The Famine







Excess Deaths in Ireland:  1846-51*

Ulster           Leinster        Muenster      Connaught             IRELAND

345,264        140,088        489,779        516,468                  1,491,599

*        Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved (London, 1983), p. 266, reflecting 1851           Census information.  Figures include those who would not have died but for the Famine, are net of emigration and include averted births as deaths.

The Famine – Background

By the mid 19th century, the Irish populace depended for its physical survival on the success of the potato crop:  other food crops (grain, barley, corn) were exported to England.  By 1841, for 1/3 to 1/2 of the Irish the potato was the sole source of food.[1]  Although the potato was the dietary stable of the Irish farmer, enabling subsidence on a relatively small plot of land, the propensity of the Irish potato to disease had been evinced by 15 partial crop failures between 1800 and 1844.[2]

The first famine that struck Ireland’s summer harvest in 1845 was caused by a fungal disease which thrived in the mild Irish climate.  This disease first attacked crops in North American in 1843.  After harvesting a seemingly healthy crop, the infection would strike within hours.  As disbelieving farmers looked on, the potatoes turned to a black, pungent mush.  It was soon discovered that the tainted matter, when fed to farm animals, caused death.  The blight continued, completely destroying the 1846 crop.  The famine abated slightly in 1847, returning to devastate the harvest in 1848.[3]  The highest death rates were experienced in the south and west, where tenant sub-division was the greatest.

For those tenants unable to pay rent, landlords could recover possession of the land through the ejectment process. Although this method of redress was originally only permitted where a clause in the contract permitted it, this right of recovery was broadened to include all tenancies where the tenant was at least one year in arrears.[4]  Eviction procedures were begun by serving a notice to quit and most large landlords routinely served all their tenants with notices to quit on an annual basis.  Since most tenants were at least 6 months in arrears at any given time, a practice known as gunning gale, tenants lived in a permanent state of anxiety and insecurity awaiting eviction.[5]      By 1816, tenants in arrears could be evicted in 2 months at a cost of only £2, compared with 1 year and £18 in England.  In Ireland, landlords could also seize growing crops and even sell them to meet overdue rental payments.[6]  Although landlords may have been unwilling to evict freehold tenants prior to 1829, after the repeal this was no longer a consideration.  Actual ejectment from the property could only be done by the sheriff or constabulary, who in most cases were beholden to the local landlords.  In addition, ejectment by the sub-sheriff would take place with the approval of the courts.   For non-payment, the tenant was served with a notice stating the amount due.  For reasons other than non-payment, notice specified that tenant had 6 months to vacate the premises.[7]  Tenants could be served with notice to quit harboring squatters or lodgers, sub-letting and non-residence.   Following a court hearing, if the ruling was in favor of the landlord the sub-sheriff would give possession to the landlord’s bailiff.  Approximately 20% of those tenants evicted between 1849-1880 were readmitted as caretakers to the same lands.  Caretakers could be removed without any notice.

In examining eviction procedures, it is difficult to exaggerate the emotional significance of a family being thrown out of its home with no refuge but the workhouse.   Most of the parliamentary bills debated in the 1850’s and 1860’s, as well as the land act of 1870, addressed the capriciousness of the evictions and the immense power landlords had over tenants.  From 1843-53, the constabulary recorded 70,000 evictions of families.[8] Half of these evictions were clearances; many of those evicted were then pressured to accept employment as laborers who enjoyed no security.  Between 1850-59, 530,000 notices to quit were issued, approximately 10 for every actual eviction.[9]

Threats of eviction were also used to prevent sub-letting and punish tenants perceived as troublemakers.  Notices to quit were threatened to tenants for snaring hares and drunkenness.  Tenants also received threats in the form of letters, adorned with crude sketches of coffins and pistols, which promised retribution against the recipient’s family.  Those driven by hunger to trespass on bogs, poach the surrounding waters, or agitate against the land system were also threatened with eviction.

In addition to ejectment, under the doctrine of distress, the landlord was permitted to seize the crops of the tenant in arrears in order to compel payment.  If this was not possible, the landlord was permitted to sell the crops himself.

Irish land laborers lived under the English land law as quasi-slaves.  One manifestation of their frustration with the system and hatred of the landlord was the growth of secret societies.  In the face of the police’s inability to quell the violence, Irish politicians like Daniel O’Connell argued that his Catholic Association could control these groups, like the Whiteboys, and keep order.[10]   Societies were locally based and established to deal with specific instances of suppression.  Viewed as defensive in nature, these were generally formed on an ad hoc basis to counter ejectment procedures through the use of retribution.  Violence was directed both against the tenant who took up the holding following ejectment, who was looked upon as a traitor to the community, and against the land agents who carried out these policies.

The vast majority of Irish tenant farmers could be evicted by their absentee English landlords at will.  The need to pay rental rates 80% higher than those in England necessitated living in a perpetual state of semi-starvation.  The populace was forced to depend for its physical survival on the success of a single food source:  the potato. When this crop failed, families unable to pay rent faced not only starvation but the spectacle of eviction and commitment to workhouses from which few emerged alive.

The Irish potato famine of 1845-49 was a watershed in Irish-English relations. The Famine serves, within a 700 year period of colonial rule, as the paradigmatic example of forced Irish dependence upon the English.  The impact of ineffectual English policies is most acutely demonstrated during this time, and the inefficacy of Parliament’s response in the face of a national catastrophe most manifest. It is against this historical backdrop that the role of the English land law system — in the face of widespread starvation — must be understood.  Although some measures were taken to ameliorate the impact of the disaster (the selling of Indian corn,  funding of public work projects), English attitudes were governed by laissez faire economic policies and a deep-rooted mistrust of the Irish minority.  These factors contributed to the decision, whether intentional or not, to allow one segment of Great Britain to starve so that another might survive and flourish.

Many scholars view the Famine simply as a radical reallocation of resources, the paradigmatic Malthusian model:  relief of overpopulation by natural disaster.   This research posits a more complex view which challenges normative conceptions of the purpose of law and legal institutions in society.  For in evaluating the Famine disaster it is essential to acknowledge the extent to which land law became, for the British,  a tool to affect the subjugation and control of the Irish people.   The structure employed was the land-tenure system and the Crown’s surrogates were the landlords and their agents who administered the law.

The lessons learned from this inquiry are relevant today in understanding the methodologies utilized by other regimes seeking to dominate and control specific minorities. Indeed, recent actions for redress of injustices relating to property interests in Eastern and Central Europe attest to the timeliness of this issue.

[1]G. O’Tuathaigh, Ireland Before the Famine 1798-1848 (Dublin, 1972) p. 204.

[2]See:  J. Guttmann, ‘The Economics of Tenant Rights in Nineteenth Century Irish Agriculture’, 18 Econ. Inquiry 408 (1980).

[3]E. Crawford, Famine:  The Irish Experience 900-1900 (Edinburgh, 1989) p. 112-114.

Pre-Famine potato yeild per acre    6 tons

1845 harvest                                      4.5 tons

1848 harvest                                      3.9 tons

[4]5 Geo. II c. 4; 25 Geo. II c. 13

[5]R.B. O’Brien (ed).), Two Centuries of Irish History (London, 1888) p. 488.

[6]29 Geo. III c. 88; 58 Geo. III c. 39; 1 Geo IV c. 87.

[7]W.E. Vaughn, Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland (Oxford, 1994) p. 22

[8]Id, cp. 24-25.

[9]A.M. Sulllivan, New Ireland (London, 1877) p. 353.

[10]J. Lee, ‘The Ribbonmen’ in T. Desmond Williams (ed.) Secret Societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973) p. 25-35.


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