Irish Potato Famine: An Era of Starvation & Disease

The Irish Potato Famine was a disaster of unprecedented proportions. From 1845 to 1849, a minimum of one million people died.

Nov 6, 2022By Thea Baldrick, BS Biology w/ Molecular & Cellular Biology Concentration, BA Comparative Literature

irish potato famine starvation disease


When the potato crops failed in 1845, the people were left at the mercy of the British government, a mercy which was mismanaged and far from adequate. Halfway through the famine, government aid stopped completely, and the Irish people were left to “natural consequences,” justified by laissez-faire economics. The extent of human suffering during the Irish Potato Famine was incalculable.


Ireland Before the Irish Potato Famine

population decrease irish potato famine 1841 1851 ireland
1841-51 Population Decrease Per 100 Acres, via


The Lumper potato arrived in Ireland in the 18th century. Initially unpopular, it eventually became a staple, providing a cheap, renewable source for most of the nutritional needs of the human body. Seaweed fertilized the fields and seed potatoes were kept from the previous year’s crop. On the potato, between the years 1750-1845, from 2.5 million people, the Irish population increased by 225%. By 1845, there were over eight million people on the island and about half of those eight million depended on the potato for survival.


Before the Irish Potato Famine, Ireland produced wheat, oats, rye, eggs, salmon, corn, cattle, and sent men to fight in Britain’s military. With the tragic irony of hindsight, Ireland was labeled the breadbasket of Great Britain; a breadbasket full of variety but which was nonetheless fueled by the potato since it nourished the laborers on which the production depended; therefore, keeping the prices on the produce low.


The soil was usually owned by a Protestant landlord who lived in England. Middlemen, many of whom had notorious reputations, managed the land and the Irish Catholic tenants. Tenancy could and was terminated at will of the landlord or his middleman. During the famine, this system gave birth to runaway humanitarian crisis conditions.

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1845 Harvest: Partial Failure of the Potato Crop

Phytophthora infestans late blight effects potato
Phytophthora infestans, via Wikipedia


Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete which has many characteristics of a fungus even though it is more closely related genetically to brown algae. It spreads three ways: oospores, which are long-lived and can over winter; sporangia, which are disseminated by water or wind; and zoospores, which travel on water films.


When conditions are ideal, the entire life cycle happens in five days. In late summer of 1845, the conditions were perfect – rain, fog, and warm but not hot temperatures.


In 1845, one-third to one-half of the potato crop failed. Some parts of the country were spared but in the many areas that were not, the potatoes turned black and slimy, the plants withered in vast swathes over the landscape, and the people who were subsisting on the handful of old potatoes from the year before or “meal” that needed to be paid for to fill the gap were the first victims of the famine.


The English government, in a response headed by Sir Charles Trevelyan, Secretary of Treasury, was to order a large quantity of flint corn from America to sell to the people. Sir Charles also set up work projects and eventually consented to soup kitchens, which were funded by the taxes on the landlords, many of whom went bankrupt and would resort to mass evictions to avoid it. Trevelyan’s correspondence shows that he was largely concerned that the Irish poor would become a continuous drain on the English purse.


man sifting through soil irish famine museum
Man Sifting Through Soil by Margaret Lyster Chamberlain, via Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Hamden


In the meantime, skeletons resembling men, women and children overwhelmed the workhouses in Ireland, and homes were discovered with corpses and living people in the final stages of starvation lying side by side.


Many farms also grew oats and wheat or raised livestock, but invariably, these products were sold for money to pay rent. The products were then shipped out of the country, to the increasing protests of the starving people.


When the Irish Potato Famine became known, help poured in from such diverse arenas as the Sultan of Turkey, the Irish-Americans and Choctaw Native Americans in the United States and charitable organizations throughout England. The Quakers provided a vast quantity of relief, disproportionate to their numbers. They donated food, money, seeds, energy and time, sometimes even their lives as they, too, became victims of “famine fever.”


