Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Irish famine: catastrophe, diaspora, and redemption

Kevin R. Loughlin
Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Famine sculpture in Dublin

Tensions between the English and the Irish date back to at least the time of Prince John Lackland, who was made Lord of Ireland by his father, Henry II of England in 1177.1 Anti-Catholic sentiments were pronounced by Oliver Cromwell after his invasion of Ireland and following the massacre at Dragheda when he said, “I shall not, where I have the power . . . suffer the exercise of the Mass.”2 Further anti-Catholic sentiments became apparent in 1695 when the British began imposing Penal Laws to punish the Irish for their role in supporting the Catholic Stuart King, James II, in his battle for the English throne against the Protestant William of Orange.3 In 1600, the Protestants owned about 10% of Ireland’s land. By 1778, Protestants owned 95% of the land and when a Catholic landowner died, his land was divided up equally among his sons, further diluting its value. However, if he would agree to become a Protestant, he would inherit all of his father’s land.5 These tensions reached a climax in January 1801 with the passage of the Acts of Union, which dissolved the Irish Parliament and put executive power in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant.

Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with introducing the potato to Ireland from the Americas in the late 1500s.5 The potato was an ideal crop for small farms with poor, rocky soil. By 1840, 40% of the Irish population depended on the potato as the mainstay of their diet.6 The seed potatoes only needed to be placed in spade-dug beds called “lazy-beds.” Typically, potatoes were planted in April/May and harvested in late August/September and would be stored in pits until the following May. Depending on how robust the previous harvest was, the summer could be a time of hardship and if this occurred, it was referred to as the “summer hunger.”7


The catastrophe

The potato blight first appeared in Europe in Belgium in mid 1845, but had been observed in the Americas since 1843, and was likely imported with guano (fertilizer) from South America. The blight was not caused by a fungus, but rather an oomycete, Phytophthora infestans, a variety of parasite.5 The blight attacked the 1845 Irish potato crop severely. It was estimated that the harvest was decreased by one-third to one-half. In 1846, the blight was more severe with three-quarters of the harvest affected. The potato blight alone would have caused significant hardship, but a confluence of political and economic factors exacerbated the consequences of the blight several fold.

The Corn Laws were tariffs passed by the English Parliament that placed restrictions on imported food and grain. They were enforced between 1815 to 1846 and were utilized to protect English merchants.8 As the Irish Famine continued and food shortages became severe, there was increasing pressure to repeal the Corn Laws. There was great resistance in England to any such repeal. To his credit, Prime Minister Robert Peel was able to gradually reduce the tariffs. On January 27, 1846 he announced the government’s plan, which would have incremental reductions in the tariffs through February 1, 1849. Peel purchased maize and cornmeal secretly from America. This was referred to as “Indian corn.” However, due to poor weather, the first shipment did not arrive in Ireland until February 1846. The few Irish mills that were in operation were not well equipped for milling maize and this caused a further delay in distribution.4

Nonetheless, the gradual repeal of the Corn Laws was hardly sufficient to alleviate the widespread starvation throughout Ireland. To organize relief in Ireland, the British divided the country into 130 separate districts (unions). Each union was run by a Board of Guardians that would set local tax rates and collect revenue to provide aid to those inhabitants in each union who required aid. Workhouses were organized in each district to provide modest wages to the most destitute workers. Ultimately there were 390,000 people employed building roads to nowhere. These wages would then be utilized to buy food.

As the famine continued and became more severe, it became clear that further measures were required. This resulted in the passage of the Soup Kitchen Act or more formally named the Act for Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons in Ireland.9 A new Relief Commission was established in Dublin to administer the soup kitchens. However, the commission was poorly run and encountered financial problems. Much of the food distributed at the soup kitchens was of very poor quality which frequently included “stirabout,” a mixture of two-thirds Indian meal and one-third rice cooked with water. Although the organization of the government run soup kitchens was well-intentioned, some soup kitchens privately run by Protestants resulted in bigotry. In these circumstances, “souperism” occurred, which meant that soup was only given to Catholics who would renounce their faith and become Protestant.10

As the famine persisted throughout 1846, it caused the Irish to eat their “seed potatoes.” This had severe consequences the following year. In 1847, although the potato was not affected by blight, the potato harvest was only one-seventh of what it had been in 1846.11

The widespread poor nutrition began to take its toll throughout 1846 and 1847 and cholera, dysentery, and typhus became more prevalent. Scurvy, which had previously been virtually unknown in Ireland, became recognized due to the apparent lack of Vitamin C in the diet which had previously been supplied by the potato.

