Review: 'Atlas of the Great Irish Famine'

Review by John Bruton

Atlas of the Great Irish Famine
Edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy
Published by Cork University Press

This magnificent book was given to me as a 2012 Christmas gift by my wife, Finola, and daughter, Mary Elizabeth.  I only managed to find the time to read it a year later, over the Christmas holiday of 2013.

Because of the topic it covers, and the scale of its ambition, it has to be seen as one of the most important books published in Ireland so far this century.

The famine of 1846 to 1850 set the course of Irish history to this day, and had a dramatic long term impact on the political history of Britain, as well as on the demographics of the United States.

A blight on the potato crop was the proximate cause of the failure of the potato harvest, and thus of the Irish famine.   Potato blight was first detected in the area around New York in the United States in 1843.

It came to Europe in June 1845, in a consignment of seed potatoes sent to Belgium, which must not have been adequately examined before shipment. In subsequent months, it spread all over Northern Europe, and to Britain. The first Irish case was identified in the Botanic Gardens in Dublin in August 1845.  

Thanks to the availability of the potato, which produced more human nourishment per acre than any other crop, Ireland’s population had grown rapidly, from 5 million in 1800, to 7 million in 1821, and to 8.7 million in 1846.

Ireland had become dependent on the potato for food, to a degree that was not the case in other European countries, which also suffered from the blight at the same time. For example, in Cork alone, there was a larger area of land sown with potatoes, than the entire area of land under any form of tillage on the whole island of Ireland today.

The reasons for Ireland’s development of an over dependence on this one crop, over the previous century, might usefully be further explored in a future edition of this book.

It is probably pointless to ask why so few Irish people in 1845 assumed the potato crop would never fail,  just as it is pointless to ask why so many Irish people, and their bankers, assumed, in 2005, that house prices would never fall.  Humans are by nature optimistic, and tend to assume that present conditions, whatever they may be, will continue indefinitely. This applied to Irish landlords, who were running up debts, on the assumption that the potato generated prosperity was invulnerable, just as much as it applied to their tenants, who subdivided their holdings among their children, on the same basis.

(Left: A famished boy and girl turning up the ground to seek for a potato to appease their hunger. -- Illustrated London News, February 20, 1847.)

In a mere 20 years, from 1820 to 1840, the population had increased by over 50% in parts of North Kerry, west Clare, west Galway, and Sligo.

Interestingly , the highest absolute densities of persons per 100 acres, were not to be found in those counties, but  in a broad belt of land stretching from south of  Belfast, across Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan into Longford and Roscommon. Those areas had over 50 people per acre, whereas the density of population per acre was below 10 in some areas of Meath, Kildare, Wicklow, Kerry, Mayo and Galway.

In Meath and Kildare, the system of agriculture required fewer people. Meath land had instead to provide feed for 100,000 cattle in pre famine Ireland. In the other four counties, the soil fertility was well below the national average.

Two hundred years before, the distribution of the population had been very different. In 1660, the highest concentration of people per acre in Ireland was to be found in Meath, Dublin, East Cork, East Antrim and South East Wexford, where the population density was then 5 times that in the western counties.

In a sense, over two centuries, the Irish population had, willingly or otherwise, shifted from living on land which could feed it in a variety of different ways, to live on land which could feed it in only one way, by potato production.

Meanwhile large areas of the best land were shifted from meeting local food needs, to export production of livestock and grain products for the British market. 74% of Irish exports went to Britain by 1774, whereas only 38% had done so in 1683.

In 1841, Armagh was the county which had the highest density of people per square mile of arable land, more than 1,000 people per square mile, as against only 187 people per square mile in Kildare and 201 in Meath. In contrast, Armagh’s population density in 1660 had been below the national average.

Armagh would have had the linen industry to supplement its food production. This may explain why it could support such a high population in 1841, and also why it survived the famine better than his high population density might suggest. But the same cannot be said of Cavan, and Longford, which also had very high densities.