1846: Total Despair


The failure of the potato crops each year could not be predicted. In fact, the fields were often cruelly deceptive, appearing healthy and abundant until just before the harvest. It wasn’t until August, when the plants wilted and the potatoes turned black and slimy, that the people knew famine loomed.


irish famine memorial maquette glenna goodacre
Irish Famine Memorial Maquette by Glenna Goodacre, via Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Hamden


In 1846, the potato crop failure was almost total and included all of Ireland. Not only the potato but many other staple crops such as rye, oats, barley, and wheat produced poorly. The British government’s response, in the hands of Trevelyan, was to shut down most of the public works.


Trevelyan remained adamant that trade continue in the hands of private industry that were disinclined to charity. Food grew more expensive. English administrators in Ireland, clergymen, even the English newspaper, protested but to no avail. By September, letters to England attested to the general panic and horrific conditions of the people. Insects, rodents, leaves, and grass were eaten in their desperation. In some places, the problem was deeper than poverty. People had money, but there was no food on which to spend it.


Fishing brought supplemental income to some coastal families but did not relieve the crisis of the Irish Potato Famine. Despite the fish-laden shores, the waters around the island were capricious and the Irish boats were small and unable to resist inclement seas. When the weather held, fish supplemented food and income, but when unable to fish and with no potatoes to fill the gaps, families eventually resorted to selling their boats and tackle for food.


The landlords, in turn, were taxed by the English government at a rate for which they paid a certain sum for every tenant who had less than ¼ of an acre. At first, this was supplemented with funds from England. The money was then used to supply poor houses, to ship in Indian corn, or fund work projects which employed hundreds of thousands of people desperate for jobs.


percentage receiving relief soup 1847 infographic
1847 Percentage Receiving Relief Via Soup Kitchens, via


It was a system that worked badly and was completely overwhelmed by the need. It also gave impetus to cruelty as some landlords evicted their tenants in order to avoid the tax, tearing down their homes in front of them. With military assistance, whole families were driven off to fend for themselves. Two hundred-fifty thousand people were evicted in the famine years.


On top of hunger and homelessness, the weather turned vicious. The winter of 1846-1847 was uncharacteristically severe. Ireland, usually warmed by the Gulf Stream, was struck by a polar wind from the east. Snow fell in Ireland in November, and people who would have normally spent the winter within their huts warmed by a turf fire and a stash of potatoes showed up at the public works, freezing and in rags.


The spring of 1847 brought typhus. At the time, the source was unknown. It was not until 1910 that it was discovered that human lice harboring Rickettsiae bacteria was the culprit. Generally called “famine fever,” it infected everyone within jumping distance of the louse, or within breathing distance of its airborne powdered feces. The bacteria interferes with blood circulation so that the victim turns dark with congested blood, a rash develops, followed by vomiting, delirium, and always a burning fever. It is unknown how many died from fever, but typhus has a 60% mortality rate, and it is possible that ten times the number who died from starvation, died from the accompanying fever.



aboard coffin ship illustraton
Inside a Coffin Ship, via


The fungus, Phytophthora infestans that snatched the food from the people on the brink of the harvest in 1845 originally came from the highlands of Mexico. The potato came from the Andes in South America. In return for these two imports to Europe, a minimum of one million people emigrated back to the western hemisphere.


From 1845 to 1849, the population of the native Irish people decreased by two million, as a conservative estimate; one million died from starvation or disease, one million emigrated due to the difficulties of ensuring an accurate census. Sometimes the landlords would pay the cost of their passage in order to avoid being taxed for their tenants. England, Australia, and the United States all received Irish immigrants, but the cheapest route was to Canada.


Shipboard conditions to Canada were hardly suitable for large numbers of human beings. They were dark and airless, and typhus spread quickly. Hygienic conditions were impossible. In 1846, many people began the journeys unfed, poorly clothed, and died on the voyage, which lasted from forty days to three months.


