Lasting for six years from 1845, the potato famine killed over a million men, women and children in Ireland and caused another million to flee the country.
Ireland in the mid-1800s was an agricultural nation, with a population of 8 million who were among the poorest people in the Western World. Only around a quarter of the population could read and write. Life expectancy was just 40 years for men. The Irish married quite young around the age of 17 and tended to have large families, with infant mortality quite high.
Most of the Irish countryside was owned by the English and Anglo-Irish hereditary ruling class. Many were absentee landlords. Mainly Protestant, they held titles to confiscated land taken from native Irish Catholics by British conquerors such as Oliver Cromwell. The landlords often utilized local agents to actually manage their estates while living lavishly in London or in Europe off the rents paid by Catholics for land their ancestors had once owned.
Throughout Ireland, Protestants known as middlemen rented large amounts of land on the various estates then sub-divided the land into smaller holdings which they rented to poor Catholic farmers. This sub-dividing began in the 1700s and became a major source of misery as they kept sub-dividing estates into smaller and smaller units while increasing the rent every year in a practice known as rack-renting.
These Catholic farmers were usually considered tenants-at-will and could be evicted on short notice at the will of the landlord, his agent, or middleman. By law, any improvements they made, such as building a stone house, became the property of the landlord. Thus there was never any incentive to upgrade their living conditions.
The tenant farmers often let landless labourers, known as cottiers, to live on their farms. The cottiers performed daily chores and helped bring in the annual harvest as payment of rent. In return, they were allowed to build a small cabin and keep their own potato garden to feed their families. Other landless laborers rented small fertilized potato plots from farmers as conacre, with a portion of their potato harvest given up as payment of rent. Poor Irish labourers, more than anyone, became totally dependent on the potato for their existence. They also lived in a state of permanent insecurity with the chance they might be thrown off their plot.
North and east of Ireland had the most fertile farmland. The more heavily populated south and west featured large wet areas (bogs) and rocky soil. Mountains and bogs cover about a third of Ireland. By the mid-1800s, the density of Irish living on cultivated land was about 700 people per square mile, among the highest rate in Europe.
Potatoes are not native to Ireland but likely originated from Peru, South America.
By the 1800s, the potato had become the staple crop in the poorest regions. More than three million Irish peasants subsisted solely on the vegetable which is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin and Vitamin C.
Planting occurred in the spring beginning around St. Patrick's Day. Most of the poor Irish grew a variety known as Lumpers, a high yielding, but less nutritious potato that didn't mature until September or October. Every year for the poor, July and August were the hungry months as the previous year's crop became inedible and the current crop wasn't quite ready for harvest. This was the yearly 'summer hunger,' also called 'meal months,' referring to oat or barley meal bought from price gauging dealers out of necessity. During the summer hunger, women and children from the poorest families resorted to begging along the roadside while the men sought temporary work in the harvest fields of England.
By autumn, the potatoes were ready to be harvested, carefully stored in pits, and eaten during the long winter into the spring and early summer. The Irish consumed an estimated seven million tons in this way each year. The system worked year after year and the people were sustained as long as the potato crop didn't fail.
The Great Famine: In Irish: an Gorta Mór meaning "the great hunger" was a period of starvation, disease and mass emigration between 1845 and 1852 during which the population of Ireland was reduced by 20 to 25 percent. Approximately one million of the population died and a million more emigrated from Ireland's shores. The cause of famine was a potato disease commonly known as potato blight. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s, the impact and human cost in Ireland (where a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food) was exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of historical debate.
The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island's demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting wake, the famine entered folk memory and became a rallying point for various nationalist movements. Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as "pre-Famine."