1. Ireland in 1815
Ireland. at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was coming to the end of a long period of economic expansion. Rising demand for food—first from the British and French colonies in the West Indies and from the steadily increasing volume of shipping crossing the Atlantic, later from the new industrial centres of Great Britain—had encouraged a dramatic expansion of agriculture. There was also a growing industrial sector: an export-based linen manufacture, a woollen industry meeting most domestic needs, food processing enterprises such as brewing, distilling and flour milling, and luxury trades such as silk weaving, glass-making and coach building. When, in the 1770s, English cotton manufacturers developed steam and water powered machinery for the spinning of cotton thread, Irish manufacturers responded with impressive speed, setting up factories using the new technology in a wide range of locations.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the effects of agricultural, industrial and commercial expansion were everywhere to be seen. Dublin, Cork and other centres had expanded rapidly, with narrow crooked streets and timbered houses giving way to broad avenues lined with substantial town houses and public buildings. In the countryside, likewise, land was drained or reclaimed, fields were enclosed by ditches and hedges, and landlords invested their growing wealth in new mansions set in carefully laid out demesnes. The population had risen from less than 2.5 million in the early eighteenth century to perhaps 5 million by 1800.
2. Agriculture & living standards
With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that this facade of prosperity concealed dangerous weaknesses. Irish agriculture had responded to widening opportunities. But the average Irish farm was small, with little opportunity for capital investment; instead agricultural production relied on abundant supplies of very cheap labour. Wool, cotton and other manufacturing enterprises, likewise, were in general smaller and less technologically advanced than their English and Scottish counterparts. Already by the 1780s the wool and silk industries showed signs of decline, as businesses failed and workers became unemployed. Living standards were also low by comparison with most parts of Great Britain. The rise in population, which more than doubled in half a century, testified to the extent to which the prosperity of the eighteenth century had reached even the very poor, lifting the threat of famine and reducing child and adult mortality. But the expansion had greatly increased the relative size of the most vulnerable sections of the population: landless labourers, competing for work on the holdings of the relatively few larger occupiers, or seeking to support a family on small plots of land located on the margins of settlement, on mountain sides or reclaimed bog. In 1800 most people were still optimistic about Ireland's prospects. But it would not take much to expose the underlying fragility of its recent economic success.
3. Agricultural crisis and industrial decline
By the end of the eighteenth century Irish farmers had largely lost their transatlantic markets to the developing agriculture of the new United States. Instead they had found a new and expanding market in the growing non-agricultural population of industrialising Britain. For the greater part of the period 1793–1815 war between Britain and France had pushed up demand, while at the same time restricting imports from continental Europe. By 1810–14 the price paid for Irish cereals was almost twice what it had been in the early 1780s; the price of meat and dairy products had more than doubled. The defeat of France in 1813, however, led to a slump in demand, while it reopened the British market to continental suppliers. Between 1812 and 1816 grain prices on the Dublin market fell by between 40% and 50%, meat prices by more than half, and the price of butter by about one-third. Prices recovered somewhat in the years that followed, but throughout the period 1815–45 they remained well below their wartime peak, with further slumps in the early 1820s and again in the early 1830s.
The results, for all classes of rural society, were disastrous. Landlords, burdened by debts and other commitments dating from the years of prosperity, struggled with falling payments from tenants. Farmers found rents that had been reasonable in the years of high prices now impossible to meet. Most of all, the rural poor discovered that plots of land that had barely supported a family in former years could not now provide even a minimum subsistence. Work on other men’s land also became harder to come by, as price trends favoured livestock farming over more labour intensive tillage. Meanwhile population, though growing less quickly than in the boom years, continued to creep upwards, from 6.8 million in 1821 to 7.8 million by 1831 and 8.2 million in 1841. By 1845 perhaps one and a quarter million families were dependent for their support on holdings of less than five acres. A detailed enquiry into rural poverty reported in 1836 that an agricultural labourer could on average count on 134 days of paid employment in a year.
