The Famine Killed Everything

Margaret Lyster Chamberlain

"The Leave-Taking"

Margaret Lyster Chamberlain

I

n late summer 1845, newspapers throughout Europe were carrying reports of a previously unknown disease that was destroying the potato crop from Belgium to England. By the end of August, the disease had reached Ireland. On September 13, London newspaper the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Gazette responded to this news by announcing: “We stop the presses with great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland. The crops about Dublin are suddenly perishing. Where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?” At this stage, no one expected that this mysterious disease would reappear, with varying degrees of ferocity, for a further six years. The answer to the ominous question posed by the London newspaper could have been:

"Ireland will starve."

It was not until 1852 that the blight fully disappeared from Ireland. By this time, the population had fallen by over 25 percent. What made the tragedy more lamentable was the fact that, since 1800, Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom, which was at the center of the vast, powerful and resource-rich British Empire. Unfortunately, the resources of that Empire had not been deployed to mitigate the sufferings of the poor in Ireland. While thousands of people, many of whom with no direct connection with Ireland, had come to the rescue of the starving poor by providing private charity, most of these donations had been concentrated in 1847. 

The impact of seven years of food shortages continued to resonate well beyond 1852. Even after good harvests had returned to the country, the Irish population continued to fall. In 1841, the population of Ireland had been in excess of 8 million; by 1901, it had fallen to a little more than 4 million. At the beginning of the 21st century, it still remained smaller than it had been in 1845. Using this simple demographic measure, it is possible to see that Ireland never recovered from the tragedy of the Great Hunger. However, beyond the loss of population, much more was lost in those dark years, losses that are more difficult to quantify or to describe. In the words of Máire Ní Grianna, descended from a Famine survivor from County Donegal: “Poetry, music and dancing died ... The Famine killed everything.”

This blog post has been extracted from Apparitions of Death and Disease: The Great Hunger in Ireland, by Christine Kinealy, part of the “Famine Folios” series by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum | Quinnipiac University Press ©2014. Visit: ighm.org/famine-folios for more information.