Irish Potato Famine: Causes and Impacts on Ireland

The Irish Famine

Irish Potato Famine: Causes and Impacts on Ireland

It was a time when something as simple as a potato shortage could lead to the death of millions. Can you even imagine such a devastating scenario? Well, tragically, it was the reality during the Irish Potato Famine, often called “The Great Famine”.

Irish potato famine summary

Irish Potato Famine
Time Period 1845 – 1852
Cause Potato crop failure due to potato blight disease caused by Phytophthora infestans
Impact Widespread food shortages and famine
Population Affected Approximately 1 million deaths
Emigration Around 1.5 million people left Ireland


What caused the Irish potato famine?

The Irish Famine Memorial at Penn's Landing of Philadelphia
The Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing of Philadelphia

The Irish famine was because of the failure in the production of a basic crop- potato. Potatoes are the main food source for the Irish, kind of like how rice or bread might be important in other places. But in 1845, the production of potatoes was greatly hampered because of the potato blight disease caused by Phytophthora infestans. The disease destroyed so many potato plants that there just wasn’t enough food for everyone. And sadly, because people depended so much on potatoes, a lot of them went hungry and even died.

Potato Blight Disease or Late Blight of Potato

potato blight disease
Diseased potato leaves

Late blight disease of Potato is a disease of potatoes where the leaves and other parts of the potato plant get rotten, which ultimately leads to the crop’s failure. The causal agent of this disease is Phytophthora infestans.

Late Blight of Potato

Causal agent Phytophthora infestans
Type Oomycete (Fungus-like organism)
Affected Plants Potatoes, Tomatoes, Other crops
Transmission Spores in water, air, and soil
Symptoms Brown spots on leaves, rotting


How did the Irish potato famine end?

The Irish Potato Famine spanned a period of approximately seven years, lasting from 1845 to 1852. During this time, the impact of the famine evolved and changed as various factors came into play.

The famine gradually came to an end through a combination of factors. These included:

1. Imported Food Aid: Some food was imported to help alleviate immediate hunger, although it wasn’t enough to completely solve the crisis.

2. Improved Potato Varieties: Over time, more disease-resistant potato varieties were developed and introduced, reducing the impact of potato blight.

3. Crop Diversification: People started growing different crops to avoid relying solely on potatoes, which helped increase food availability.

4. Emigration: Many people left Ireland in search of better opportunities elsewhere, which reduced the pressure on limited food resources.

5. Improved Government Response: While the government’s response to the famine was initially inadequate, efforts to provide relief and support gradually improved.

6. Economic Changes: Changes in economic and agricultural practices contributed to a more diversified and resilient food system.


Long-term effects of the Irish potato famine

The Irish Potato Famine had a big impact on the people of Ireland. Many, many people died – about a million. Lots of others left the country, around 1.5 million, looking for a better life somewhere else. This made the number of people in Ireland become much smaller.

People’s lives got turned around. Families were separated, and people had to leave their homes. The economy became really bad because the farms weren’t growing enough food. This made many people poor and jobless.

The sadness and tough times also affected how people felt and thought. The way people owned and used land changed too. And all of this made people want changes in how things were run in the country.

The Irish Potato Famine wasn’t just about food – it changed how people lived, thought, and even their country’s future.

What could have prevented the Irish potato famine?

It is easy now to comment, that time was really a disaster while people were dying, and suffering. Financial structures were broken. Still, there are a few things to mention, those could prevent the Irish famine. This is not to claim that they misplayed but to learn from their mistakes. 

The Irish Potato Famine could have been prevented or lessened if there were different actions taken:

  1. Crop Diversity: If people relied on a variety of crops instead of just potatoes, the impact of the potato disease wouldn’t have been as severe.
  2. Early Detection: If the disease was spotted earlier, steps could have been taken to try and control its spread.
  3. Better Government Response: If the government provided more help and resources to those affected, it could have reduced the suffering.
  4. Scientific Knowledge: More understanding of plant diseases and farming practices might have helped prevent the disease from spreading so quickly.
  5. Distribution of Resources: If food and resources were distributed more fairly, it could have prevented extreme hunger.
  6. Infrastructure Improvement: Better transportation and infrastructure could have helped move food to where it was needed.
  7. Global Support: If other countries had sent more aid, it could have lessened the impact of the famine.