4. The collapse of the wool and cotton industries
The second major blow to the Irish economy came in the mid–1820s, with the catastrophic collapse of two major industries, wool and cotton. Irish manufacturing in the late eighteenth century had flourished behind a wall of import duties. The Act of Union provided for the phasing out of all such duties by 1824, creating a free trade area within the new United Kingdom. Modern studies suggest that already before 1800 Irish producers had fallen behind their English and Scottish rivals in technological sophistication, to the point where no feasible system of protection could have allowed them to hold out indefinitely against competition from across the Irish Sea. But the sudden withdrawal of protection meant that what might have been a gradual decline was instead brutally swift. The severe recession that hit all parts of the British Isles during 1825–6 brought widespread business failures. By the late 1830s most of the mills that had once held out the promise of an Irish industrial revolution had closed or were operating at a much reduced level, while Ireland now depended on English and Scottish imports for the great bulk of its cotton and woollen cloth.
The failure of the woollen and cotton industries must be seen in perspective. The crisis, in the first place, was confined to these two branches of manufacturing. There was no general collapse of Irish industry. Secondly, the decline of cotton and woollen textile manufacture must be set against the very different story of linen. The first quarter of the nineteenth century had been a difficult time. Flax fibre was too fine to be machine spun, and linen had lost ground to the cheaper cotton cloth woven from factory-spun thread. By the mid–1820s, however, the invention of a wet spinning process had made possible the machine spinning of linen yarn. In north-east Ulster, the traditional home of the linen industry, industrialists transferred resources from a declining cotton trade into newly profitable linen. Belfast, the centre of the new factory based industry, grew rapidly, sucking in population from the surrounding countryside. Between 1831 and 1841 its population grew by almost half, from 53,000 to 75,000. By the early 1840s it could be described as Ireland’s Manchester.
The spectacular success of linen in the north-east makes it impossible to claim that Ireland did not share in the industrial revolution. Indeed there is a case for saying that what happened in Ireland differed only in scale from what happened elsewhere in the British Isles, where a few regions (the Clyde valley, south Wales, the English north and midlands) developed as centres of factory-based industry, while elsewhere agriculture and small-scale handicrafts remained dominant. But the problem remained that the industrialisation of the north-east, though it was impressive, was not by itself sufficient to offset the rise in population in the island as a whole, now that it was no longer accompanied by exceptionally rapid agricultural growth.
5. Pre-famine crisis?
At first sight then, the story of the Irish economy between 1815 and 1845 was one of deepening crisis. Population had risen sharply during the exceptionally favourable conditions of the second half of the eighteenth century. Prolonged agrarian depression after 1815 created inevitable problems. The failure of manufacturing industry outside the north-east meant that there was no prospect of a surplus rural population being absorbed, as was the case in England and Scotland, by expanding industrial centres. Instead growing numbers clung to inadequate holdings of land, or to precarious earnings as labourers in an overcrowded market, pitiably vulnerable to every fluctuation in prices or crop yields. Against this background the disastrous Famine of 1845–50 is often seen as the culmination of a classic crisis of subsistence, with rising population pressing against the ceiling of limited resources.
More recent assessments, however, have warned against assuming that pre-Famine Ireland was a society doomed to catastrophe. Despite its evident problems, the economy was not stagnant. Agricultural output, of both livestock and tillage products, rose steadily. One estimate puts overall growth between 1800 and 1845 at between 80% and 100%. Some of this increase was due to the gradual dissemination of improved techniques of cultivation, new livestock breeds, or more effective crop rotations. Much was the result of increasingly intensive land use, and the desperate pursuit of the marginal gains to be made from the reclamation of bog and mountain waste. The techniques used were often primitive; but from another point of view this can be seen as an effective use of Ireland’s main resource, abundant supplies of cheap labour. Manufacturing also had its successes as well as its failures. Brewing, distilling and flour milling, all solidly based on Ireland’s agricultural resources, expanded during the first half of the nineteenth century, making increasing use of the new technology of steam power. The advent of steam shipping from the mid-1820s helped to destroy the cotton and wool manufactures, but opened up the British market to Irish flour, beer, spirits, meat, and dairy produce. Internal transport also improved, with a growing fleet of coaches and horse-drawn cars carrying both passengers and goods along Irish roads. The 1830s and 1840s were also the heyday of Ireland’s canals. Meanwhile, new legislation in 1821 encouraged the development during the 1820s and 1830s of a more extensive and at the same time more stable network of banks.
