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The Irish famine is also referred to as the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor, or the Great Potato Famine. At the time it occurred, the majority of the population were Catholics living in poverty stricken conditions. Britain had control over the region, and most of the land was owned by wealthy British citizens. The landlords were ruthless and evicted tenants for small reasons, leaving some families homeless and penniless.
At the same time, most of the population lived only on potatoes. Each family had only a small area in which to plant crops, and potatoes were the only thing that could sustain an entire family. Most of the population lived on potatoes, which made it difficult when the Irish famine occurred.
At some point in the early 1840s, the Phytophthora infestans appeared in Ireland. There’s some historical evidence that the disease first struck parts of America and then was carried into Ireland on cargo ships. Starting in 1845, the disease started striking crops all over Europe. By the end of 1846, over 75% of the potato crops in Ireland were gone. It was during this time that starvation deaths began appearing, and locals realized that the loss of crops meant no crops or seeds for the following seasons.
John Mitchel became the face of the Irish famine, writing articles and urging other countries to help. He was one of the first to note the shortage of food in the country, as well as the deaths that were occurring. Mitchel was also one of many to plea with England for help and support during this time, although these pleas went unanswered. When they finally did respond, it was in unusual ways.
England tried public works programs, which failed. They then set about creating work houses and soup kitchens, but expected the landlords to pay for those projects. The landlords were told to create the help centers on their own land for tenants, but many instead evicted their tenants so they wouldn’t have to pay anything. Food was shipped in from other countries, with the expectation that locals would buy the food, but most of it was returned since many were too broke to afford the luxury. Charity in the form of financial donations eventually came, but they were from unlikely sources like Calcutta.
The Irish famine led to over half the residents emigrating from Ireland to other countries. Historical estimates put the number of deaths, as the result of the famine, at somewhere around 700,000, though others claim the actual number is closer to one million or even more. Many died from starvation, but others died as the result of poor nutrition, which aggravated diseases spreading around the country like cholera and influenza. Today, the Irish famine is regarded as one of the worst tragedies in the country’s history.
The Great Famine (Ireland) entry at Wikipedia is one of the best resources on this subject. The entry gives a full history of the famine, how it affected Irish citizens, and a list of memorials devoted to the subject. Another good resource is Irish Potato Famine, which lists quite a bit of information on how things were before and after the famine.