>Guns versus butter


The Great Famine in Ireland of 1845 – 1852 (An Gorta Mór) saw the island’s population fall by between 20 – 25%. One million would perish of starvation or the related epidemics that swept the country. A further one million emigrated, enlarging the already significant Irish diaspora. 

A striking fact is that approximately £7 million was spent on famine relief by the British authorities. This, according to Peter Gray in the Irish Famine, represented less than half of one percent of British gross national product over the five years (under 0.1% of GNP per annum). Just one year later, with the outbreak of the Crimean War, over £70 million would be spent fighting Russia between 1853 and 1856.

The population of Ireland has still not fully recovered over 150 years later. The island’s population  peaked at c. 8,175,000 (as recorded in the census of 1841), had fallen to c. 5,800,000 by 1861 and reached its lowest ebb of 4,230,000 in 1926. By 2011 it had recovered to 6,250,000, although recent gains may be reversed in the wake of the financial crisis and a rise in emigration. 

Ireland was not the only country affected by the potato blight. The highlands of Scotland also experienced a blight which saw up to 1.7m leave the highlands and crops across northern Europe were wiped out in the European Potato Failure. But a tragic combination of ideology, bigotry, climatic, social and economic factors ensured Ireland’s particular suffering.