Alongside this evidence of economic progress must be set indicators of social and cultural change. Imports of tea, sugar, and tobacco stagnated in the years immediately after 1815, but rose significantly during 1830–45. The number of children attending school rose from 200,000 in 1806 to more than 560,000 by 1824. In 1841 it was found that almost two-thirds of all men and boys born between 1821 and 1830 were able to read and write. Meanwhile the proportion of children growing up with a knowledge of Irish had fallen from 45% of those born in the late eighteenth century to only 28% of those born in 1831–41. Language change and the rise of literacy were in turn crucial to another striking development of the 1820s and after: the spectacular growth of a sophisticated new style of popular politics, manifested first in the campaign for Catholic Emancipation and later in the Repeal movement. None of this is compatible with the image of a society locked in uniform poverty and economic stagnation.
6. Social and economic indicators
Any discussion of economic and social change must take account of social and regional distinctions. Precise figures on the size of the different social groups in early nineteenth-century Ireland are impossible to obtain. But one recent analysis suggests that the farming population can be roughly divided into about 50,000 wealthy farmers, with an average of 80 acres per family, 100,000 ‘strong farmers’, with an average of 100 acres, and 200,000 ‘family farmers’, with an average of 20 acres. Below them came 250,000 smallholders, with an average of 5 acres per household, and one million labourers, who worked on other men’s land either for a cash wage or as ‘cottiers’ in exchange for a plot of ground on which to grow food for themselves and their families. There were also important regional differences. The poor lands of the western counties supported a population composed mainly of smallholders, with few large occupiers or landless labourers. In the more fertile south and midlands reasonably comfortable medium and large farmers coexisted with a desperately poor population of smallholders, cottiers, and labourers. In the east, where conditions favoured tillage farming and towns offered alternative employment, farmers were in general comfortable and landless labourers somewhat better off than elsewhere. It seems safe to assume that rising literacy and improved standards of material consumption were felt more strongly among the medium and large farmers, and little if at all among the rural poor.
Even where the least advantaged sections of Irish rural society are concerned, however, it is necessary to be precise about the nature of the poverty they experienced. The potato provided a highly nutritious, if monotonous diet. The mud-walled huts of the rural poor, however crude, provided adequate shelter in the temperate Irish climate, while widespread peat bogs provided plentiful fuel. Standards of material consumption—furniture, clothing, and household utensils—were undoubtedly low by comparison with Great Britain. But levels of physical well-being were remarkably good. Evidence from registers of convicts, and from records of men recruited into the armed forces, indicates that the average Irishman of the poorer classes was, in fact, somewhat taller than his English counterpart. Life expectancy for adults was roughly the same as in Great Britain, although infant mortality was up to 50 per cent higher.
Against this background it becomes necessary to reconsider the image of an economic system on the brink of inevitable collapse. After 1815 the Irish economy had passed through a difficult period. By the early 1840s, however, there were clear signs of adjustment to changing circumstances. Evidence from landed estates suggests that the repeated subdivision of holdings had been brought under control and that there had instead been a degree of consolidation of small plots into more substantial farms. In some regions livestock had expanded at the expense of less profitable tillage. Emigration had also increased—between 1815 and 1845 an estimated 1.5 million people left—and the age at marriage had also risen as it became more difficult to form new households. Population, therefore, was still rising, but at a much reduced rate: the extra 400,000 added between 1831 and 1841 was less than half the increase of the previous decade. Meanwhile agricultural productivity was increasing, and manufacturing was slowly but steadily expanding. The rural population was for the most part poor, but well housed, well fed and generally healthy. The sudden and unforeseeable failure of the potato was thus a violent external shock administered to a society which had passed through a difficult period of transition, but had begun to put its worst problems behind it. Without the potato blight it is easy to see how population could have stabilised at around 7 to 8 million, with cheap labour sustaining a large and still profitable tillage sector until the steady expansion of a range of mainly agriculturally-based industries gradually raised living standards.
7. The Great Famine
In 1844, the last year before the Famine, a total of 2.4 million acres sown with potatoes produced a crop of approximately 15 million tons. In 1845 blight cut the total produced to approximately 10 million tons. In 1846 yields fell catastrophically, so that 2 million acres produced less than 3 million tons of edible potatoes. In 1847 blight was less acute, but after two bad seasons only a little over a quarter of a million acres had been sown, so that the total crop was only 2 million tons. Blight returned in the years that followed, so that even with a somewhat larger acreage only 3 million tons were produced in 1848 and only 4 million in 1849.
