Agriculture, Famine, Immigration, Ireland, Mills family, Online records, Surnames, Warren County

What was the Irish Potato famine and why does it matter?

Anti-Irish riot in Philadelphia in 1841, Lithograph by H. Bucholzer in 1844.

Many have written about the Irish Potato Famine, which some call the Great Famine or Great Hunger. Most seem to agree it began in 1845, although some say it ended in 1849, and others say it ended in 1850, 1851 or 1852. [1] Some say the causes were due to the fact that “most of the Irish countryside was owned by an English and Anglo-Irish hereditary ruling class”and most were “absentee landlords that set foot on their properties once or twice a year, if at all,” while the average tenant farmer, like John Mills, lets say, “lived at a subsistence level on less than ten acres…there was never any incentive to upgrade their living conditions,” and they often allowed “landless laborers, known as cottiers, to live on their farms,” with poor Irish laborers becoming “totally dependent on the potato for their existence.” Others, like Harry George, said that “…at the period of her greatest population (1840-45) Ireland contained something over eight millions of people” but a large “proportion of them managed merely to exist, lodging in miserable cabins, clothed with miserable rags, and with but potatoes for their staple food” and when the “potato blight came, they died by thousands” not due to the “inability of the soil to support so large a population” but it was a “horde of landlords, among whom the soil had been divided as their absolute possession, regardless of any rights of those who lived upon it.” He also wrote something, trying to disprove the Malthusian theory, that

Consider the conditions of production under which this eight million managed to live until the potato blight came. Cultivation was for the most part carried on by tenants-at-will, and they, even if the rack-rents they were forced to pay had permitted them, did not dare to make improvements, which would have been but the signal for an increase of rent. Labour was thus applied in the most inefficient and wasteful manner and labour, that with any security for its fruits would have been applied unremittingly, was dissipated in aimless idleness. But even under these conditions, it is a matter of fact that Ireland did more than support eight millions. For when her population was at its highest, Ireland was a food-exporting country. Even during the famine, grain and meat and butter and cheese were carted for exportation along roads lined with the starving and past trenches into which the dead were piled. For these exports of food, or at least for a great part of them, there was no return. So far as the people of Ireland were concerned, the food thus exported might as well have been burned up or thrown into the sea, or never produced. It went not as an exchange, but as a tribute – to pay the rent of absentee landlords; a levy wrung from producers by those who in no wise contributed to production. Had this food been left to those who raised it, had the cultivators of the soil been permitted to retain and use the wealth their labour produced, had security stimulated industry and permitted the adoption of economical methods, there would have been enough to support in bounteous comfort the largest population Ireland ever had. The potato blight might have come and gone without stinting a single human being of a full meal. For it was not, as English economists coldly said, “the imprudence of Irish peasants” that induced them to make the potato the staple of their food. Irish emigrants, when they can get other things, do not live upon the potato, and certainly in the United States the prudence of the Irish character, in endeavouring to lay by something for a rainy day, is remarkable. They lived on the potato because rack-rents stripped everything else from them. Had Ireland been by nature a grove of bananas and bread-fruit, had her coasts been lined by the guano deposits of the Chinchas and the sun of lower latitudes warmed into more abundant life her moist soil, the social conditions that have prevailed there would still have brought forth poverty and starvation. How could there fail to be pauperism and famine in a country where rack-rents wrested from the cultivator of the soil all the produce of his labour except just enough to maintain life in good seasons; where tenure-at-will forbade improvements and removed incentive to any but the most wasteful and poverty-stricken culture; where the tenant dared not accumulate capital, even if he could get it, for fear the landlord would demand it in the rent; where in fact he was an abject slave who, at the nod of a human being like himself, might at any time be driven from his miserable mud cabin, a houseless, homeless, starving wanderer, forbidden even to pluck the spontaneous fruits of the earth, or to trap a wild hare to satisfy his hunger? No matter how sparse its population, no matter what its natural resources, would not pauperism and starvation be necessary consequences in any land where the producers of wealth were compelled to work under conditions which deprived them of hope, of self-respect, of energy, of thrift; where absentee landlords drained away without return at least a fourth of the net produce of the soil; and when, besides them, a starving industry had to support resident landlords, with their horses and hounds, agents, jobbers, middlemen and bailiffs, and an army of policemen and soldiers to overawe and hunt down any opposition to the iniquitous system?

Others said it was related to a monoculture. Some readers may say that this doesn’t matter based on the fact that Margaret Bibby and John Mills came before the famine began, likely in the early to mid 1830s, varied years before any famines. Although, considering the famines in 1830-1834, 1836, and 1839, which I talk about below, this may have been a favor. However, this does matter because at least some Mills family members were undoubtedly effected by this event.

Famine was nothing new to Ireland. It has been “common in Ireland in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—for example in 1740–41 (bliain an áir ‘the year of the slaughter’), 1756–7, 1800, 1807, 1821–2, 1830–34, 1836, and 1839—but it was also common elsewhere in Europe,” with the western seaboard the worst affected. But what began in 1845, ending possibly in 1852, was a horrible catastrophe, which the government failing to deal with the problem, leading to further crisis. Some say that with the “devastating fungus destroyed Ireland’s potato crop,” leading to “starvation and related diseases,” over hundreds of thousands, if not a million, may have been killed, with others blaming capitalism as the cause of what happened.

Regardless of what you blame, the reality is that there was a strong population decline from 1841 to 1851 in Ireland,  changing the social and cultural structure of the island as a whole. In the process, however, the landscape of parts of the U.S. was changed as well from incoming Irish immigrants, as 3/4 of those who left Ireland came to the U.S. The heart of Ireland’s economy had been sunk. But, Irish history was to go on.

With the information about Ireland’s other famines, specifically the ones 1830-1834, 1836, and 1839, before the “potato famine” beginning in 1845, it could help us answer some of the the remaining questions, determining more push and pull factors from County Tipperary in Southern Ireland, connect to the stories of John and Margaret’s children, and down the line.


[1] Joel Mokyr, “Great Famine,” Encyclopaedia Brittanica, accessed May 11, 2018; “Sources in the National Archives for researching the Great Famine by Marianne Cosgrave, Rena Lohan and Tom Quinlan: Introduction,” National Archives of Ireland, Sept 1995; Brian McDonald, “British fail to attend Famine ceremony,” Independent, May 17, 2010; “The Irish in Philadelphia“; “Fertility trends, excess mortality, and the Great Irish Famine“; John Gibney, “Where was your family during the famine?,” Sept 2008; “The Great Irish Famine,” Nov 1998; Dan Ritschel, “The Irish Famine: Interpretative and Historiographical Issues,” 2009; Mark Ward, “Irish Repay Choctaw Famine Gift: March Traces Trail of Tears in Trek for Somalian Relief,” American-Stateman Capitol Staff, 1992; Jim Donnelly, “The Irish Famine,” BBC, Feb 17, 2011; “The Irish Potato Famine,” Digital History, 2016; Eleanor Bley Griffiths, “What was the Irish Potato Famine?,” RadioTimes, May 11, 2018.

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