Great Famine in Ireland
In the years leading up to 1845, potatoes were the primary staple crop in Ireland. Potatoes were easy to grow but could not be stored for more than one year so each year's harvest was entirely consumed or lost over that year. As of 1845, the crop appeared to be flourishing. However, in October of that year, the first signs of blight began to appear. By November, the signs became obvious to any direct observer and a massive part of the harvest was rotting and unusable. The effect reverberated throughout the next few years.
IMPACT OF THE FAMINE ON THE IMPOVERISHED
The famine had the strongest impact on the poorest class, such as laborers, and cottiers. These families could not afford more expensive grain and corn and other replacement food stocks. Starvation leads to disease, compounding the depredations of the blight, and both lead to increased poverty. Poor farmers were faced with increased costs of labor, which forced them to concentrate on tillage.
Most of the landlords were Protestant British. The Irish Catholic poor had been depending on the profits from their potato crops to pay rent. Landlords raised their rental income by almost a third, which left many rural poor and the near-landless to perish.
At first, the poor were found dead in numbers in the local dispensaries and workhouses. However, as the death rates rose, the majority of the poor died in their homes. Parish priests, desperate to support the congregation, forsook buying coffins to save enough money to feed starving families.
The urban poor also suffered. Most of them suffered from hunger, and they eventually died in great numbers. Most of them faced eviction, and landlords forbade tenants from helping those who were evicted.
During the era, the main causes of death were diseases including cholera, pneumonia, dysentery, and smallpox. More than 222,000 people died from dysentery while 93,000 succumbed to fever. By the end of the famine era, more than 1 million Irish men, children, and women died of famine and another 1 million migrated from the island to seek for greener pastures. The 1841-1851 census revealed the occupational groups greatly affected by the famine. Tabor force declined by 19.1 percent. This included 14.4 percent fewer farmers and 24.2 percent fewer laborers.
The government did establish public works programs to increase employment, but the programs were locally operated and received financing from the British government only on the condition that local community members agree to pay back the money with interest, in two years. The works programs were too few to support the hundreds of thousands of unemployed Irish and most of the workers, including women and children, were put to work building stone roads. The backbreaking labor often led to the weakened workers feinting or dropping dead on the job.
IMPACT THE FAMINE HAD ON "THE TROUBLES"
In 1885, 75 percent of the Irish were Catholic. In the aftermath of the famine, the Irish population became more religious, as a large part of the population turned to religion for hope and support.
The Irish Catholics became renowned for strict observance to religion and many became nuns and priests. The island's Catholic clergy became very powerful in the wake of the new anointments and newly committed flocks. The rising popularity and strength of the Catholic church increased tension between the Catholics and the Protestants, the latter of whom felt threatened. This enmity persisted until the 20 century when the conflict between the two groups reached a fever pitch and began to be referred to as "the troubles."
IMPACT OF THE FAMINE ON THE COUNTY OF ULSTER AND THE CITY OF BELFAST
The greatest loss of population in Ireland during the famine was the south Ulster with most affected regions being Cavan, Monaghan, and Fermanagh. Fermanagh lost almost 30 percent of its population. Antrim, Armagh, and Tyrone lost a population closer to the country’s average rate of 15 percent.
By 1846, 1 in 5 people in Belfast was affected by a contagion linked to the famine. People flooded Ards peninsula due to hunger, allowing the disease to spread easily through poor households. The linen industry in Belfast declined due to lack of laborers. Since the population in the city was majority Protestant, religion and class played a diminished role in the civic response to the crisis in the city and people came from all classes to support the poor.
The potato famine more than decimated the Irish population, strengthened its Catholic population and exacerbated the divide between the rich and the poor. While these impacts would alter the culture of Ireland for decades, if not centuries, to come and contribute to the tensions that exploded between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 20th century.