This drastic fall in potato yields created an appalling crisis. The potato had been the ideal food for a relatively poor rural population. No other crop could be grown in such quantity on poor or reclaimed land; its low status and relative bulk limited commercial demand; and it was also highly nutritious. Its loss thus left millions facing imminent starvation. As the crisis continued the rapidly rising price of all other produce brought hardship even to those who in other circumstances might have been able to provide themselves with alternative food. Widespread malnutrition also led to the rapid spread of a range of diseases, notably typhus and relapsing fever, which in fact killed far more than died of actual starvation. By 1850 an estimated million people had died of hunger or disease, and another million had fled the country, emigrating to Great Britain or North America.
In the first year of the Famine, 1845–6, Sir Robert Peel’s Tory government responded reasonably effectively to the partial failure of the crop by instituting public works and selling off imported grain at controlled prices. The Whig government that took office in June 1846, with its policy of laissez-faire, rejected any interference in the market, relying instead on an expanded public works programme. In February 1847, faced with evidence of large-scale suffering and death, the Government reluctantly authorised the provision of free food. Over the next eight months soup kitchens provided emergency rations to an estimated three million people. From September, however, the government insisted that the soup kitchens be phased out, leaving those still in need to be cared for entirely within the already overburdened workhouse system, a decision widely regarded as contributing to the heavy death toll that continued over the next three years.
8. Did the British government do enough?
Any assessment of the British Government’s handling of the Famine must take into account the limited resources available to a mid nineteenth-century administration. But most modern accounts agree that its response nevertheless amounted to far less than could have been done. The earlier introduction and continuation over a longer period of the soup kitchens, in particular, would undoubtedly have saved many lives. In all, British Government spending on Famine relief amounted to £8.3 million, less than half of one per cent of the gross national product of the United Kingdom for a single year. Much of this money, moreover, was initially given in the form of loans rather than grants. Although the debts thus incurred were later written off, the effect at the time was to inhibit relief committees from spending money that they expected would later have to be repaid from local taxes.
The failure of the most economically advanced society in the world to intervene more effectively to prevent its own citizens starving to death can be explained in various ways. In some cases, Government initiatives were stifled or blunted due to the vested interests of landowners with Irish interests reluctant to see their estates burdened by the necessary taxation. But there were also two more general considerations at work. The first was a desire to ensure that local authorities would turn to central Government only when their own resources were genuinely exhausted. Ministers were particularly committed to this stance because of their belief that Irish landlords were largely responsible, by their long-term indifference to the development of their estates and the welfare of their tenantry, for the disaster now unfolding in the Irish countryside. Irish property, they insisted, should pay for Irish poverty. Secondly there was the belief that the potato blight, however terrible its consequences, provided an opportunity to reform Irish agriculture, by clearing away surplus population to leave a smaller class of more prosperous farmers and a shrunken but securely employed agricultural labour force. From this point of view over-generous relief, encouraging the destitute to remain where they were, would only prolong the agony for all concerned.
Neither of these concerns—that local property owners should not evade their share of the responsibility, and that the process of adjustment to changed conditions should not be impeded—were in themselves unreasonable. The problem arose because they were given such primacy in the shaping of overall policy. Here it is hard to deny that the response of the British politicians and public to the Famine reflected the psychological distance that existed between Ireland and other parts of what was theoretically a united kingdom. There was a degree of sympathy for Irish suffering. But exposure to harrowing accounts of Irish poverty during earlier partial failures of the potato crop had helped to create a degree of what has been called compassion fatigue. Sympathy was further eroded when Great Britain itself was hit by recession in 1847, and when the return of a large Repeal contingent to parliament, followed by the Young Ireland insurrection of 1848, seemed to demonstrate the ingratitude of the Irish for what had been done for them. Some studies have also stressed the influence on key policy makers of a particular strain of Protestant evangelicalism, in which the undeniable horrors of the Famine could be interpreted as an example of the terrible but unquestionable workings of God’s providence, operating to root out social and moral evils.
9. Post-famine adjustment
To understand the long-term effects of the famine on Irish agriculture, it is important to recognise that the potato was not just the staple food of a large section of the population. It was also in many cases a medium of exchange: farmers who would have found it difficult to pay cash wages for the labour necessary to pursue intensive tillage were able instead to hire cottiers who would give so many days work in exchange for a small plot of otherwise fallow ground on which they could grow potatoes for themselves and their families. The collapse of potato yields, year after year, thus meant not only an immediate food shortage but also the collapse of a whole agrarian system. Even after 1850, with potato yields still lower and less reliable than in the past, there was no going back. Instead Irish agriculture was reorganised round the raising of livestock, in particular cattle. Between 1851 and 1871 the acreage devoted to grain fell by 30%, while the area devoted to pasture for grazing and fodder rose by almost 20%.
