Effects of Famine


As mentioned in the previous section,the "Gregory Clause" of the Poor Law Extension Act (June 1847) denied aid to anybody owning over a quarter of an acre of land. Another clause, the £4 clause, made the landlord responsible for the all landholding tax on any holding valued at under £4. This latter clause covered most landholdings in Connaught. These two clauses effectively defined smallholders as parasites. For many Landlords it was a ticket to clear their estates. While many cleared the tenants so as to avoid paying these duties, many were nearly bankrupt anyway, due to the effects of the famine. It is estimated that during the entire famine period 500,000 people were evicted.

Size of Landholdings [5kB]It was the small farmers, such as cottiers, that virtually vanished in the years after the famine. As the graph shows, farms under 5 acres accounted for 45% of all farms in 1841, but only 15% a decade later. Many of those who had been evicted emigrated or became paid labourers for other farmers. Many other farms were purchased by large-scale farmers. In general, living conditions seem to have improved, (although it should be stated that some researchers disagree). Before the famine, a third of people lived in fourth-class (the worst) housing. By 1851, it was 10%. Literacy and personal savings also increased.

At the opposite end of the social scale, the famine ultimately sounded the deathknell of the Landlord. Many landlords had seen their incomes fall during the famine and, having removed many of their tenants, many more went bankrupt due to lack of rentals. Over the next half century, most of these estates were sold, their owners encouraged by agrarian laws. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1949 was one law which encouraged farmers to buy land from Landlords. By 1914, two-thirds of Irish tenants owned their own land. Some Landlords survived by diversifying away from potato-growing tenancies and rented out land to graziers. By the end of the 19th century, large parts of Connemara had become grazing areas. As the population continued to fall, agriculture could become less and less intensive, until previously high-yield areas needed only to yield low crops. The potato yields per acre before the famine were never again achieved.

The strong farmer became the ultimate beneficiary of the famine. With both a weakened cottier class and a weakened Landlord class, they were able to acquire lands and add them to their holdings. The number of farms over 15 acres increased from 19% in 1841 to 51% of all holdings a decade later. In retrospect, this can be regarded as a non-violent Peasant revolution, spurred by the famine, and resulting in most farmers changing from being tenants to being landowners.

The very nature of the agricultural divisions in Ireland, as existed before the famine, became meaningless in the years afterwards. The pastoral (grazing) sector overtook the arable sector in this period. Between 1851 and 1911, arable land in Ireland halved from 1.8 million hectares to 0.9 million. Simultaneously, grazing increased dramatically. Many railways had been built in the famine period, as part of work schemes, and these allowed live cattle exports to Britain to increase. From 50,000 animals in the 1820s, exports reached 200,000 during the 1840s. This rose to 400,000 by the 1860s and 800,000 by the 1900s.Whelan says: "By 1908, the hen and the duck were more important in the agrarian economy than wheat and oats together." [1]

In the littoral regions of the west coast, the government set up schemes to help those living in high-population, low-quality areas. The Congested Districts Board was set up to do this. Initially they pioneered new farming methods and improved land, but later they bought up and redistributed land. They had strong powers to purchase inland estates and redistribute the land in the form of dispersed farms to those from the congested areas. Upon its dissolution in 1923, the CDB had purchased and redistributed 1000 estates into 60,000 holdings, built 6000 new houses and renovated 4000 more. Together, the famine and the CDB totally changed the structure of the western landscape. After less than two centuries of intensive human influence, large parts of Connaught returned to the wild. The farms on the hillsides were slowly reclaimed by nature, leaving only the odd ruined cottage and the tell-tale vertical lines of former lazy-beds. Many of these lazy beds can still be seen in deserted areas today; haunting signs of the once-dense human population.

Sources:[1] Whelan, Keving; Writing in "The Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape", Cork University Press, 1997.
[2] Hodge, AM; Rees, R; "Union to Partition: Ireland 1800-1921", Colourpoint Books, www.colourpoint.co.uk, 1995
[3] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.


One of the most obvious effects of the famine was emigration. Although the famine itself probably resulted in about 1 million deaths, the resultant emigration caused the population to drop by a further 3 million. About 1 million of these are estimated to have emigrated in the immediate famine period, with the depression that followed continuing the decline until the second half of the 20th century. These migrants largely ended up in North America, with some in Australia and in Britain.

Between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million people left for good. In 1845, emigration was at the pre-famine rate of 50,000 per year. In 1846 100,000 left. It peaked in 1847, when 250,000 left. Over the next 5 years it averaged 200,000 per year, before the numbers fell off. By 1855, the rate was down to 70,000 per year [6].

