The British welcomed the elimination of the potato as a food source because it would liquidate the pre-existing Irish way of life. The future would then be an efficient Irish agricultural sector, with large-scale cattle ranches and a wage-earning sector.
These changes would generate a 'modern' Irish social structure, closely approximating the Scottish model that England had imposed there after the Jacobite Rising in the mid eighteenth century. Social engineering, rather than saving lives, dominated the British administrative and political response to the Famine.
Lord Palmerston, Sligo landowner and a later British Prime Minister, opined:
It was useless to disguise the truth that any great improvement in the social system of Ireland must be founded upon an extensive change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and that this change necessarily implies a long continued and systematic ejectment of smallholders and of squatting cottiers.
Across Ireland in the aftermath of the Famine, strong farmers and graziers increased their holdings at the expense of their weaker neighbours. A respondent to the Famine questionnaire of the 1940s recalled:
In my young days, I used to hear the old people discuss the awful cruelty practiced by the farmers who were fairly well off against their poorer and less comfortable neighbours. The people who were old when I was young were never tired of discussing how some of those taking advantage of the poorest of their neighbours used to offer the rent of their farms to the landlord and grab their farms ...
Several people would be glad if the Famine times were altogether forgotten so the cruel doings of their forebears could not be again renewed or talked about by neighbours.
Most poignantly of all, the potato-fuelled cottier system disappeared in the post-Famine decades. The number of agricultural labourers dropped sharply from 1.2 million in 1845 to 0.7m in 1861 - halving in less than a generation.
From being thirty per cent of all houses in 1841, the one roomed cabin share had virtually disappeared (at one per cent) in 1891. One well-informed commentator, Hugh Dorian, noted:
'The poor were treated and despised as if they were beings of quite a different creation. The satiated never understand the emaciated'.
The decline of the Irish language at barony scale by 1851
The erosion in the distribution of Irish-speakers began much earlier than the Famine decade. In the early seventeenth century, there was already an unequal relationship between an imperial, urbanising, print-based and aggressively expansive English culture and language, and an Irish language and culture that was more rural-based, more oral/aural in style and far more manuscript dependent.
By the mid-eighteenth century, English speechways and levels of literacy had expanded strongly over much of Ulster and mid-and south Leinster. Salients of English speech were also advancing across the Shannon and more particularly into north Munster and along an axis extending from north Kilkenny into Waterford city.
Connacht and Munster (and County Donegal) remained the great bulwarks of Irish speech and traditional ways of living. This pattern of Irish speech sustained in these two provinces up to 1851. Significant pockets of Irish speech also survived in the Glens of Antrim, mid-Tyrone and the Leinster/Ulster borderlands.
Sex, family and mental scars
The Famine hastened the dissolution of social and cultural protocols within kin groups. It caused a sea change in marriage patterns. This was reflected in the rise of the matchmaker who oversaw mercenary marriages, the rising disparity between the ages of husbands and wives, and a horrifying surge in the number of unmarried people, so that Ireland had the worst record in the world on this by the late nineteenth century.
That in turn spawned an unhealthy and repressive attitude to sexuality, and the creation of an excessively authoritarian and patriarchal family structure. It also accelerated emigration, which made it difficult to hold Irish families together in a treacherous sea of breakdown and dispersal.
In these ways, the Famine mentally scarred its survivors. The Dublin small farmer Malachi Horan observed that the Famine's main effect had not been to create poverty - 'we were used to that' - but that it made the people 'so sad in themselves' and that 'it made many a hard one too'.
Edith Martin (the Galway half of the novel-writing Somerville and Ross partnership) concluded that
'the Famine yielded like the ice of the northern seas; it ran like melted snow in the veins of Ireland for many years afterwards'.
Irish emigration is unique in its scale, duration, and geographical spread. In the post-Famine period, equal numbers of Irish women emigrated – a unique phenomenon in European immigration patterns, and not present in the pre-Famine period.
It was caused by the severity of the Famine shock to the traditional family system: the Famine loosened the Irish from previous constraints on single girls travelling alone. Irish parents facing no alternatives had to allow young girls to travel as singles, not in family groups, although the shock of travel was softened by chain migration: American exerted a huge demand for domestic servants – the Irish 'biddies'- Biddie is a shortened version of the name Bridget, a common name for Irish girls.
Servant jobs often served as a prelude to marriage. Most young women emigrants were between the ages of 20-24, although a surprising amount went as teenagers.
The Cork Examiner newspaper noted in the 1860s: 'Every [Irish] servant-maid thinks of America as the land of promise ... where husbands are thought to be more procurable than in Ireland'. America liberated and enabled that desire to marry a man of their own choosing, and thereby to achieve possession of their own home. One young woman in New York city observed:
'It is the happiest time ever ... when under your own roof in [your] own house.'
By 1890, forty per cent of all people born in Ireland were living abroad. Emigration became an enduring and disturbing reality – the black hole at the centre of Irish culture. John Healy memorialised the hundreds of thousands of Mayo people who were forced to leave their native county: but if they left Mayo, Mayo never left them, and Healy comments on their enormous self-sacrifice:
The world will never know how much these scared, brave, sometimes ignorant but always loyal emigrants to the New World sent home in dollars and parcels to the old people in the old country. No one will ever know the full extent of their sacrifices and how much they kept hidden from the old people who thought that America was indeed the golden land of opportunity where the streets were truly paved with gold.
