Irish Potato Famine

The Irish Potato Famine, also known as The Great Famine or Great Hunger lasted from 1845 to 1850 and resulted in a great exodus of Irish refugees fleeing to Britain, Australia, and North America, one of the most dramatic waves of Irish migration in history. It was one of the world's worst disasters in world history - over one million people died in a five year span.

From 1740 onwards, the population of Ireland began to soar. For the next eighty years, the largely agricultural economy of Ireland enjoyed a period of prosperity due to increased production and high British grain demands. However, effective January 1, 1801, the Act of Union was in place and the economies of Ireland and England became one. The Irish Parliament in Dublin was dissolved and Westminster was the place of decision for both countries. At first blush, Ireland had everything to gain, but in reality the marriage would prove to be very difficult.

The Report of the Devon Commission in 1843 noted that the cause of Irish misery was the bad relations between landlord and tenant. Absentee landlords had prevailed for centuries. Often owners visited the Emerald Isle only once or twice in a lifetime and from this vantage, they knew nothing of the hardships suffered by their tenants.

In 1844 on the eve of the famine, the relationship between had deteriorated so much that  the garrison of Ireland was huge and protests were commonplace. To make matters worse, the once-fertile soil of Ireland had grown depleted from heavy overproduction, and agricultural productivity fell off.

By this time, Britain had turned elsewhere to meet its agricultural needs and Ireland grew increasingly unable to meet even its own needs. Irish landowners reacted in their own interests, expelling tenant farmers, or forcing them to subsist on minuscule plots of land. Life became increasingly harsh as the potato crop began to fail regularly and thousands of people began to emigrate in desperate hope of survival.

The mid-1840's marked the onset of catastrophe for the Irish potato crop. A partial failure of the vital staple crop in 1845 was followed by a complete failure the following year, which was in turn followed by an especially cruel winter. In 1848, the crop failed once again. Starvation and disease became common as many farmers were driven penniless from their homes.

"By September 25 [1846] the people at Clashmore, County Waterford, were living on blackberries, and at Rathcormack, County Cork, on cabbage leaves. In Leitrim, where there were few shops, the parish of Cloone, with 22,000 inhabitants, had no provision dealer or baker of any kind, and people were starving 'by the hundreds.' ... In Mayborough, on September 31, there had not been a grain of oatmeal in the town for three weeks, and the bakers had no flour to make bread." [1]
"It is said that one-third of the landlords emerged from the Famine ruined, and in 1849 the parliament passed the Encumbered Estates Act to allow for the sale of ruined estates. Great numbers of estates passed into new hands." [2]

From 1845 to 1851, Ireland lost almost a quarter of its population. Of these, half emigrated to Britain, North America, and Australia. The other half perished. The Potato Famine brought unprecedented elements to Irish migration because most of the migrants were unfortunate refugees, rather than voluntary emigrants. They were more likely to be diseased and destitute and as the source areas for migrants grew to include all of Ireland, the majority came from more remote areas which had been previously underrepresented.

Consequently, they were far less likely to be integrated into the commercial economy and were, on the whole, less skilled. Most were virtually penniless and were often perceived to be lower-class and less hard-working, but nothing could be further from the truth. Time would prove their critics very wrong. The vast majority of Famine refugees chose Canada and United States as their destination. This Irish intrusion proved to be a potent force for change in the New World that became the backbone of the American way of life. The cost of entry to the United States was significantly higher than to Canada. Accordingly, many of those who wished to emigrate to the Untied States, technically emigrated to Canada with the intension of sneaking across the vast border by land or sea.

Merchant Ships

For many years ships filled with timber and to a lesser extent furs from Canada sailed to England. However, on their return voyage, they were essentially empty and had to have ballast added to keep the ships right during the voyage. Today, many of the cobble stone streets of Quebec city and Old Montreal have these ballast stones as their surface. Accordingly, during this crisis the ships were quickly modified to house immigrant passengers eager to leave the Irish countryside in hopes for a better way of life. No doubt, the ship owners rubbed their hands with glee at the opportunity to high charge fees for these steerage passengers thereby adding to the profitable return voyage. Conditions on these ships were abysmal with typically three people packed to the bunk - many had no bunks at all.  

Grosse Isle Quarantine Station

Located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, Canada, Grosse Ile is one of 21 islands of the archipelago. This was one of the Canadian quarantine stations which was active from 1832 to 1937. Most Irish immigrants passed through this station in the 1840s. During its operation, almost 500,000 Irish immigrants passed through this station.


Since 1659 the people of Quebec had known of typhus. The disease had broken out the Saint-André from France bound for Quebec and Montreal. But in 1847, it had broken out again as an epidemic like one that nobody had seen before. The first of the "fever ships" was the ship Syria on May 20th with 430 fever cases. From that point the hot summer of '47 would prove to be the worst for the station. It is estimated that over 5,000 died at sea on their voyage. More than forty Irish and French Canadian priests and Anglican clergymen were active on Grosse Isle that year, many become sick and died.

Gross Isle Mass burial site

By the close of the season in October when ice drifted in, over 5,000 people had been buried in a small portion of the island and over 618 orphans were sent to Quebec City or Montreal.  


  1. ^ Woodham-Smith Cecil The Great Hunger Ireland 1845-1849. New York: Old Town Books (1962) ISBN 0 88029 385 3 pp125
  2. ^ Ronayne, Jarlath The Irish in Australia, Rogues and Reformers, First Fleet to Federation. Australia: The Penguin Group (2002) ISBN 0 670 04105 X pp7
  3. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials