The Great Famine of Ireland

“The Great Famine of Ireland” is the name used for the period of mass starvation, disease, and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is also known as the Irish Potato Famine, because so many in Ireland relied on the potato for much of their nutrition, and during that time period potato blight ravaged the potato crops.

The BBC reported:

Altogether, about a million people in Ireland are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55). Comparison with other modern and contemporary famines establishes beyond any doubt that the Irish famine of the late 1840s, which killed nearly one-eighth of the entire population, was proportionally much more destructive of human life than the vast majority of famines in modern times.”

Ironically, during this same time period, Ireland had sufficient food to alleviate the starvation, but the food was controlled by the Anglo landlords, all earmarked for export, and protected by troops send from England. As Timothy Egan, author of Immortal Irishman, told NPR:

There was plenty of food on the island while a million people died. And was grain, there was beef, corn wheat, oats, barley – food from Irish land and Irish labor, but it didn’t go into Irish mouths.”

Importantly, he added:

…there are all these documents now that have come out and shown there was a British policy called extermination. They thought the Irish had breeded too fast, and this was nature’s way – in some cases they said God’s way – of culling the Irish.”

Sir Charles Trevelyan was the inflexible nobleman chiefly responsible for administering Irish relief policy throughout the famine years.

He devised “a relief policy” which imposed stringent tests on destitution and relied heavily the requirement of hard labor in exchange for an inadequate amount of food. Nonetheless, many signed up for it because they had no choice but to starve.

The resulting disease, deaths, and emigration all seemed fitting to Trevelyan.

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan

Trevelyan wrote:

The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.”

In an 1848 article in the Edinburgh Review – at the height of the famine – Trevelyan applauded the fact that starvation encouraged migration and supported the view that God was punishing the Irish Catholics for their superstitious ways and adherence to ‘popery’.

The BBC reports that in Trevelyan’s 1848 book The Irish Crisis,:

Trevelyan described the famine as ‘a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence’, one which laid bare ‘the deep and inveterate root of social evil’. The famine, he declared, was ‘the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected… God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…’ This mentality of Trevelyan’s was influential in persuading the government to do nothing to restrain mass evictions – and this had the obvious effect of radically restructuring Irish rural society along the lines of the capitalistic model ardently preferred by British policy-makers.”

Trevelyan was actually knighted by Queen Victoria for his “handling” of the famine.


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