Grosse Ile, which housed Canada’s quarantine hospital for immigration, was completely unprepared for the mass of ill, starving, half-clothed people arriving to their shore. The only hospital at Grosse Ile had 150 beds that were filled when the first ship arrived in March 1956. Of the 241 passengers, 202 needed beds. By the end of May, forty ships had arrived with 12,500 people. There was nowhere to put them, so the caregivers were forced to keep the people on makeshift sheds or on the ships they arrived in. At a minimum, fifty deaths per day was usual until ice forced the ships to stop sailing.


The 1847 Harvest

emigration 1800s galway
Emigration in the 1800s, via


In the spring, when seed potatoes would normally have been sown, there were none as they had all been eaten. The English government considered a bill that would have provided a small amount to the landlords to be distributed among their tenants, but the scheme was withdrawn when seed merchants protested government interference with their profits; thus, the fields lay fallow, and the harvest, despite the plant pathogen making no appearance, was poor.


By the summer, more flint corn from overseas had arrived in plenty, so the price of food finally fell. Since the work projects had been withdrawn, laborers had no wages to buy food, but the newly set up soup kitchens could purchase the corn and distribute it as soup among the people who arrived at the cauldrons, bowls in hand.


Since the potato blight had not reappeared, Trevelyan considered the relief effort over, and went on holiday to France. The few farms that had managed to plant potatoes had a healthy crop, the grain harvest flourished, and another small percentage of poor farmers had turnip seed provided by the Quakers. Nevertheless, most of Ireland faced another year without potatoes, and people continued to die of starvation and disease or flee the country. Despite fields needing to be harvested and men needing work, the general poverty was so ubiquitous that harvests went ungathered.


The new English government, a Whig administration, had decided that the landowners would have to shoulder the whole financial responsibility for their own poor and were taxed accordingly. The reality was that the landlords themselves were often bankrupt.


The 1848 Harvest: The Potato Blight Strikes Again

bridget o donel children 1849 irish potato famine
Bridget O’Donel and Her Children attributed to James Mahoney, featured in The London Illustrated News on December 22, 1849, via Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Hamden


Since the harvest had seen no sign of the potato blight in 1847, Ireland as a whole thought it was over. The families still in possession of fields sold everything they could in order to buy seed potatoes. The enthusiasm for the return to their old lives resulted in foolhardy choices. Few other crops were sown. The potato was coming back.


They were wrong. July 1848 was wet. The blight swept through and the last resources of the remaining people were gone. The landlords themselves were desperate. Many “good” landlords felt that they had no option but to evict their tenants because they couldn’t continue to pay rates for which they were receiving no income. Some landowners fell into insolvency, but under the law they were unable to sell their land while it carried a debt.


late potato blight phytophthora infestans
Late Potato Blight, via University of Maryland Extension


The horrific conditions continued and, due to a cumulative effect, was even worse than the preceding years. Losing the gamble on a healthy potato crop had been an utterly demoralizing blow.


Emigration continued but by a different class of people. Canada had changed its emigration laws to avoid the catastrophe it had experienced; the poorest now were forced to stay in Ireland. However, middle-class Irish landowners and townspeople had had enough and were leaving. Villages and towns emptied.


The Irish Potato Famine and arguably the English government stripped Ireland of its people. The country never regained its pre-famine population. Visitors to Ireland before the famine remarked on the singing they heard everywhere they went. Beginning in 1845, the country grew silent. By 1849, the silence would have been deafening.


Further Reading:


Donnelly, J. S. (2013). The Great Irish Potato Famine. The History Press.

Smith, W. C. (1962). The great hunger. H. Hamilton.

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By Thea BaldrickBS Biology w/ Molecular & Cellular Biology Concentration, BA Comparative LiteratureD. Thea is a contributing science writer with a B.S. Biology with a Concentration in Molecular and Cellular Biology and a B.A. Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati. For fun, she spends time inhabiting the world of dinosaurs with family members. She prefers to be the Brachiosaurus.