As the economic effects of the famine began to escalate, a new Poor Law was implemented in August 1847 which was intended to require landowners to assume more financial responsibility.6 It contained an insidious provision, the Gregory/Quarter Acre Clause, which claimed that any farmer with more than a quarter acre of land was not deemed destitute and could not be aided by the Poor Law. The thinly-veiled intent of the clause was to cause those needing help to give up rights to their land and to facilitate incorporation of smaller farms into larger holdings controlled by powerful British landowners. The eviction of small farmers continued and between 1849 and 1854, 49,000 families were dispossessed.12

The ongoing famine, the economic distress, and the underlying religious bigotry contributed to the growing unrest in Ireland. This caused Parliament to pass the Crime and Outrage Bill in November 1847. This bill gave the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland the power to organize Ireland into districts and to bring police forces into them at the expense of the district.13


The diaspora

The causes of emigration have not changed through the centuries. Poverty, famine, and religious persecution were as true during the Irish diaspora as they are today in other areas of the world. In 1840 the population of Ireland was approximately eight million. By 1850, the population was about six million due to one million deaths and one million people who had emigrated. Emigration from 1845-1850 was to England, Scotland, South Wales, and Australia. In order to expedite emigration and to relieve some of the financial pressures of the famine in Ireland, some landowners subsidized the cost of passage of some emigrants.14

The transatlantic journey on many of the emigrant ships, often referred to as “coffin” ships, was harsh. Travelers were given a basic minimum of food and water but had to provide anything beyond that themselves. In 1847, of the 100,000 emigrants traveling to Canada, one-sixth died during passage or soon after. Most of the accommodations were unsatisfactory and infectious diseases such as typhus were not uncommon. The journey across the Atlantic took about one month. Navigation was still rudimentary and in 1849, four ships were reported lost after hitting icebergs.15


The redemption

Despite the hazards described, almost one million Irish reached the shores of America during or soon after the Great Famine. Most of them settled in the large coastal cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Although the majority of them were unskilled farmers and laborers, they had the advantage of a common language with their new neighbors. They also had a sense of community fostered by the Catholic Church. The Irish had a natural inclination toward politics. William R. Grace became New York City’s first Irish-Catholic mayor in 1880 and four years later Hugh O’Brien became mayor of Boston.16 However, the Irish, like most immigrants before and since, were not assimilated into American society with open arms. Signs with “No Irish Need Apply” were commonly seen in the windows of store fronts. The Know Nothing movement of the 1850s, which was an anti-Catholic xenophobic group that opposed immigration, was a response in large part to the Great Famine emigration.

The Irish were intimately involved in the large city political machines and as a result had a robust representation on the police forces. In 1855 nearly 40% of New York City’s policeman were immigrants and about three-quarters of these were Irish.16


The legacy

The Irish Famine was not the first or last famine that humanity will see. It was not the first or last time that emigrants will flee their native lands seeking a better, safer life for themselves and their children. If the Irish Famine taught us anything, it should be the rancorous legacy it left behind. The deep residual resentment was articulated by John Mitchel, the Irish nationalist who said, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”17 That bitter harvest continued through the twentieth century as the Irish Rebellion and the Good Friday Agreement attest, and continues to this day. A sculpture memorializing the famine remains in Dublin (Figure 1).

British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged the ongoing wounds as he stated, “The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people.”18

Let us hope that as a society, we possess the collective wisdom and compassion to accept the current diaspora in a humane way that will avoid future legacies of distrust, resentment, and fear.



  1. Connolly SJ. The Oxford Companion to Irish History, 2007. Oxford University Press, p. 423
  2. Abbott WC. Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. Harvard University Press, 1929, p196-205
  3. The History Place. Irish Potato Famine-Before the Famine. https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/before.htm Accessed 8/28/2018
  4. Great Famine (Ireland). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland) accessed 6/7/2018
  5. McWilliams B. A short history of the potato. The Irish Times 9/18/97. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/a-short-history-of-the -potato-1.107295. accessed 8/28/2018
  6. Irish Famine Timeline. http://www.irishhistorian.com/IrishFamineTimeline.html. Accessed 8/28/2018
  7. Litton H. The Irish Famine, An Illustrated History, Wolfhound Press, 1994, p.15
  8. Corn Laws. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_Laws. Accessed 8/27/2018
  9. The Temporary Use of Soup Kitchens. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/star-of-the sea-a-post-colonialpostmodern-voyage-into-the-irish. Accessed 8/28/2018
  10. Litton H. op.cit. p.65
  11. Litton H. op.cit. p.44
  12. Litton H. op.cit. p.94
  13. Crime and Outrage Bill (Ireland) 1847. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_and_Outrage_Bill_1847. Accessed 8/27/2018
  14. Collombier-Lakeman P. The Canadian Press and the Great Irish Famine: The Famine as an Irish, Canadian & Imperial Issue. https://journals.openedition.org/mimmoc/1787?lang=en. Accessed 8/29/2018
  15. Laxton E. The Irish Exodus To America. Henry Holt and Company, 1998, p.126
  16. Irish – Identity, Influence and Opportunity. https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsand activities/presentations. Accessed 8/20/2018
  17. John Mitchel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Mitchel. Accessed 8/28/2018
  18. Marks K. Blair issues apology for Irish Potato Famine. Independent 9/2/1997. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/blair-issues-apology-for-irish-potato-famine-125-125379. Accessed 8/27/2018



KEVIN R. LOUGHLIN, MD, MBA, was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island. He graduated from Chaminade High School and received an A.B. from Princeton University, an M.D. from New York Medical College, an M.B.A. from Boston University, and a M.A.(Hon.) from Harvard University. He has served as a trustee of the American Board of Urology and as a member of the board of directors of the American Urologic Association and as program director of the Harvard Program in Urology. He has been named on numerous “best doctor” lists throughout his career and was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the New England Section of the AUA. He has written over 250 articles in medical journals and is the author/editor of eleven books. He is an avid Red Sox Fan and enjoys participating in road races and swimming. He lives in Boston.


Summer 2018  |  Sections  |  Food

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