- Anna Hilbert
Guide: Britain & The Potato Famine
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
The Irish Potato Famine, 1845-49 (also known as the Great Famine), was a famine caused by a blight on potato crops which destroyed the edible part of the plant. The result was the death of 1 million people, and the emigration of up 2 million more.
This famine has had a lasting impact on the national consciousness of Ireland, and especially their perception of Britain. But why? What did Britain do that had such an impact during this crisis?
Well, the simple answer is: not enough.
Britain and Ireland: a very, very brief history
Ireland was under varying forms of British rule from the 16th Century until they finally won independence in 1922. This was also the year the country was partitioned, with Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK. This meant that at the time of the famine Ireland was ruled by the British government in Westminster, who were therefore responsible for managing the crisis.
British rule was characterised by the repression of Irish Catholics at the hands of Protestant Britain. Especially relevant here is the fact that most land was owned by Protestants of English or Scottish descent, while the tenant farmers who worked the land were Irish Catholics. These tenant farmers are the ones who would suffer the most during the famine.
Why was the famine so devastating?
During the 18th Century, the potato became a staple of the Irish diet, and by the time of the famine almost half the Irish population, especially the rural poor, were reliant on the potato for their whole diet. At this time, the farmers were already struggling to provide enough food for themselves and the demands of the British market. This meant that when the blight hit the potato crops, it essentially destroyed the primary food source of the majority of the population.
Even during the famine, Ireland continued to export much of the food it produced to Britain, especially high-quality food that the farmers couldn’t afford to buy for themselves. The effects of the famine were compounded by the mass eviction of many of the peasant farmers who could no longer afford their rent.
Much of this could have been avoided with the effective implementation of measures to distribute the food, stop the exportation of what was being grown, and prevent the eviction of those suffering as a result of the blight.
What the British did (or did not) do
The British did make some attempts to alleviate the effects of the famine. They allowed the importation of maize from the USA and established soup kitchens to feed the needy. They also employed people on public works schemes. However, reliance on imported maize caused widespread malnutrition, the soup kitchen scheme only lasted 6 months, and the wages for the public works jobs were not high enough to feed a family due to the inflated price of food that resulted from the shortages caused by the famine.
Crucially, however, Britain continued to import food from Ireland, worsening the situation, when instead they should have been distributing this food among those who needed it. They also should have taken measures to prevent the cruel eviction of so many starving families.
So, why didn’t they do more?
So how exactly did Britain justify such inaction over a crisis that was affecting a country they were meant to protect? Essentially, there was a certain ideology among most British intellectuals which framed inaction as the morally right thing to do.
Most of this stemmed from deep ethno-religious prejudice against the Catholic Irish. They believed that flaws in the national character of the Irish (i.e. the view that they’re all lazy) led to the famine. Allowing the famine to run its course would therefore eliminate these flaws, as well as work to reduce the high birth-rate among the Irish (which the British considered problematic, largely because a larger Irish population would increase the strength of any independence movement). This ideology was called Moralism, because it was believed that the famine was cause by moral defects, rather than economic ones. For this reason, Britain had no duty to intervene in the famine, as the Irish had inflicted it on themselves.
The economic view of the time had a similar effect: lassiez-faire (literally ‘let do’) was the belief that the government should have as little involvement in the economy as possible. They therefore viewed the kind of intervention needed to manage the crisis as unacceptable.
There was also a fairly prevalent belief that the famine was the will of God and therefore it was not their place to get involved. A phenomenon known as ‘famine fatigue’, which essentially refers to the short-lived nature of sympathy for the Irish, led to a decline in political will to get involved, further limited the scope of British aid.
All of this meant that the burden for dealing with the crisis fell to the Irish, who had neither sufficient resources nor a strong enough state bureaucracy to cope effectively. The result was devastating.
The result? A lot of (understandable) resentment
The effects of the famine were felt for decades after. As well as the 1 million people who died as a result (either from starvation or diseases related to malnutrition) and the 2 million who emigrated during the famine, high levels of emigration continued for decades afterwards.
Resentment over British rule was already high, but it soared after the famine. The Home Rule movement (the campaign for Irish self-rule, rather than full independence) gained momentum about 20 years after, when the impact of the famine was still being felt.
It wasn’t until 1997 that Tony Blair officially apologised for Britain’s handling of the crisis. It should be noted that the Irish Potato Famine wasn’t the only case of British imperial inaction – they failed to intervene appropriately to prevent the Indian famine in 1876-79, which resulted in the death of at least 6 million people. It should also be noted that this was not the only time that British involvement in Ireland caused the death of many.
Nevertheless, hopefully this guide provides a clear outline of the Irish Potato Famine and Britain’s role (or lack of role) in dealing with it.
For more resources and articles on the reality of Britain's history, head to our dedicated British History & Revisionism section.