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The Great Irish Famine: what are the lessons for policy-makers today?

Catastrophic risks force policy-makers to make quick decisions based on limited information. The Great Irish Famine shows how such existential crises and the state’s response can precipitate radical and permanent change. Ireland’s experience offers insights as we prepare for future emergencies.

With one million people dead and another million forced to emigrate, the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52 can be characterised as a ‘catastrophic risk’ – a low probability but high impact event (McLaughlin and Beck, 2020). When deaths are considered relative to the overall population, this famine overshadows practically all others in history: 12% of Ireland’s population perished (Ó Gráda, 2007).

The Famine has left an indelible mark on the Irish psyche and remains a watershed in Irish history. Ireland’s mid-century catastrophe led to devastating structural change: it meant that the island’s potato-based economy was no longer viable. It also intensified pre-existing patterns of migration from which the island has yet to recover; while the rest of the world has experienced a population explosion since the Industrial Revolution, the island of Ireland’s present population remains lower than in 1841.

The Famine is an event from which policy-makers can draw lessons in how to manage current crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Here, we outline some of these historical lessons:

  • State capacity: first, we explore the UK government’s short-term policy failures by not ‘going big’ in its disaster relief efforts, but also highlight the state’s limited capacity to respond in the first place.
  • Policy failure: we then look at how post-Famine policy initiatives, including infrastructure investments, ultimately failed to promote economic development and keep the Union intact.
  • Long-term effects: finally, we examine the permanent scarring effects of the Famine in terms of population change, but also discuss how this catastrophic risk may have had long-term benefits both for the Irish who remained in Ireland and those who ventured abroad.

Disaster relief, policy mistakes and political constraints

Ireland experienced back-to-back harvest failures between 1845 and 1852 caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, or potato blight. Farmers had come to rely on the Irish Lumper potato variety because it was well suited to marginal land, particularly in the west of Ireland. But the Lumper proved very susceptible to blight, and there were few alternative sources of sustenance for the majority of people.

Around a million people died as a result of the devastated potato crop. Figure 1 indicates where population loss occurred across the island. Of those who died, it is estimated that half the losses were directly down to malnutrition and associated illnesses (including dysentery). The other half was due to indirect effects, such as the evaporation of (informal) support networks resulting from breakdown in the normal functioning of society (Mokyr and Ó Gráda, 2002).

Figure 1: Population loss (%), 1841-1851

Source: Fernihough and Ó Gráda, 2018.

It has long been claimed that the Famine was caused by population growth outstripping increases in the food supply – what economists refer to as a Malthusian catastrophe. Joel Mokyr’s (1980) econometric history of pre-Famine Ireland famously argued that this could not have been the case. New work confirms that population growth in the decades immediately before the Famine had not made Ireland more vulnerable to a subsistence crisis (Doran, 2021). But it also suggests that the substantial population explosion in the century before the Famine placed too much pressure on land and left parts of Ireland with unsustainable populations in the long run.

What proportion of deaths could have been avoided through policy interventions? A critical question is why disaster relief efforts were so unsuccessful. A number of factors are likely to have played a role, ranging from structural (the design of the institutions providing the relief) and political (the UK’s limited state capacity) to policy mistakes (the nature of some relief efforts) and even discrimination (explicit or unconscious). But all these failures must be seen in the context of the serious limits in quality real-time information about the course of the Famine available to policy-makers in London.

While Amartya Sen’s ‘entitlements’ approach to understanding famine relief policy remains popular among economists, such explanations that stress distribution rather than the size of the policy relief do not fit the evidence for Ireland (Ó Gráda, 2007). In the case of the Great Irish Famine, relief distribution failures worsened an already dire situation, but the meagre scale of relief efforts in the first place is where the main problem lay.

Why, then, was the size of the relief effort insufficient? Ireland gained a national welfare system just a few years before the start of the Famine, with the 1838 Poor Law. It was funded locally – there were few regional transfers from richer to poorer areas within the UK. Relief was mostly delivered through institutions like the workhouse, and the poor had to give up claims to their tenancies to receive support (Gray, 2020).

This welfare system was ill-suited to dealing with catastrophic risks and in many cases aggravated rather than mitigated the Famine’s impact by forcing those most affected to uproot their entire family and way of life. While the system was reformed later in the Famine to include some limited outside relief – such as through soup kitchens – it was too little to have a meaningful impact.

