry provided the north gave those counties many benefits that the rest of the country did not enjoy (Green, p. 122). In most of the other counties virtually all transactions took place by barter; money was practically unknown. Since more capital was available in the north, most vendors, including food merchants, were also there. Even where food was available in other parts of the country, the lack of jobs and of capital prevented the destitute tenant-farmers from buying that food.

In most accounts of the famine years, historians say little about private relief efforts, preferring to discuss government aid to Ireland. Yet private charity, which is a vital part of a free market economy, kept vast numbers of Irishmen alive (O’Brien, pp. 247-8). Such charity was of two basic forms: contributing food or money, or providing work.

Several organizations world-wide sent donations almost immediately upon hearing of the famine. The first contributions came from Irishmen who served in the Queen’s troops in India (Woodham-Smith, p. 156). Many donations of food and money came from Irish-American organizations. But the Society of Friends (the Quakers) offered the most consistent aid in the early famine years. In November of 1846 they formed the Central Relief Committee in Dublin, which worked closely with a similar committee in London (Woodham-Smith, p. 157). After surveying the situation in Ireland, they decided that the most immediate need was to set up food distribution sites throughout the country. Their soup kitchens were so successful that Parliament used them as a model for its food distribution program (O’Neill, pp. 235-6).

Once the immediate crisis ended in a particular area, the Quakers attempted to stimulate the local economy by helping the Irishmen to earn a living. In 1847, at the height of the famine, they distributed turnip seeds to farmers who could not afford seed. The resulting crop was so bountiful that the Central Relief Committee decided to continue the program (Woodham-Smith, p. 286). They later bought and operated a farm in Galway county to develop and to demonstrate improved agricultural methods (O’Neill, p. 258).

The Quakers also aided the Irish fisheries. Since bad weather often prevented Irish fishermen from going out to sea, they normally relied upon potatoes for food when they could not fish. When the potato crop failed, many fishermen pawned their boats and tackle in order to buy food. The Quakers, through local committees, lent the fishermen enough money to redeem their equipment (Woodham-Smith, p. 292). In the community of Arklow alone, more than 160 families survived because of these loans (Woodham-Smith, p. 292). The Quakers also set up new fishing stations in the western counties of Galway and Mayo and in the southern county of Cork (Woodham-Smith, pp. 292-3).

A private relief effort that historians generally overlook is the establishment of lace-making as a cottage industry. The lace-making centers were concentrated mainly in the northern and extreme southern regions of the country. Convents ran most of the lace-making schools in the south, while wealthy ladies sponsored the schools that opened in northern Ireland. The lace industry began mainly because many of the poor women strongly desired to work (Wardle, p. 187). Not wishing to rely on government aid, they asked only for a way to provide for their families. Those who sponsored the lace schools offered exactly that: they trained and equipped the destitute women to make lace, and in many cases they volunteered to find English buyers for the finished product.

Many women who opened lace schools had to perform the tedious job of unravelling an existing piece of lace in order to find out how it was made. They would teach the method to a few women, who would then teach others (Wardle, p. 178). They soon learned to concentrate on making the most time-efficient kinds of lace. And because crochet work can be done faster than most traditional lace methods, some of the schools developed crochet patterns that imitated lace (Feldman, p. 90).

The cottage industry that grew out of these efforts did more than provide money to buy food; it reunited many families (Wardle, p. 197). According to Mrs. Susannah Meredith, a proprietor of one of the lace schools, several children who had gone to lace-making schools when their parents had been forced to enter a workhouse could soon earn enough money to feed their families. Once the family was back together, other members learned the trade and increased the family income. The ability to earn a productive living inspired the workers with hope and maintained the dignity that handouts can sometimes destroy.


Neither a relatively free market nor government relief programs kept many Irish people from suffering greatly. Ireland’s problems had been years in the making; they could not be solved overnight. Yet the urgent needs created by the potato crop failure required overnight solutions. To blame free enterprise for not providing those solutions is to ignore the complexity of Ireland’s situation.

Free enterprise, while it did not save every Irishman, did not increase the suffering that occurred in Ireland in the mid-1800s. In fact, Parliament’s move toward freeing the economy by repealing the corn laws and the navigation laws alleviated much of the suffering in Ireland. And in northern Ireland, where the linen industry had raised the standard of living, the people suffered less and relied less on government aid. Furthermore, private charity saved the lives of countless Irish tenant-farmers, worked to improve local economies, and started a cottage industry that provided employment for many Irish women through the rest of the century.

Lawrence McCaffrey, after maligning free enterprise, grudgingly admits that it allowed the Irish immigrants in the United States to prosper: “They lived in a country with social mobility and economic opportunity. American capitalism might be vicious, but it provided . . . possibilities for wealth” (p. 81). Such a backhanded compliment obscures the fact that free enterprise in both Great Britain and the United States helped the Irish people. Millions of Irishmen before, during, and after the great famine were willing to risk the difficult passage to the United States so they could take advantage of the opportunities that “vicious American capitalism” offered.

We need to be aware of this “vicious” tendency to interpret history so that free enterprise is seen as a villain. Those who oppose the free enterprise of the past are those who would insist that government intervention is the only way to eliminate the poverty that exists today. But government aid, in today’s America as in yesterday’s Ireland, is at best ineffective, and at worst damaging to those who are supposed to benefit by it. The American welfare system has failed just as Parliament’s attempts to aid Ireland failed.
Feldman, Annette. Handmade Lace and Patterns. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Green, E. R. R. “Agriculture.” In The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52. pp. 89- 128- Edited by Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams. New York: New York University Press, 1957.

McCaffrey, Lawrence, The Irish Question 1800-1922. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968.

McDowell, R. B. “Ireland on the Eve of the Famine.” In The

Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845.52, pp. 3-86. Nowlan, Kevin. “The Political Background.” In The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52, pp. 131-206.

O’Brien, George. The Economic History of Ireland from the Union to the Famine, Clifton, New Jersey: Augustus M. Kelley, 1972 [1921].

O’Neill, Thomas, “The Organisation and Administration of Relief, 1845-52,” In The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52, pp. 209-259. Wardle, Patricia, Victorian Lace, London: Herbert Jenkins,’ 1968, Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9, London: Hamish Hamilton, ]962.