A Holocaust of Humanity

An old sketch of a village taken from the cover of Notice to Quit: The Great Irish Famine Evictions


f all the horrors arising from the successive failures of the potato crop from 1845 to 1852, the most distressing — apart from death caused by disease and starvation — was the loss of hearth and home. No matter how primitive the home — whether a mud-walled hut with a sod roof or a stone-walled cabin with a thatched or slate roof — the violent expulsion of a two- or three-generation family, along with their cherished animals and furnishings, was the cruelest of blows. Equally distressing was the break-up of close family and community ties. One can only imagine the heartbreak of the victims of eviction as they stood outside in the cold and rain watching the bailiffs pull down the roof-beam or set fire to the thatch. Estimates of the numbers evicted between 1849 and 1854 range from half a million to over 700,000 individuals.

Between 1822 and 1845 at least eight partial failures of the “white potato” — otherwise known as “lumpers” and “murphys” — had caused acute hardship. However, the arrival of a hitherto unknown and deadly blight in the autumn of 1845, and the successive crop failures which followed, spelled disaster for almost half of the country’s 8.6 million people. 

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By 1852 more than a million people had died from either famine-related diseases or actual starvation. Overall, death and emigration, both exacerbated by eviction, combined to reduce the population by some 2.5 million between 1841 and 1851.

The loss of the peasant’s staple food triggered massive waves of eviction and emigration. Whether the poor surrendered their holdings voluntarily or not, smallholders or cottiers and laborers faced a stark choice between the poorhouse and the nearest port of embarkation. The depopulation of townlands north, west, and south of the River Shannon left behind deserted villages or clachans that served as somber reminders of what the agrarian leader Michael Davitt called a “holocaust of humanity.”

This blog post has been extracted from Notice to Quit: The Great Irish Famine Evictions by L. Perry Curtis, Jr. part of the “Famine Folios” series by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum | Quinnipiac University Press ©2015. Visit: ighm.org/famine-folios for more information.