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The Irish Famine: 1845-9

The 'Great Hunger' was one of many famines in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century, but the size of the disaster dwarfed those that preceded it. A contemporary comment was that "God sent the blight, but the English made the famine": and to some extent this was true because the governments of both Peel and Lord John Russell did little to help the Irish population.

A Connemara cottage

Much of the rural population in Ireland lived in abject poverty. In England and Wales in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act had been passed in an attempt to reduce the poor rates. The legislation also was supposed to prevent idleness among the working classes: this was at a time when unemployment was rising and the number of jobs available was falling rapidly. In 1838, despite strong advice to the contrary, Lord Melbourne's government decided to implement the English Poor Law as the Irish Poor Law Act. It was - to say the least - inappropriate for Ireland.

Since the end of the Eighteenth Century a large proportion of the rural population of Ireland had come to depend on the potato as its staple food because this crop produced more food per acre than wheat and could also be sold as a source of income. Because of the widespread practise of conacre, the peasants needed to produce the biggest crop possible.

The second half of the eighteenth century was the high point for the potato, with several varieties under cultivation. The one of greatest merit was the 'Irish apple', which was valued for its keeping quality and its highly flavoured mealy flesh. By the early nineteenth century, to additional varieties, the 'sup' and the 'lumper' were gaining. A clear hierarchy in quality and preference held, with the Irish apple considered the most superior, followed by the cup and the lumper. By virtue of its high quality, the Irish apple commanded the best market price; and as the population continued to grow to record levels (from 6.8 million in 1821 to 7.8 million in 1831) the poor and labouring classes concentrated increasingly on the cultivation of the cup and the lumper. (Regina Sexton, in The Encyclopaedia of Ireland, ed. Brian Lalor, Gill & Macmillan, 2003, p. 889)

Unfortunately, this particular strain was highly susceptive to the fungus, Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as blight, which had spread from North America to Europe.

In 1816, when Peel was Chief Secretary for Ireland, the first major failure of the potato crop had occurred. In 1817 the situation deteriorated into a near-famine which was accompanied by an outbreak of typhus. Between 1822 and 1826 there were further food shortages in Ireland. When the 'blight' - which already was affecting large parts of Europe - appeared in Britain in 1846, Ireland was more likely to suffer than the rest of the country. The Irish population had exploded in the first half of the nineteenth century, reaching about 8.5 million by 1845 without any accompanying economic improvement. Furthermore, the fungus which caused blight was unknown to the scientists of the day so no remedy was possible.

The blight destroyed the potato crop of 1845 and by the early autumn of that year it was clear that famine was imminent in Ireland: one of the places worst hit was Skibbereen in Co. Cork. Peel's government was slow to react. Peel said that the Irish had a habit of exaggerating reports of distress. Since he had been Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1812 and 1818, his experience might have told him that there might have had some truth in his comment, but in 1816 he had produced a contingency plan for the government in case economic disaster ever struck Ireland. Consequently his lack of action is difficult to explain. In 1843 the Devonshire Committee had been set up to inquire into the law and practice of land occupation in Ireland and its Report was published in February 1845. In 1847 a digest of its conclusions and evidence were published.

List of exports from Irish ports (July 1846). Click on the image for a larger view.

During the winter of 1845-1846 Peel's government spent £100,000 on American maize which was sold to the destitute. The Irish called the maize 'Peel's brimstone' - and the nickname was only partly because of the yellow colour of the maize. Eventually the government also initiated relief schemes such as canal-building and road building to provide employment. The workers were paid at the end of the week and often men had died of starvation before their wages arrived. Even worse, many of the schemes were of little use: men filled in valleys and flattened hills just so the government could justify the cash payments. The Irish crisis was used as an excuse by Peel in order for him to the repeal the Corn Laws in 1846, but their removal brought Ireland little benefit. The major problem was not that there was no food in Ireland - there was plenty of wheat, meat and dairy produce, much of which was being exported to England - but that the Irish peasants had no money with which to buy the food. The repeal of the Corn Laws had no effect on Ireland because however cheap grain was, without money the Irish peasants could not buy it. No government at Westminster was prepared to give food to the starving, on the grounds that the Irish already were lazy and free food would merely encourage this trait.

Peel was replaced in office in June 1846 by Lord John Russell and a Whig administration dedicated to a laissez-faire policy. Russell's administration believed that Irish wealth should relieve Irish poverty, and rejected the policy of direct state intervention or aid. However, neither Irish landlords nor the Poor Law unions could deal with the burden of a huge starving population. Despite the harsh conditions in the workhouses, people in Ireland fought to get into them - unlike in England, where people dreaded entering 'the House'.

In January 1847 Russell's administration modified its non-interventionist policy and made money available on loan for relief, and soup kitchens were established. The potato crop did not fail in 1847, but the yield was low. Then, as hundreds of thousands of starving people poured into the towns and cities for relief, epidemics of typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery broke out, and claimed more lives than starvation itself.

In September 1847 Russell's government ended what little relief it had made available and demanded that the Poor Law rate be collected before any further money be made available by the Treasury. The collection of these rates in a period of considerable hardship was accompanied by widespread unrest and violence. Some 16,000 extra troops were sent to Ireland and troubled parts of the country were put under martial law. The potato crop failed once more in 1848, and this was accompanied by Asiatic cholera

The 1841 census recorded an Irish population of 8.2 million. By 1851 this figure had been reduced to 6.5 million. These statistics give some indication of the scale of the disaster but since many of those affected by the famine lived in remote and inaccessible places, it is more than possible that far more people died that has ever been thought. It has been estimated that at least one million people died from starvation and its attendant diseases, with the remainder seeking emigration to Britain and North America.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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