With the benefit of hindsight, clearly the UK government failed in its duty of care. Whether this failure was purposeful or accidental remains the subject of heated academic exchanges. Charles Read (2016) provides a new, and somewhat controversial, perspective on the failure of the UK’s famine relief policy. Viewing relief programmes through the lens of the Mundell-Fleming trilemma from macroeconomics, Read sees the Whig government’s inaction as a consequence of its fears of sparking a financial crisis. He argues that the government saw cutting public assistance programmes as the only policy compatible with maintaining the gold standard.

Any policy failures during the Famine must be viewed alongside pre-existing structural weaknesses, which amplified the crisis. Nevertheless, one policy lesson that emerges from the ineffectual relief response to the Famine is that governments must be better able to identify when existential crises are taking place.

Nationalism, the Union and regional policy

The experience of the Irish population during the Famine and the lacklustre response by the UK government provided a huge boost to Irish nationalism. The following decades saw the establishment of movements such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Land League, along with calls for the repeal of the Act of Union with Great Britain and the implementation of devolved government.

The ‘Irish Question’ was brought to the forefront of UK politics following the 1884 Representation of the People Act, which expanded the UK electorate significantly. Many Irish Catholics gained the right to vote, resulting in the Irish Parliamentary Party, the official party of Irish nationalism at the time, holding the balance of power in Westminster. Attempts were made by both Conservative and Liberal governments to appease Irish nationalism with regional policy, but these efforts proved ultimately unsuccessful.

The issue of land ownership had long been a problem, particularly as farmers did not own the land on which they worked. British politicians hoped that by solving the land issue, they could end calls for Home Rule while maintaining the support of Irish politicians. A series of land acts attempted to organise and subsidise the redistribution of agricultural land to tenants. The Wyndham Land Act was the most successful of these – it saw £100 million lent to farmers to buy land. Repayments were scheduled over a long period and landlords were paid in cash, enticing many to sell (Foley-Fischer and McLaughlin, 2016).

The UK government implemented a variety of regional policies in Ireland in the post-Famine era, including establishing a local government system and investing in infrastructure. Nearly 300 railway stations were opened between 1890 and 1916; Ireland had 3,750 miles of railway by 1920. The network, depicted in Figure 2, was much larger in scale than countries of comparable size. But such infrastructure projects did not translate into economic development or political stability.

Figure 2: Ireland’s expansive railways, 1851-1891

Ireland Railmaps
Source: British Parliamentary Papers (1907), digitised by Fernihough

Faced with an Irish party that held the balance of power, the Westminster government’s Irish policies can be seen as attempts to appease nationalism and protect the Union through regional transfers. But attempts to ‘Kill Home Rule with Kindness’ ultimately failed with the passing of the 1914 Home Rule Bill.

Devolved government was originally intended for the whole of Ireland but delays due to the First World War, the 1916 Easter Rising and the rise of Sinn Féin in the 1918 UK general election resulted in the partitioning of the island into two jurisdictions: the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland (de Bromhead et al, 2020). The 26 counties that would later form the Republic of Ireland became independent of Westminster, while the six counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the UK, but with a devolved government.

Migration, scarring and demographic decline

The Famine was not a temporary shock. It permanently altered Ireland’s demographic profile. In addition to the loss of lives between 1841 and 1851, the population continued to decline throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, falling from 6.6 million to 4.4 million between the 1851 and 1911 population censuses.

In terms of its economic consequences, the most radical change was rural Ireland’s movement away from a potato-based economy with small landholdings, towards larger farming units specialising in cash crops and dairying. More broadly, while Irish labour continued to fuel the Industrial Revolution elsewhere in the world, Ireland itself largely failed to industrialise outside small pockets of Ulster.

Figure 3 demonstrates the unique nature of Ireland’s depopulation compared with all other European countries (except Russia). Understanding the reasons for this sustained population loss is important because they may uncover lessons that apply today.

