The Irish Potato Famine

Under British colonial rule, Irish Catholics were not allowed to own land and could only rent from “middlemen” who would subdivide plots owned by wealthy British Protestant landlords. Most Irish farmers lived on a subsistence level, as they could be evicted at the will of British landlords and survived only on potatoes because they were rich in nutrients and could be easily grown on small plots of land. In 1845 the potato crop was infected with potato blight (Phytophthora infestans), brought to Europe from the Americas, which caused the potatoes to rot in the ground or soon after they were harvested. The loss of the crop devastated the Irish peasants who were dependent on it, resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths and a surge of emigration to the United States and Canada. By 1852 the population of Ireland had fallen by over 20 percent. The famine permanently altered Irish demographics and increased resentment towards British colonial rule, changing the political and social landscape and leading to independence in the century that followed.

Contributed by Madeline Sheehy
Course: Modern Global Environmental History
Instructor: Dr. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg
University of Wisconsin–Madison, US

Further Readings: 
  • Donnelly, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2001.
  • Braa, Dean M. "The Great Potato Famine and the Transformation of Irish Peasant Society." Science & Society 61: 193–215.
  • Wade, Nicholas. "Testing Links Potato Famine to an Origin in the Andes." New York Times (1923-Current file): 1. Jun 07 2001. ProQuest. Web.