Some nationalist writers see the Irish famine as something connived at by the British Government, in the hope that it would clear Ireland of its surplus population, and thus make land available for higher value crops and livestock of which would be saleable to industrial populations of Britain.

(Right: Abandoned cottages in County Kerry. Click on photo for a larger view.)

While the British Treasury did spend money on famine relief, about £9.5 million in fact, it tried to shift the main burden on to Irish ratepayers (mostly landlords, many of whom were already bankrupt, before the famine started and their rents dried up). Furthermore, the £9.5million spent of relief, was less than the £10 million the Treasury spent on maintaining its military establishment in Ireland.

Clearly, the assumed mutual solidarity on which the Act  Union between Ireland and Britain had been enacted in 1800, did not exist when it came to spending sufficient amounts of British taxpayers money to save Irish lives. In a sense the Famine doomed the Union.

While there was a view in some quarters in London that Ireland was overpopulated, and Malthus had argued that the world as a whole was going to face a crisis of over population, I doubt if there was ever a deliberate plan or conspiracy to allow famine to reduce the Irish population. It was more that policy makers in London believed that Governments should be reluctant to interfere with natural economic processes.

The prevailing economic ideology in London in 1846 was of support for the free market. The view was that the market should be allowed to find its own level, scarcity would lead to higher prices, higher prices would call forth more production, and thus the scarcity would solve itself. One should not interfere with the market by providing free food because that would give people dependent on government, and by keeping prices artificially low would deter new private sector solutions.

That would have been the thinking of Charles Trevelyan, the London based Treasury official most directly concerned with the Governments response to the Irish Famine. It is a line of thought that has many echoes in current economic thinking. Indeed it is a policy that might even have worked in England, where there was a well developed market in food, and an infrastructure for getting food to where it was needed.

(Below: Over 9000 victims are buried in a mass grave in the open field behind these stones in Abbeystrowry Cemetery in Skibbereen, Co. Cork. Click on the photo for a larger view)


The problem with this thinking was that it had little applicability to the conditions of  Ireland in the 1840’s. In large parts of Ireland, there was no market economy through which food could be sold. In the worst hit areas, a cashless barter economy existed, whereby tenants bartered their labour on a land owner’s farm, in return for the use of a given area of his land for potato production for their own use.  As long as potato yields stayed high, both landlord and tenant had an incentive to keep subdividing holdings among young adult members of the tenant’s family, thereby providing more labour for the landlord, and keeping extended families near home. But once the potato failed, the tenant had nothing to eat, and no money to buy anything.

The most eloquent critic of the Government’s policy, quoted in this book, is actually a member of the establishment and the senior British official in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant himself, the fourth Earl of Clarendon, who wrote to his Prime Minister, Lord John Russell , in 1849,seeking more funds from Parliament for Famine Relief, saying: “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard the suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland and coldly persist in a policy of extermination”

If there was a conspiracy to use the famine to reduce the population, he was certainly not part of it. It was not so much a case of conspiracy, as of people being misled by abstract principles and prejudices, that could be seen by those on the ground not to work in Ireland of the 1840s. It is noteworthy that landlords, who actually lived locally in Ireland, were much more supportive of relief efforts, than those who owned Irish land but did not live locally.

The Famine reduced the population of Ireland dramatically, and in three ways, through starvation, disease and emigration. Famine related diseases spread to people who themselves may have had adequate nourishment. Many staff of work houses, and clergy of all denominations, died of  famine generated diseases.

The maps used in this book show that the  pattern of loss of life through  across different areas of the country did not follow some simple formula, like land quality or population density.

Donegal, with poorer land and higher population density, had a lower rate of “excess mortality” during the famine years than Meath had. The Aran islands, off the Galway coast, had an increase in population in the famine years, while thousands starved on the mainland and on other offshore islands, like Clare island in Mayo.

The county that had the biggest overall population loss, from a combination of ,eviction  and emigration, was Roscommon, which lost 31% of its population in ten years. But in terms of death by famine alone, the biggest losses were in Galway and Clare.