Overseas Emigration from Ireland 1821 to 1920 [8kB]
Note: This graph does not include those who emigrated to England, Scotland and Wales. See below.

In the period over the famine decade 1841-1850, 1.3 million people emigrated overseas [1]. Of these, 70% went to the USA, 28% to Canada and 2% to Australia. Most people paid their own fares to make the trip, although perhaps 3% had their fares paid by their Landlords [6]. The cheapest fares were to Canada, around 55 shillings, while a fare to the USA cost between 70 shillings and £5 (100 shillings)[3]. There were two ways one could travel; either in a standard class or steerage. Standard passengers had berths and could walk on the deck. Steerage passengers were crowded together below decks and often could not use the deck. For many emigrants, steerage was the most they could afford.

The picture below shows emigrants waiting on a quayside looking for passage to America. The signs are advertising services to Boston, New York and Quebec. Some were cheated out of the little money they had brought, to pay their fares, by "fast-talking rogues". In many cases, getting passage on a ship seems to have been a matter of waiting for an opportunity rather than booking tickets in advance.

Emigrants leaving Ireland [25kB] With many of the emigrants suffering from fever, coupled with the cramped and insanitary conditions on board what became known as the "coffin ships", disease was rampant. It is estimated that perhaps as many as 40% of steerage passengers died either en-route or immediately after arrival. Although they were regulated, many of the ships were privately owned, and some captains grossly overcrowded them in order to get more fares. Only the slave ships of the previous century would have had worse conditions. One witness commented on a voyage "This vessel left with 476 passengers, of whom 158 died before arrival, including the Master, mate and nine of the crew... Three days after her arrival there remained of the ship's company only the second mate, one seaman and a boy, able to do duty; all others were dead or ill in hospital [4]".

The picture below shows the conditions in the steerage area of a "coffin ship".

On board a "Coffin Ship" to America [22kB]

Another witness, Stephen de Vere, sailed to America in steerage in 1847; the year that saw the greatest emigrations of the immediate famine period. He wrote afterwards: "Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart; the fevered patients lying beside the sound, by their agonised ravings disturbing those around. The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked in consequences of the insufficiency and bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow for washing. No moral restraint is attempted; the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with all its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged because it is found profitable by the captain who traffics in grog [watered-down Rum] [2]".

The authorities in America soon realised how disease-ridden the emigrants were, so they set up quarantine centres which held the emigrants until they were deemed fit to continue. Some settled the new territories of the west which were being colonised at the time, but most stayed in the cities of the east coast where they took some of the poorest jobs. Only over a matter of years did some manage to rise up to prominence. Emigration continued to the USA for almost a century. However, after the First World War, America was much more closed and so overseas emigrants increasingly went to Canada or Australia. Many of the American emigrants brought with them a deep hatred of the government back in the UK, which they blamed for the famine and for their suffering.

Irish settlement in Britain, 1851 [5kB]Of course, Irish emigrants did not all go overseas. Although not as many as went to America, hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrated to Britain. Some went on from Britain to America, but many settled there. Because Ireland and Britain were then part of the same country, no migration figures were recorded on Irish Sea traffic. However, the 1851 census in Britain shows around 400,000 Irish-born living in Britain [5]. The map shows where these emigrants were concentrated. As you can see, most settled in the port regions around Liverpool,   Glasgow and London. Even today, people in Liverpool and Glasgow have a higher-than-average interest in Irish affairs.

At first local officials did what they could to help the mass of fever-ridden and hungry Irish who were disembarking. Soon, however, the famine fever spread to the local residents of the English and Scottish ports and the authorities began to panic. Eventualy, the government passed a law saying that any emigrants who arrived without means for support would be returned to the authorities in Ireland. Nevertheless, as the map shows, many stayed and even today a large proportion of the population of Britain has some connection to Ireland.

The emigration which continued for the next century or more had a profound effect on Ireland's demography. The next section looks at the effects of emigration on the land that was left behind.

Sources:[1] Akenson, DH; "The Irish Diaspora", PD Meany Company Inc, Ontario, 1993
[2] Collins, ME; "Ireland Three", The Educational Company, 1972
[3] Edwards, RD; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine; Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, Re-released 1997.
[4] Speed, PF; "The Potato Famine and the Irish Emigrants", 1976
[5] Hodge, AM; Rees, R; "Union to Partition: Ireland 1800-1921", Colourpoint Books, www.colourpoint.co.uk, 1995
[6] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989


The country left behind by the emigrants was transformed by the famine. The map [1] shows the drop in population islandwide between 1841 and 1851. Only three areas (the metropolitan areas of Belfast, Dublin and Cork) managed to increase their population. This was partly due to an influx of famine victims from rural areas and the fact that the famine had comparatively little effect in urban areas. Elsewhere, the coastal counties of Ulster and Munster suffered the smallest falls, with the inland, southern and western areas suffering the greatest falls.

