The potato blight, a fungus that infected the potato crop, made its first appearance in Europe in 1844–45. Although it caused problems elsewhere, the consequences in Ireland were disastrous. Already a poor country, with harsh living conditions, Ireland’s potato crop had been declining when the rapidly spreading fungus destroyed three consecutive crops. Combined with political and social policies that had already adversely affected Ireland’s economy, the result was a period of mass starvation and disease known as the “Great Hunger,” or the “Great Famine.”
More than 1 million Irish died from starvation and related disease (primarily typhus, often called “famine fever”). As many as 1.5 million left Ireland for the United States and other countries, where they hoped to escape lives of grinding poverty and unfair treatment. (Unfortunately, their new homes often provided scant relief.) Even the ships they sailed on were substandard. An editorial in the London Times called for a parliamentary investigation into the conditions experienced by Irish emigrants: “The worst horrors of the slave-trade…have been re-enacted in the flight of British subjects from their native shores… The boasted institutions and spirit of this empire are on trial.”
The Acts of Union in 1800 that created the United Kingdom had declared that Ireland, a predominately Catholic country, would be directly under British rule. The Irish Parliament was abolished. The Irish could vote for representation in the British Parliament—but only for Protestants, since Catholics were forbidden to become members of Parliament. Many farms in Ireland were owned by English absentee landlords. The Irish were, in effect, second-class citizens in their own country. Even when the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 allowed Catholics to join Parliament, the relationship between England and Ireland remained strained.
Many assumed that Britain would provide aid when reports of the wretched conditions in Ireland became widespread. But the government response was neither swift nor adequate, exacerbating the tensions between Ireland and England, and sowing the seeds for rebellion and civil unrest.
Robert Traill, the Protestant rector of Schull, County Cork, Ireland, was one of the people who pleaded for aid. Despite his personal dislike of Catholics, he was horrified by what he saw happening to his own parish. In addition to setting up a soup kitchen and raising money as part of the Schull Relief Committee, he wrote about the devastation he witnessed. Traill was shown in a drawing in The Illustrated London News tending to the dying. A letter to the London Times in 1847, from Commander James Caffin, described the suffering he had seen when he accompanied Traill to Schull. “Three-fourths of the inhabitants you meet,” wrote Caffin, “carry the tale of woe in their features and persons, as they are reduced to mere skeletons.” Traill himself succumbed to typhus later that same year.
Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was in charge of the administration of government relief, supported a policy of laissez-faire. He believed that government should refrain from intervening in economic matters, including the situation in Ireland. He also expressed the virulent anti-Irish views that many in England held—that the Irish were lazy, drank too much, and were to blame for their own predicament. Trevelyan, who has been praised for other accomplishments, has been blamed for making a devastating situation worse. Although Queen Victoria privately contributed to charities for Ireland and Scotland, and finally visited Ireland in 1849, her response has been characterized as indifferent and lackluster. She expressed concern over the people’s suffering, but also on occasion echoed commonly held prejudices about them.
In 1861, the Irish activist and journalist John Mitchel, who was arrested and deported to Bermuda for his views, wrote: “The Almighty sent the potato blight but the English invented the Famine.” Historians are still analyzing the causes and consequences of the famine, which lasted almost five years and permanently changed the landscape and demographics of Ireland. In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the British government having done “too little” about the crisis.
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