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Irish Potato Famine Essay

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Updated: Nov 29th, 2019


Irish potato famine is one of the most talked about historical events across the world. The famine was characterised by mass starvation, death and emigration of Irish population (Donnelly 7). According to the Irish people, the famine was the worst in their history in terms of scale, duration and effects (Donnelly 8).

Despite all the pain and suffering that people underwent, no important lessons were learnt from the effects of the famine. Today, almost two centuries after the famine, similar famines are still being experienced in different parts of the world (Ross 7). To compare the Irish potato famine with the modern day famines, this paper analyses the causes and severity of the effects in both cases. The paper asserts that famines come as a result of negligence.

Causes of the Irish Potato Famine

Irish potato famine was experienced between 1845 and 1849 (Ross 7). According to Ross (7), the famine was caused by too much reliance on potato crop by a section of the Irish population. Ross observes that potato farming was cheap in terms of maintenance and storage (8). In addition, the crop had the ability to yield high nutrition per given surface of land (Ross 8). In this regard, potato crop was the only viable business for Irish people because they had no access to large tracts of land.

Ross also notes that most of the land used by Irish people for farming was owned and poorly managed by British landlords (9). Furthermore, the Irish population had substantially increased prior to the famine. As a result, land was subdivided into small portions that could not support meaningful Agricultural activities (Ross 10-11). The resulting over-reliance on potato crop meant that any dangers that threatened the crop also threatened the lives of the Irish people.

As widely feared, the coming of Potato blight in 1945 destroyed the crop and left more than 33% of the population exposed to starvation (Ritschel 18). According to Ritschel (19), the crop was destroyed at the time when the British government had put in place a policy to discourage citizens from relying on food aid. As a result, the British government did not make any efforts to ensure that the affected population accessed food.

Like many of the famines experienced today, Irish potato famine only affected a section of the population (Ritschel 20). Ireland was still exporting other forms of food at the time when peasant farmers and labourers were facing starvation (Ritschel 20). Large land owners who grew grains and kept livestock were still harvesting and exporting excess food (Ritschel 21).

Although the British government’s failure to intervene may be attributed to the need to discourage people from relying on food aid, it was still the responsibility of the government to shield its citizens from such vulnerabilities (Ritschel 21). The famine could have been averted if the government had put in place policies that discourage subdivision of land beyond certain sizes. In addition, the government should have put in place measures to protect tenants against possible abuse by their landlords.

After failing to put in place the required policies, it would have been appropriate for the government to move with speed and mitigate the situation by facilitating distribution of food to the affected families. Instead, the British government only watched as hunger threatened to wipe out the entire Irish population.

There is no doubt that the world did not draw important lessons from the Irish potato famine. Although modern famines may be different in a number of aspects, most of them share similarities with the Irish potato famine.

In most of the developing countries, some people live in high levels of poverty characterised by malnutrition, diseases and high rates of mortality among children and pregnant women (Ross 13). On the other hand, Ross (13) notes that the rich live affluent lives in posh estates. Ross (14) points out that in Africa, richest people come from countries with the highest rates of poverty.

Like the Irish potato famine in 1840s, the big gaps between the rich and the poor are attributed to poor policies that cannot facilitate fair distribution of resources among citizens (Ross 14). Poor people are denied access to factors of production which are thoroughly exploited and abused by the rich (Ross 15). According to Ross (17), those living in poverty have no option but to depend on humanitarian interventions which are already over-stretched.

This indicates that very few lessons were drawn from the Irish potato famine. As Ross (17) notes, it should be easier to distribute resources among citizens today than during the time of Irish potato famine due to massive improvements in communication technology. The persistent high rates of poverty should, therefore, be attributed to efforts by the rich to maintain status quo (Ross 18).

Implications of the Irish Potato Famine

Irish potato famine had a lot of implications to the Irish people and the world at large. To begin with, 11% of the population lost their lives due to direct starvation and diseases that manifested as a result of malnutrition (Murphy 32). Diseases such as scurvy, pellagra and cholera became common phenomena (Murphy 33).

Although emigration was common among the Irish people before 1845, the rate was significantly increased by the Irish potato famine. To put this in perspective, 11% of the population emigrated as a result of the famine (Murphy, 33). According to Murphy (35), Irish potato famine majorly affected native Irish language speakers. Their deaths and emigration almost eliminated Irish language.

Following the effects of the Irish potato famine, people realized the implications of subdividing land into pieces that cannot support reasonable agricultural activities (Litton 2). As a result, subdivision of land was highly discouraged. Parents were advised to only give land to one son (Litton 3).

After regaining some stability following the famine, Irish people started pushing for land reforms to protect the interests of tenants (Mitchel 23). In 1878, their agitation under the leadership of l led to formation of Irish Land League (Mitchel 23). As Mitchel points out, the league was created to ensure that Irish people were allocated land (25).

The famine also led to a long battle for independence by the Irish population. The battle culminated in the ending of British rule in Ireland in 1948, although six counties in the North remained part of Britain.


Irish potato famine inflicted undeserved pain on the Irish people. The government failed to discourage subdivision of land into small portions that cannot support a variety of Agricultural activities. There were no policies to protect peasant farmers who majorly rented land from British landlords. The situation could have been averted if the government had moved with speed to ensure that food reaches poor farmers whose only source of livelihood had been damaged.

Instead, the famine was allowed to continue; killing people and sending others to foreign lands. It almost wiped out Irish language which was majorly spoken by the poor farmers. The famine led to political activities that culminated in land reforms and subsequent birth of the Irish Republic. Despite the lessons presented by this famine, the world still experiences similar famines almost two centuries later.

Works Cited

Donnelly, James. The Irish Famine. Madison: University

Litton, Helen. “The Irish Famine.” Journal of Illustrated History. 12.4 (200): 2-9. Web.

Mitchel, John. The Last Conquest of Ireland (1861). Dublin: University College Dublin, 2005. Web.

Murphy, James. Abject Loyalty: Nationalism and Monarchy in Ireland during the Reign of Queen Victoria. Cork: Cork University, 2001. Web.

Ritschel, Dan. The Irish famine: Interpretive & Historiographical Issues. College Park: University of Maryland, 2009. Web.

Ross, David. “Ireland History.” Journal of History. 226.3 (2002): 7-18. Print.

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