Irish famine memorial

Irish Famine Memorium
Irish Famine Memorium

There are estimated to be around 150 or more Irish Famine memorials worldwide, showcasing the global reach of the event’s impact and the desire to remember and honor those affected. 

These memorials hold a vital purpose: to ensure that the stories and sorrows of the Irish Potato Famine are never forgotten. They stand as silent witnesses to a time of immense suffering, paying tribute to the millions who suffered and perished. 

These places of remembrance are more than just physical structures; they are a way for societies around the world to acknowledge the shared humanity that connects us all. By honoring the victims and survivors, these memorials remind us of the necessity to combat hunger, injustice, and neglect, and to stand together in times of adversity.

Some famous Irish famine memorials are-

1. Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site (Canada)

This memorial on an island in Canada remembers the thousands of Irish immigrants who sought refuge there during the famine. It stands as a tribute to their struggles and the bonds between Canada and Ireland.

2. Famine Memorial, Dublin (Ireland)

This haunting sculpture along the River Liffey in Dublin depicts emaciated figures, representing the suffering during the famine. It serves as a reminder of the immense hardships faced by the Irish people.

3. Irish Hunger Memorial, New York City (USA)

Located in Battery Park City, this memorial is a recreated rural Irish landscape with stones from each of Ireland’s counties. It commemorates the Irish who emigrated to the United States and highlights the issue of hunger globally.

4. Doolough Tragedy Memorial (Ireland)

This memorial in County Mayo marks the tragic event when starving people were denied food relief during a harsh winter in 1849, resulting in deaths. It symbolizes the neglect and suffering experienced during the famine.

5. The Memorial to the Victims of the Great Irish Famine, Boston (USA)

Unveiled in 1998, this memorial acknowledges the role of Boston in providing assistance to Irish immigrants during the famine. It honors the Irish heritage and resilience.

The Irish Famine Memorial at Penn's Landing of Philadelphia
Irish famine memorial at Boston

6. Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks (Australia)

While not exclusively a famine memorial, the barracks were used to house thousands of Irish orphan girls who were sent to Australia during the famine. It reflects the emigration of young Irish women seeking a new life.

7. Dunbrody Famine Ship, New Ross (Ireland)

This replica of a famine ship represents the perilous journeys undertaken by many Irish emigrants during the famine. It’s a reminder of the hardships faced by those who left their homeland.

Monument to victims of great Irish Famine
Monument to victims of great Irish Famine

10 books on the Irish potato famine

  1. “The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849” by Cecil Woodham-Smith

2. “Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory” by Cormac Ó Gráda

3. “The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy” by Tim Pat Coogan

4. “Voices from the Great Irish Famine: Eyewitness Accounts” edited by Cathal Póirtéir

5. “The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People” by John Kelly

6. “The Irish Potato Famine” by Lisa K. Broad

7. “The Bad Times: An Droch-Shaol” by Christine Kinealy

8. “The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America” by Edward Laxton

9. “The Famine in Ireland” by William D. O’Connor

10. “The Workhouses of Ireland: The Fate of Ireland’s Poor” by John O’Connor


Why the Irish famine is called ”the great famine”?

It is called “The Great Famine” because of the immense scale of suffering, death, and societal impact caused by the Irish Potato Famine. The term “great” signifies the magnitude and severity of the tragedy that unfolded during that period.

Tarek Siddiki Taki

Hi! This is Tarek Siddiki Taki, a plant science graduate, passionate about biotechnologies and their role in addressing environmental issues. I aim to contribute to the advancement of plant science, particularly in horticulture, climate, and gene behavior. I am dedicated to sharing my knowledge and insights with others through my writing and research.