How and in what Ways Did the Great Famine of 1845-1848 Change Ireland?

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The Great Irish Famine, dated between 1845 and 1850, was one of the last terrible famines in western Europe and it changed Ireland in many ways. At the end of the year of 1845 the potato crop partially failed, this was happening around Europe and it was the beginning of the Great Potato Famine. The famine was a major land mark for Irish history. As Ireland was precipitated into an extremely serious crisis known as the Great Famine, this crisis formed a wave of changes that would affect the Ireland history forever.

In many ways the impact was so strong that the country was not able to recover from its impact until this day. This essay will examine how and in which ways the Great Famine of 1845-148 changed Ireland. Especially the way it shaped Ireland history and the nature of both its society and economy (Dailyhistory.org, 2018). I will start off by giving the context and background about the events that were taking part during this period and which led to the development of the Famine. After contextualizing I will move on to discuss the great change and the effects the Famine brought to Ireland and Irish society.

To understand the Great Famine of 1845-1848, it is necessary to have in mind the context and the background that characterized Ireland and Irish population at that time and which may have led to the Famine. Firstly, Irish people diet consisted of the potato monoculture. As we know, potatoes are carbohydrates and a very energising type of food. They are the staple of many people’s diets and so were that of the most of Irish population at the time of the Famine. The poor generally would eat more of the staple than other things. The potato is the type of food that gives a sufficient diet to a person and that allows them to survive, so most Irish people lived very largely of potatoes.

They were easy to grow, did not required that much of work and they could grow in very small patches of ground. However, potato crop can go wrong, its growth can fail and has its problems. For example, potatoes do not last very long, maybe they can be kept for 7 or 8 months but no more than that. In 1845 a strain of Phytophthora arrived in Ireland, and due to unusual weather of that same year, the blight thrived (Mokyr, n.d. and Foster 1988). This was what started to happen in 1845, the year which marked the beginning of The Great Famine. The potato blight arrived in Ireland and it caused the potato crop to fail (Dailyhistory.org., 2018).

Other important aspect necessary to look at is how in many areas Ireland was in the 1840’s consisted mostly of tenant farmer, small farmers who lived on farms that they rented to big landlords. As we saw during the classes, the Irish land system was a dysfunctional system of land-holding, landlordism and absenteeism. The British economic and fiscal policy, which was the rigorous application of laissez-faire principles and the English response to the Irish poverty to blame the poor, also contributed to the negative situation of Ireland during the Famine years.

The penal laws placed practically all the land in Ireland in the hands of protestant Anglo-Irish landlords. Those landlords rented it to the catholic tenants who were not permitted to own large farms (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). This system produced a situation where most Irish farmers leaved in small and increasingly economically unsustainable and unavailable farms. The system of landlordism was also in crisis. Irish landlordism although on paper was very wealthy, in practice the system was quietly unsustainable. Due to the potato monoculture failure and the decay of landlordism, The Great Famine was a disaster waiting to happen.

By the end of 1846, there was already a widespread and extensive hunger in rural Ireland. The potato blight caused the potato to fail in the following years. The country entered in a long period of starvation. The poorest Irish were most affected by hunger, and many travelled to urban centers, desperate for food (Mokyr, n.d.). Therefore, the rural population of Ireland drastically fell. While, in contrast, there was growth of the population in cities like Dublin, Belfast and Cork which suffered a smaller impact by the famine. As the population got malnourished, various epidemic diseases started to appear and became widespread, especially typhus (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). High death rates in cities were the result of the expansion of such diseases. By 1850, millions of people had already died victims of starvation and diseases (Mokyr, n.d.).

There were several the effects of the famine that would change the Ireland of that time forever. The most obvious effect was probably the uncountable loss of population, as well as the demographic changes. In less than 5 years, about 1.5 million of people died. The massive blood loss of people provoked by the famine was something from which Ireland would never recover (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). This enormous loss of people created a terrible personal trauma. The guilt and trauma that haunted the ones who survived and remained was almost unbearable.

The sense of irrational guilt in those who survived was and still is something not completely understood, because they were not guilty of being able to survive. However, in their mind they were, because they could survive and other did not. Almost every Irish person had lost someone, and a significant percentage of the population were affected by the loss of a relative or of somebody close to them. Death wiped and wrecked families apart. Those who survived were marked and damaged physically, mentally and emotionally forever.

As a consequence of the famine and its massive blood loss of people there was weakening and a fragmentation of many traditions and institutions. For example, the Irish language was greatly weakened, as the famine conducted to the deaths of many native Irish speakers. This effect of the famine on the Irish language can still be perceived today. The effect of all these changes in Irish society was immensely dramatic, causing enormous anomie and alienation in the survivors. Unfortunately, we can say that a whole way of life was lost. Another effect of famine was the acceleration and the decline of landlordism.

This was probably the greatest economic impact of the famine, the decay of an already doomed system. As there was nothing left to be harvested, many farmers lost their job (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). Many landowners, pursued the exploitation of the situation after the end of the Famine. Farms became larger, in order to guarantee the provision of the families with a sustainable income (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). The peasants had to leave the land and the farms. As they were not able to pay the rents to the landlords, this lack of payment often left the landowners with nothing (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). As landlordism was already in decline before the famine, after the end of it the landlord system had its end pronounced.