Figure 3: Population change in Ireland (versus the rest of Europe), 1840-2010

Source: Maddison Project
Note: Ireland = all-island 32 counties; ROI = 26 counties of present-day Republic of Ireland; NI: 6 counties of present-day Northern Ireland

To comprehend the economic and demographic adjustment in post-Famine Ireland requires an understanding of the global context at the time. Emigration was the main channel through which Ireland continued to lose its population. The imperative to leave was obvious – people were starving – but in the aftermath of the Famine, people continued to leave, mainly for North America and Great Britain.

Ireland’s economic backwardness allied to land clearances and the widespread switch from tillage to pastoral farming indicates that migration was stimulated by ‘push’ factors. There was less demand for workers, leading to lower wages. But these push explanations are inconsistent with real wage data that show substantial improvement throughout the second half of the nineteenth century (O’Rourke, 1995). Yet rising wages were insufficient to blunt the ‘pull’ factors that attracted Ireland’s young across either the Atlantic Ocean or the Irish Sea.

The post-Famine world was one in which both the speed and cost of the movement of people, goods and money improved dramatically thanks to the advent of steamships and railways. Emigration became a much more accessible, and a much more attractive, option.

As external conditions faced in both pre- and post-Famine Ireland differed markedly, care must be exercised in trying to infer the impact of the Famine – although it seems highly implausible that famine-induced migration did not stimulate further Irish migratory flows, in particular to the United States. The large influx of famine migrants helped Ireland gain a foothold in the United States as the informal migrant networks lowered both the financial and emotional costs of migration and attracted future generations of young Irish to leave their homeland (Geary, 1935/36).

While disaster-induced migration is not desirable, the experience of the Great Irish Famine demonstrates that migration can have benefits over both a short- and long-run time horizon. In the short run, migrants were able to send remittances to their impoverished relatives back home, a common feature of modern migration. In the long run, the benefits can be even greater, as Ireland's large diaspora has helped to promote the country globally and provides a source of both soft political power and foreign direct investment from multinational firms located in the United States.

Policy lessons from the past

Clearly, there are many, often quite nuanced, policy lessons to learn from the Great Irish Famine and its aftermath. We will summarise just three:

  • Policy constraints can kill. Policy-makers should be encouraged to reconsider their prevailing conventional wisdoms when responding to a catastrophic risk.
  • Regional transfers may just delay the inevitable. Bribing politicians representing peripheral parts of the country does not guarantee their long-term allegiance. Devolution, in other words, will not necessarily keep the Union intact.
  • Catastrophic risks can set downward demographic spirals in motion. But while it can take more than a century to recover from mass emigration, demographic decline may also have positive effects on both those who leave and those who remain behind.

Where can I find out more?

  • The legacy of the Famine in Ireland: This RTÉ article by Kevin Whelan provides an overview of the impact of the Great Irish Famine on Irish society in the short and long term.
  • Famine emigration to America: This VoxEU piece by William Collins and Ariell Zimran looks at the assimilation of Irish immigrants into the United States in the nineteenth century.
  • Irish political parties in Westminster: Pippa Catterall’s piece for The Conversation looks at the role of political parties both pre- and post-partition in holding the balance of power in Westminster.
  • Partition as a legacy of World War I: This piece, written by Marie Coleman for The Conversation, explores how the First World War contributed to the transition from Home Rule to partition.

Who are experts on this question?

  • Chris Colvin, Queen’s University Belfast, has published on Ireland’s post-Famine economic convergence, and is currently working on the long-term health impact of the Famine on survivors.
  • Áine Doran, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, is an expert on pre-Famine living conditions.
  • Alan Fernihough, Queen’s University Belfast, has published on the demography and political economy of post-Famine Ireland, and is currently working on the history of Ireland’s railway infrastructure.
  • Peter Gray, Queen’s University Belfast, has published extensively on poverty relief during the Famine.
  • Eoin McLaughlin, University College Cork, has published on Ireland’s post-Famine state finances, and on the role of Ireland’s mutual societies in rural poverty alleviation.
  • Cormac Ó Gráda, Emeritus, University College Dublin, is the world’s leading authority on all aspects of the Great Irish Famine.
  • Charles Read, University of Cambridge, has published on the political economy of relief policy during the Famine.
  • Ariell Zimran, Vanderbilt University, has published on famine migration from Ireland to the United States.
Authors: Chris Colvin, Áine Doran and Alan Fernihough
The Irish Famine - scene at the gate of the work-house from Wikimedia Commons
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