You Are At: AllSands Home > History > Events > The Irish famine, or passive genocide
A blight upon the potatoes of Ireland forever changed the histories of Ireland, England, and the United States of America. The blight that we now know was a water mold (and not a fungus as originally believed), Phytophthora infestans, attacked the cash crop of the Irish Catholic peasant farmer. This was the crop with which the Irish paid their rent to the English and Protestant landlords.

Starving Irish peasants tried to eat the rotten potatoes and fell ill to cholera and typhus and whole villages were struck down. Many landlords evicted the starving tenants who could be found dying on sides of roads with mouths green from eating grass to fill their bellies. Other families were sent to workhouses where the overcrowding and poor conditions led to more starvation, sickness, and ultimately death. Going to a workhouse was akin to marching to one's own death. Some more sympathetic landlords paid the passage for their tenants to emigrate to America, Canada, and Australia. Ship owners took advantage of the situation and wedged hundreds of diseased and desperate Irish into ships that were hardly sea-worthy for the Trans-Atlantic trip. These ships became known as "coffin ships" as more than one-third of the passengers died on the voyage.

The Irish that did survive the trip to America, Canada, or Australia on the coffin ships drummed up awareness and more importantly, aid in the form of food. But for every one ship sailing into Ireland with food, more were exporting grain-based alcohol, wool and flax, and other necessities such as wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, beef, and pork that could have helped feed the Irish people. The Irish themselves were accused of bringing the famine on themselves as they were viewed as a lazy, overpopulated race of people - never mind that they were not legally able to fish or hunt under British law. They starved in the midst of plenty because they were not allowed to provide for themselves and their families by any means other than agriculture.

The Famine, or An Górta Mór, the Great Hunger, took more than one million lives, between those that died of starvation and those that left Ireland for a better life in America or elsewhere in the world. Those who were left behind in Ireland experienced a desperation that led to a massive change in politics and nationalism - it was only a few years later, in 1858 that the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded. The British government and the British and Irish Protestant landowners still required the Irish peasants and laborers to pay their rent for the land they could not work due to the blight and the hunger upon them. In a lush island surrounded by water teaming with fish and land that fattened pig and cattle alike, how could one failed crop cause a Famine? According to British law, Irish Catholics could not apply for fishing or hunting licenses. Their pigs and cattle were sent to England to feed the British and to export for trade, while the landlords kept the fine cuts for themselves. Ireland was part of the British Empire, the most powerful empire in the world at that time - yet the British government stood by and did nothing to help their subjects overcome this hardship. In our time, an enforced famine such as this would be labeled genocide yet in the 1800s it was merely an unfortunate tragedy. As defined in the United Nation's 1948 Genocide Convention and the 1987 Genocide Convention Implementation Act, the legal definition of genocide is any of the acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including by killing its members; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. The British policy of mass starvation inflicted on Ireland from 1845 to 1850 constituted "genocide" against the Irish People as legally defined by the United Nations. A quote by John Mitchell (who published The United Irishman) states that "The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."