Population change in Ireland 1841 to 1851 [14kB]

It must be pointed out that the map does not show the 'final' state of the famine years; the decline it depicts continued until after the mid 20th century. The table below shows the population of selected counties (and the two present states) since 1841. In the case of Dublin, the population is ever-increasing. In other cases, eg Waterford, the population fell and recently began to rise. In others, eg Leitrim, the decline has not yet stopped. In the Republic of Ireland, it was only after 1960 that the natural population increase exceeded emigration, and the population has been rising slowly since then. In Northern Ireland, the population decline was reversed around 1900 and has been increasing since then.

Year Mayo Louth Dublin Tipperary Waterford Leitrim Rep of
Northern Ireland
1841 389 128 373 436 196 155 6529 1649
1861 255 91 410 249 134 112 4402 1396
1881 245 78 419 200 113 90 3870 1305
1901 199 66 448 160 87 69 3222 1237
1926 173 63 506 141 79 56 2972 1257
1946 148 66 636 136 76 45 2955 *1338
1961 123 67 718 124 71 33 2818 1425
1981 115 89 1003 135 89 28 3443 1536
1991 110 91 1025 133 92 25 3526 1578
Population of selected Irish counties, in thousands. Figures for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland before 1921 are of the counties that later constituted those areas. *estimate.

The Irish language was another thing to decline in the post-famine years. It must be pointed out that the Irish language was already in decline at the start of the famine, but the famine must surely have accelerated the process. In the early part of the 1800s, around 40% of the population spoke Irish, compared to around 30% in 1845, the eve of the famine [2]. Those who died or emigrated in the famine were disproportionately Irish speakers, mainly because the famine hit rural areas hardest and that is where Irish had survived the longest. In 1861, the number of Irish speakers had fallen to 24%. This decline continued for some years, reaching a low of 18% (figure for Republic of Ireland only) around 1926, when it was revived by the new Irish government. Ó Gráda comments "Neither O'Connellite nor Fenian brands of nationalism did anything to foster Irish, and by the time a more advanced nationalist ideology adopted the old tongue it was too late [2]".

Thanks to a concerted educational policy in the Republic of Ireland, Irish language proficiency is increasing again. From the low of 18%, the number of Irish speakers in the Republic stood at 33% in 1991 [3]. In Northern Ireland, where Irish has not been compulsory in schools, proficiency is less. In 1991, 88% of the population of Northern Ireland claimed to have no knowledge of Irish. Note, however, that these census figures refer to any knowledge of Irish. The number of fluent Irish speakers in the Ireland today probably stands at around 3%. And it has been reported that in Northern Ireland today, more people speak fluent Chinese than speak fluent Irish!

The famine seems to have helped the church expand in Ireland. Before the famine, there is evidence that a large proportion of the population did not take any interest in the church. In fact, in rural Ireland, attendance figures show that only around half the population attended Mass regularly [2]. After the famine, the population became much more dedicated to the Catholic church, and this remains the case today (although there has been a limited fall-off in recent years). There was a boom in church-building after the famine, but it is not clear whether the rise in devotion to Catholicism was due to this increased church building or vice-versa.

Before the famine, it was fairly common for farmers to sub-divide their lands between their sons. The birth rate was reasonably high (around 33/1000 according to the 1841 census), so there were often several sons to divide the farm between. In some areas, this policy was carried to rediculous extremes, with thousands of tiny fields often dividing an area of land. Many historians believed at the time, and still do today, that these subdivisions exacerbated the famine by leaving families very dependant on very small fields. In the post famine period farmers had learned the lesson, and this system of "impartible land inheritance" largely disappeared. In general, parents passed the farm, intact, to a single son while giving educational or financial assistance to siblings, sometimes to settle elsewhere or to emigrate. It also increased the occurrence of "arranged" marriages with dowries, and these marriages occurred later than they would have before the famine. While this did reduce the number of extended families living together, it did increase the opportunities available to children.

In conclusion, therefore, the famine marked a watershed in Irish history, not only for politics but for culture, religion, demographics, agriculture and industry. It is a testament to these effects that the famine is still studied in depth over 150 years after it took place.

Sources: [1] Edwards, RD; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine; Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, Re-released 1997.
[2] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[3] Central Statistics Office, Skehard Rd., Cork, Republic of Ireland. www.cso.ie

← Introduction