This transfer from tillage to stock rearing was made possible by, and at the same time helped to bring about, a sharp decline in population. By 1851 famine mortality and emigration had already reduced total numbers to 6.5 million, as compared to 8.2 million ten years earlier. By 1861 numbers had fallen still further, to 5.8 million, and by 1871 to 5.4 million. With subdivision of holdings now largely eliminated, and opportunities for paid employment sharply curtailed by the decline of tillage, it had become increasingly difficult to form new households, while growing numbers found that they no longer had a place within rural society. The second half of the nineteenth century thus saw a further rise in the average age at marriage for both men and women, as well as in the proportion of both who never married. Meanwhile, emigration in the years after 1850 continued at a level almost as high as that during the Famine years. Between 1851 and 1871 a further 1.9 million people emigrated, mainly to Great Britain and North America. Not all emigrants should necessarily be seen as unwilling victims of social change. The heavy emigration of the Famine years had broken down previous barriers to mobility, creating an awareness of emigration as an option and establishing networks of friends and family abroad which made the path of future emigrants less daunting. Some at least of those who availed of the opportunities that were opened up probably thought more in terms of improving their lives than of being forced out by impossible pressures. But their decision to leave must still be seen in the context of the unappealing options which rural Ireland now offered, not only to the landless, but to those sons of farming households unfortunate enough not to inherit the family holding, and those daughters who did not get a dowry that would allow them to marry into a household broadly similar to their own.
Along with the decline in population went a marked change in social structure. All classes suffered during the Famine; disease, in particular, spared no social group. But it was inevitably the rural poor who were most badly hit. By contrast the number of farms over 15 acres actually increased slightly between 1841 and 1851. Labourers and smallholders also contributed the largest share of the continued outflow after 1850. Before 1845 farmers had been outnumbered more than two to one by the rural poor. By the late nineteenth century, on the other hand, the landless labourer was part of a depressed minority in a society now dominated by the family farm.
This post-Famine re-adjustment took place against the background of a world-wide economic boom that continued into the early 1870s. Irish agriculture, reorganised round an export-based livestock sector and with a much reduced labour force, benefited from a quarter century of high food prices, interrupted only by a series of bad seasons, due to bad weather, during 1859–64. Between 1854 and 1874 the income of Irish farmers rose by almost two-thirds, that of agricultural labourers by around one quarter. (Irish landlords, contrary to their reputation as ruthless exploiters, settled for a mere 12% increase in their rent rolls.) For Irish industry, too, this was an age of general prosperity. The east Ulster linen manufacture, now mechanised in both its spinning and weaving sectors, continued to expand. With the establishment in 1861 of Harland and Wolff, Belfast also began its development as a major centre of shipbuilding. In Dublin Guinness’s brewery, already a century old, enjoyed a period of rapid growth, tripling its output between 1855 and 1870. Other breweries and distilleries also flourished, as did flour milling and a range of other manufactures, including even a modest recovery in the woollen industry. Most Irish industrial ventures outside the north-east were local; in the more depressed conditions of the 1880s and after, they were to prove highly vulnerable to the dumping of cut-price goods by much larger English and Scottish producers. But for the moment they continued to benefit from buoyant home markets for their produce.
Overall, then, the 1850s and 1860s were a period in which a declining Irish population enjoyed the fruits of substantially increasing national wealth. With greater prosperity came accelerated social change. The proportion of persons able to read and write rose from 47% in 1841 to 75% by 1881. The proportion able to speak Irish, already only 23% in 1851, fell further to 18% thirty years later. The number of newspapers published in Ireland rose from less than 100 in 1852 to more than 140 by 1871. The great symbol of the modern age, the railway, had made small beginnings before 1850, with just over 400 miles of track. By 1870 there were almost 2,000 miles, and the number of passengers carried annually had risen to over 14 million. By this time, equally, over 400 Irish towns had telegraph offices linking them to the outside world: the intensely local, inward-looking society of the past was disappearing rapidly. Folklorists and antiquarians commented disapprovingly on the disappearance of a whole range of popular traditions and beliefs. But the political history of the 1870s and 1880s was to demonstrate the extent to which rising prosperity, education, and awareness of the world beyond one’s immediate vicinity had combined to produce a new capacity for organisation and self-assertion.