The Great Irish Famine


Dr. Brian Rainor

Ulster Historical Foundation

12 College Square East

Belfast BT1 6DD

The population of Ireland at the start of the Great Famine in 1845 was about 8.5 million.  Only 12% of this population lived in cities and towns, with a population of 2,000 and more and the only significant industry in the country, linen manufacture, was concentrated in the northern province of Ulster.  Ireland was a densely populated country by European standards with an average population of 335 per square mile but i deprived rural counties on the western sea board like Donegal, Mayo and Kerry, there were densities over 400 per square mile in 1841.  More than a third of the population were subsistence farmers absolutely dependent for the very existence of themselves and their families on an annual crop of about  6 tons of potatoes that they grew on the acre of land that they rented.  The vast majority of those subsisting on potatoes were concentrated in the western half of the country, west of a line drawn from Derry in the North to Cork in the South.

People could become destitute in the spring and early summer of each year between harvests.  With increasing use of the prolific but vulnerable “lumper” variety of potato there were partial famines in parts of Ireland in 1816-17, 1822 and 1832 but never before was there complete or partial failure of potatoes country wide for seven successive seasons as in the years 1845-51.  In 1845-46 there was a partial failure of potatoes with a loss of about a third of the crop.  In 1846-7 there was almost a complete failure.  After two seasons of failure very few potatoes were sown in the spring of 1847 and although there was virtually no blight, the harvest was small in 1847.  In 1848 then again compete failure of potatoes.

The winter of Black ’47 was the peak of the famine with hundreds of thousands dying and emigrating.  In the years 1845-56 40% of the population either died (1,100,000/1,500,000) or emigrated (2,300,000) and hundreds of thousands of migratory labourers and subsistence farmers and their families disappeared from the land.


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