Furthermore, the Famine also significantly weakened the Union. Several contradictions and radical flaws were exposed, as well as weaknesses of pro-Union arguments that remained since Henry VIII. The famine also gave rise to an increase in Anti-Englishness. Before the Famine there existed already the feeling of exclusion towards Britain. The years of the Famine only led to an intensification of that feeling. As we saw during the classes, Trevelyan considered the problems of Irish people as a threat to the economic well-being of the remaining members of the UK.

The famine accelerated, but also changed a former process of emigration. The famine brought an even bigger massive emigration process and a different type of emigration. Before the Famine some Irish people had left Ireland for America and elsewhere. However, due to the famine, the number of emigrants increased drastically. Millions had to leave the country. As a result of these massive Irish emigration, considerable Irish communities were formed around the world. In addition, the famine brought massive catholic emigration. However, one negative aspect of this catholic emigration was that it provoked sectarian tensions with other Protestant communities, as for example in America and Canada (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). The continuing scale of emigration from Ireland after the famine, increased significantly and led to a decay in the Irish population. As it was said in the lines before, catholic emigration raised. This was because the religion of the majority of the Irish population was Catholicism.

The famine also contributed to strengthen of the catholic church. This institution was turned into an almost surrogate or substitute state. It became more important than the state itself (Dailyhistory.org., 2018). One important aspect to underline is that during the horrible and difficult famine times the church was the only one institution to provide a service to the people. When all the other institutions failed to the Irish people in need, the Catholic Church provided support, structure and continuity. In the way that it led to a great of quantity of emigration, more specifically the immigration of millions of Irish people. It is important to have in mind that even though not as huge as the local impact, the Famine also had an international impact. In this sense it also had an impact in Irish diaspora and the way in which this last one is important for the creation of an Irish identity.

The Great Famine also affected Ireland’s physical landscape. This is one of effects of the famine that seems to be rarely discussed but it really has a great importance since its mark is still visible nowadays (Osi.ie., 2018). Famine Roads were the result of forced labour by Irish farmers and peasantry during the Great Famine. These roads left a scar the Irish countryside. They were built with no direction and therefore go nowhere. These roads are visible in the Hills of Dingle (Osi.ie., 2018). Most peasantries were badly treated, and their working conditions were awful.

Today, the roads were those men worked are a popular tourist attraction (Osi.ie., 2018). The workhouses, which were the household of Ireland population in starvation, after the establishment of the Free State were transformed into district hospitals and care homes (Osi.ie., 2018). For example, the site in which Naas General Hospital is located was formerly a workhouse and Donaghmore’s famine workhouse is now a museum (Osi.ie., 2018). There is no doubt that the famine proved to be a turning point in the history of Ireland and that changed Ireland in many ways.

To conclude, the effects of the Great Famine are still present in Ireland’s culture, politics, society and even in the physical landscape. The Great Famine lasted for a period of about 5 years and left Ireland with a 20 percent loss of population. It is something that has left scars that remain until this day. It was the turning point that changed Ireland dramatically and decisively. It was a devastating tragedy for Ireland that led to numerous negative consequences such as: mass starvation, widespread diseases, high rates of death. One of most remarkable effects of the famine was the massive emigration that it caused, and which continued for so long.

The Famine also gave strength to the catholic church and gave raise an increase of the Anti-Englishness felling. It resulted in increasing tensions between Ireland and Britain which led to violence and instability for so many years. Definitely, The Great Famine is as Fosters says in his book, “a watershed in Irish history, creating new conditions of demographic decline, large scale emigration, altered farming structures and new economic policies, not to mention the new institutionalized Anglophobia among the Irish and abroad.” (Foster, 1988, p.318). The Great Famine of 1845-1848 was an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. It decisively changed Irish society and history forever.


  1. Foster, R.F. Modern Ireland. London: Allen Lane, 1988.
  2. Dailyhistory.org. (2018). What was the impact of the Irish Famine on Ireland and the world? – DailyHistory.org. [online] Available at: https://dailyhistory.org/What_was_the_impact_of_the_Irish_Famine_on_Ireland_and_the_world%3F [Accessed 29 Dec. 2018].
  3. Connemara.irish. (n.d.). The Great Famine: causes and effects of a tragedy. [online] Available at: https://connemara.irish/traditions/37-the-great-famine-causes-and-effects-of-a-tragedy [Accessed 30 Dec. 2018].
  4. Mokyr, J. (n.d.). Great Famine | History, Causes, & Facts. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Famine-Irish-history [Accessed 30 Dec. 2018].
  5. Osi.ie. (2018). How the Great Famine Changed the Landscape of Ireland. [online] Available at: https://www.osi.ie/blog/how-the-great-famine-changed-the-landscape-of-ireland/ [Accessed 27 Dec. 2018].
  6. Wesleyjohnston.com. (n.d.). Effects of the Famine: Emigration. [online] Available at: https://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/famine/emigration.html [Accessed 29 Dec. 2018].


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How and in what Ways Did the Great Famine of 1845-1848 Change Ireland?. (2021, Aug 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-and-in-what-ways-did-the-great-famine-of-1845-1848-change-ireland/

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