Bridget O’Donnel was lying on the floor in a fever and behind on the rent when the authorities came to take her. Fortunately, her two neighbors carried her out and laid her in a cabin to recover. During the eight days she lay in fever, she gave birth to a stillborn child. It took her nearly a month to recover, and in that time her entire family caught the fever. Her thirteen- -year-old son died of hunger while sick.
That is just a small excerpt of the story of Bridget O’Donnel, an Irish mother during the Irish Famine. The Great Hunger, as it was known, struck Ireland in 1845, and in the next few years would decimate the people and country of Ireland, affecting the country and the rest of the world in ways that would not soon be forgotten.
The Rise of the Famine
The famine hit the hardest in the last half of the 1840s, but Ireland was already in dire economic straits by then. Prior the famine in 1835, French sociologist Gustave de Beaumont visited Ireland and was taken back by the level of poverty throughout the country. Upon his return he wrote, “I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland…In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.”
The condition of Ireland would get worse though, as the potato blight struck in 1845 and spread quickly; without warning most of Ireland’s potato crop was devastated. Things would continue this way for quite some time. Part of the reasons for the continuation of the famine stemmed from issues with Britain’s role in the debacle. Whether blaming the English and the Act of Union for Ireland’s inability to respond to the famine, or their failure to provide aid once the famine struck, the consensus was that Britain did too little to help the Irish peasants during their time of need.
The Drought’s Impact
Because Ireland was not prepared for a famine of such magnitude, its repercussions were widespread and often very grim. Ireland lost 20% of its population, and though some of the Irish managed to flee the country in search of a better life, many died on the boats to America in what people ended up calling coffin ships. The situation wasn’t much better back in Ireland, as there were too many dead to deal with. There were not enough coffins for the dead and the country’s papers ran out of room to report those lost.
In addition to the devastating effects on the people of Ireland, the country also plummeted into financial ruin. This further exacerbated the situation, leading to violence among the Irish peasants and the landlords, as well as between the Irish and the British. These changes only worsened the effects of the plague and eventually led to a call for change.
Lasting Effects of the Famine
A lot of changes took place after the famine in order to ensure something similar wouldn’t happen again. Some of the biggest changes took place in agriculture, and the research done led to much advancement in farming techniques. These advancements have led to a more widespread knowledge of different methods of preventing the kind of blight that devastated Ireland.
The famine did more than just lead to changes in the field of agriculture. The Great Irish Famine changed Ireland and the world, from the decrease in prevalence of the Irish language to changes in immigration policy and more. The stretch of these changes spas from Australia to America and has lasted throughout the centuries.
Additionally many of the Irish, with no chance of survival in Ireland, went to America where they settled in towns like Boston and New York. While there is a lot known about the difficulties the Irish faced upon entering America, the Irish also played a big part in the American Industrial revolution, and the increased population provided more reasons for Westward expansion.
The following links provide more information on the Irish Famine, from books about the famine to diaries of people who lived during that time and more:
- Two books that discuss the Irish famine in greater detail are The Great Calamity, which dives into all aspects of the famine in greater detail, and The Hidden Famine, which examines more closely the socio-political issues surrounding the famine.
- Another book providing a look back on the famine is The Boston Irish, which provides a look back on the famine from an American viewpoint. From the Irish side, this article talks about the famine with 150 years worth of reflection to add perspective.
- Read more about the global effect of the Irish Famine, and find out the political movements that arose post-famine. This article also contains a variety of links to secondary resources on the famine.
- A good source at a reflective look on the famine is An Gorta Mor, an exhibit about The Great Hunger. The exhibit is located at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.
- Finally, get a first person look at what life was during the Irish Famine by reading the diaries of Robert Whyte & Gerald Keegan, two Irishmen looking to get away from the famine by taking a boat to America.