Many in those latter counties were simply too poor to meet the cost of emigrating. In Connacht for every 3 people who died, 2 emigrated. In Leinster, in contrast, more than two people emigrated, for every one person who died.

It was not solely the Catholic Irish who died or emigrated. The Presbyterian parish of Kilwaughter, near Larne in County Antrim, lost 36% of its population in the famine years, a higher rate of loss even than Roscommon, but in a smaller area.

In the county I know best, Meath, the population decline was most marked in the North West of the county, in the Kells, Oldcastle and Moynalty areas. There was a general decline across the middle of the county, with some exceptions like Donaghmore and Duleek, which saw their population increase over the Famine decade, for reasons I cannot explain. Villages, like Bohermeen, Kilberry, Syddan and  Ardcath, that existed before the famine, were no long there after it. All that remained in those places, until recently, was the lonely church, that used to be the centre of a  village.

(Right: Click on image for a larger view.)

One response to the failure of the potato crop was the eviction of tenants who could no longer pay their rents. This was probably more likely where the rent was paid in cash rather than in labour services. Thus, two fifths of all the evictions in Ireland in the famine years were in Munster, as against a quarter of the total in Connacht, a fifth in Leinster, and only one tenth of the total in Ulster.

These evictions, in the midst of starvation, were facilitated by the means test system,that was used to decide who could get famine relief supplies. Once one still had a sizeable holding, one did not qualify for relief.

The evictions had a poisonous effect on relations between tenant and landlord, and contributed to the bitterness of the “Land War” later in the nineteenth century. They also influence Irish attitudes to the legitimacy house repossessions for unpaid debts, to this very day.

Tipperary was the county which had the highest rate of evictions, and the highest rate of agrarian protests in these years. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the county in which the War of Independence started in 1919.

Could a potato famine ever happen again somewhere in the world?

Are there lessons to be learned today about the risk of relying for subsistence on one crop?

John Feehan, a biology lecturer in University College Dublin, argues in one of the essays in the book, that the potato is likely to play a growing role in the world’s diet, as we struggle to find affordable food, for a population that could rise by an extra two billion by 2050.

China is now the world’s biggest potato producer in the world, and India produces twice as many potatoes as the USA. A virulent strain of potato blight was identified in Mexico in 1992, which overpowers the blight resistant genes in the potato plant, and is able to withstand conventional fungicides. Feehan concludes that” a twenty first century version of the Great Famine is a real possibility”.

By its combination of maps and text, this book enables one to understand the Famine in ways a simple narrative history could never achieve.

A reader, who is familiar with a particular country and its land, can compare the famine experience of the locality with it looks like today. It would be interesting of an interactive web version of the book could be published, which would enable readers to drill down further into particular parts of the map to access the underlying local data on which they are based.


Read about the focus on The Great Irish Famine at the 2013 Cúirt International Festival of Literature *


Read more reviews for The Wild Geese by John Bruton.

John Bruton, a former Teachta Dála in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann, served as the nation’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) from 1994 to 1997, and as Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2007.  He is currently President of IFSC Ireland.  A graduate of University College Dublin, with degrees in economics and law, he is a passionate student of history.  John has graciously agreed to write book reviews on occasion for The Wild Geese. You can get more of John's perspectives on Irish -- and world -- affairs at

Views: 1967

Tags: An Gorta Mór, Books, Famine, History, Literature, The Great Hunger

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on January 23, 2014 at 6:00am

Really, really would like a copy of this.  Had my eye on it since it was first released, in case anyone out there is looking for birthday gift ideas for me. :-)

Comment by Mara Solberg on January 25, 2014 at 5:27pm

I read a book a few years ago about the Famine. I don't recall the name, but very well written. I learned so much about the suffering and the main story was how this young girl was the only one of her family to survive and she walked endlessly for days until she got to the sea, boareded a ship and came to America. I wish I knew the name of the book because I would buy it and read it again.

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on January 25, 2014 at 6:04pm

Was it the "Children of the Famine" series, Mara?

