The Great Famine

A month later he was out of office, defeated over a bill to deal with the growing agrarian disturbances in Ireland. The new Whig government, led by Lord John Russell, believed in a free market and was content to leave the supply of food to private merchants. However, the Irish peasants were unused to a cash economy, for they had traditionally worked for a landlord in return for a plot of land on which to grow potatoes. The government hoped that Irish landlords would bear the major responsibility for their tenants' welfare, but many landlords already faced ruin. The most successful relief came from soup kitchens, originally set up by bodies such as the Society of Friends. Where public works continued, they were often delayed by bureaucratic procedures, and workers' health suffered from the inadequacy of wages to buy what food was available. Evictions were common.

Even the weather contributed to the distress, for the winter of 1846-47 was exceptionally cold and wet. To starvation was added typhus and relapsing fever, both commonly called "famine fever". Scurvy and dysentery flourished, and in 1849 an outbreak of cholera claimed many lives, particularly in the larger towns. Many sought to escape to America, only to drown at sea in over-crowded "coffin ships". Those who did reach the New World were often weakened beyond recovery.

Eventually the government reformed the Poor Law system, so that outdoor relief was added to the limited accommodation of the workhouses. Medical services were improved with the establishment of temporary fever hospitals. By the end of 1849, the potato blight had passed and crops returned to normal. About one million people had died, and another million had emigrated. The population continued to decline, not only through emigration but through later marriages, lower birth rates and an end of the subdivision of farms which had made Ireland so vulnerable to crop failure. The famine was to prove a watershed in Anglo-Irish relations, for the inadequacy of government measures left an enduring legacy of bitterness in Ireland and among those thousands of Irish emigrants who found a new life across the Atlantic.

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