Comment by Sarah McNaughton on January 26, 2014 at 3:13pm

"...I doubt if there was ever a deliberate plan or conspiracy to allow famine to reduce the Irish population." 
~John Bruton

This writer, apparently of great esteem as witnessed by his very long bio, is an apologist. And contrary to what he asserts, I am not an Irish Republican. I'm American (half-Jewish) who has read the facts and does not have a stake, either as an Irish politician or as an Irish Republican. 

The policy makers, particularity Charles Trevelyan, saw the famine of the potato as an opportunity to hide behind mass removals of tenant farmers. In typical Anglo-Saxon method, Parliament made half-hearted attempts at relief in order to prove their willingness to help. But this was only a cover and anyone with a brain of their own, unhitched to either side of the argument, sees it this way too. Here are two easily found quotations from Trevelyan himself during the time. 

"The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evi..." ~Trevelyan

"The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated." ~Trevelyan

Others within Parliament resigned, clearly stating in their exit speeches that they absolutely did not want their names associated with this horrific event. Let's not call it a famine folks, for their was food all over Ireland at the time. Plenty enough to avert such a tragedy. But this food was cash crops for the English empire that was sent to its territories while the Irish died in droves by the ditches, on coffin ships and fever tents.

Soup kitchens, work houses and road making were schemes to prevent the argument of outright holocaust or genocide. Don't let people who are clearly apologizing for the English government policymakers sway you. Remember Robert the Bruce in the move Braveheart and all of the Scottish clans that were bought out? 


Comment by DJ Kelly on January 27, 2014 at 2:53am

Oh dear. The movie Braveheart? Not one to quote in the context of keeping history accurate.

I am Irish, though English educated. Nothing of the famine is taught in school in Britain and that's a shame, as little is taught either of the fact that English people were starving to death at the time too, albeit not on the same scale as in Ireland. With classic English understatement, the situation in England was termed 'The Agrarian Crisis'.  

Bad weather across Europe in the mid 1800s led to a series of crops failures and the sort of mild, damp conditions which favoured the spread of the potato blight. Worst affected were Ireland, England, Belgium and Germany. It is true that those areas with diverse crops fared slightly better than Ireland, with its reliance on the potato, but they did not fare well. I was astonished when reading court records for Oxfordshire in the 1840s to read the magistrates' comments about the lamentable state of the county, where price rises caused by grain shortages were forcing people to steal to buy bread. The magistrates' sadness at seeing before them so many decent people who had been forced to take desperate and criminal measures is recorded in the court rolls. Those people were largely transported and sometimes executed. Seemingly pointless road and other building projects were carried out in that county too. Oxfordshire's poor houses and work houses, like those in Ireland, were daily turning people away.

How ironic that the blighted seed potatoes should have come from America, which was soon to receive so many souls fleeing to escape the famine and its aftermath. According to my late grandmother, my great grandparents survived the famine by virtue of 3 things: the soup provided by Quakers (no religious conversion attached); their own skill in making black pudding (no slaughter of livestock is necessary for this), and the import of Indian Meal (Maize) flour from their relatives in America -albeit that they had to bribe some of their fellow Irishmen to release the consignments.

Following the consequent Land Acts, my own grandfather was able to buy the land in Mayo which his forefathers had long worked as tenant farmers. The British government paid for him to attend agricultural college in Lancashire, where he learned new farming methods and made contacts amongst Lancashire farmers, with whom he exchanged potato seed annually thereafter. This system of seed exchange  was encouraged and funded by the British government, in the hopes of preventing future recurrence of the blight.

Today, that land has been subdivided amongst my grandfather's son's children (I am a child of one of his daughters, so had to work to buy my own potato patch) and now consists of holiday homes, built whilst the Celtic Tiger was roaring. The world moves on.

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on January 27, 2014 at 11:21am

It seems to me there are two quotes in the context of historical accuracy here, they are:

"The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evi..." ~Trevelyan

"The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated." ~Trevelyan


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership

Start a Business Today!

Adobe Express:
What will you create today?


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners

© 2024   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service