The remaking of Irish-America
A crucial impact of the Famine and post-Famine emigration was the remaking of Irish America as urban, industrial and Catholic. None of these attributes was true prior to 1820, and they were only partially true up to 1845. The pre-Famine Irish were much more diverse and scattered; they were as much Protestant as Catholic, and they settled more in rural areas than in cities.
The Famine emigration created many new features of Irish-America. Consider the spike in numbers, as two million Irish flooded in between 1846 and 1855. This sheer weight of numbers gave the Famine generation a defining role in the evolution of the ethnic self-image and social views of Irish-America.
Its hard-bitten, working class status, its militant Catholicism, its unflinching nationalism, its minority psychology, its racism were to survive relatively intact until the 1950s.
The Irish quickly mastered chain migration - the social process by which migrants from a particular community follow others from that area to a particular destination – which facilitated continuing communication across the ocean, the reforming of scattered families and the assembling of cohesive Irish-American communities.
Ninety per cent of the new emigrants were Catholic. In the pre-Famine period, emigrants were drawn equally from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. This switched from Presbyterian dominance in the eighteenth century to an overwhelmingly Catholic presence in the post-Famine period.
This influx of Catholics created a higher visibility for Catholicism in America (where the percentage of Catholics tripled from four to twelve per cent between 1840 and 1900). It allowed the Catholic church to establish itself as the distinctive Irish-American institution.
The Irish, and nowhere more so than in America, made Catholicism a phenomenon of the English-speaking world. The biggest – and least studied – Irish influence was in education. The Irish invented and exported educational institutions to the Anglophone world, exercising a massive influence on popular culture.
At least 20,000 Irish nuns served outside Ireland between 1800 and 1960. The female teacher was central to the Irish diaspora, much more important than the politician, the priest and the publican.
The new urban Irish
The Irish made the rational choice to choose urban America as their preferred destination. By the 1850s, eighty per cent of the Irish were concentrated in the east coast industrial zone stretching from Baltimore to Portland, making them among the most urbanised people in the world at that time.
In doing so, the Irish anticipated the urban future of America, not its rural past. The cities of the Irish were in America, not in Ireland. By 1861, there were more Irish-born in New York (260,000) than in either Dublin or Belfast. New York had become the largest Irish city.
Given their Irish Catholic apprenticeship in mass democratic politics, as taught by Daniel O'Connell, Irish emigrants were much more politically adept than any other nineteenth-century emigrant group, and pre-adapted to become successful in the American political sphere, where they infiltrated the Democratic Party as a political project of ethnic enhancement.
The Irish were adept at group solidarity and in political organisation, mobilising the political power of numbers to achieve their goals. The Irish vote was solid, disciplined and under tight political control.
Ward politics explains how institutions like the NYPD became rapidly Hibernicised. An 1855 editorial in the New York Times claimed that of 1,100 cops in the NYPD, 300 were Irish-born, and a further 700 were Irish-American.
Percentage of Irish-born living abroad in the late nineteenth century.
Emigration, both seasonal and permanent, had long been a feature of Irish life. About a million people had already left the country in the two decades between 1821 and 1841. This annual level of emigration continued up to 1845–46; then, as famine intensified, the exodus from Ireland became an unstoppable flood.
Close to a million desperate Irish people emigrated between 1846 and March 1851, with nearly a half million more leaving Ireland by the end of 1852. By 1891 four out of every ten (40%) of the total Irish-born population were living abroad.
The 'Devotional Revolution'
The 'Devotional Revolution' is the term used by historians to describe the startling transformation within Irish Catholicism that occurred after the Famine. In the pre-Famine period, a vernacular style Catholicism had inserted deep roots precisely among those social formations that the Famine decimated.
This vernacular inheritance evolved organically out of the life of an intensely agrarian society, its ritual rhythm dominated by calendar custom and embedded in a landscape of holy wells and pilgrimage sites like Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg.
In this culture, behaviour was regulated by custom and tradition: the central religious events were rites of passage and communal occasions like the pattern, the wake and the station dominated.
The trauma of the Famine, the associated decline of vernacular religion and popular culture, and the erosion of the Irish language created a cultural and in some senses spiritual- vacuum, which was filled by the piety of 'Devotional Revolution' - the institutionalisation of mass going, new devotional practices such as novenas, forty-hour devotions, exposition of the host and the adoption of more Roman-style liturgies.
An entirely revamped institution hardened into a powerful and rigid cultural formation, that essentially remained intact until the recent institutional collapse. While most commentators describe this cultural formation as 'traditional' Irish Catholicism, it was in fact a new form, dependent on the cultural carnage of the Famine for its emergence.
'Rooted like rocks in the soil of Ireland': the Land League
Michael Davitt (1846-1906) harked back to the message that an earlier activist James Fintan Lalor had derived from the brutalising Famine experience - that the rural Irish had to develop a political project which would seek to have them 'rooted like rocks in the soil of Ireland'.
A cohort of activists – Davitt himself, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (1831-1915), Mark Ryan (1844-1940), Tim Healy (1855-1931) – had a direct eviction experience in their family.
Davitt never allowed himself or anyone else to define him as a victim, even after losing an arm in an English textile mill - he learned, for example, how to tie a shoelace one-handed [Try doing that yourself]. The politician William O'Brien, who fought several political campaigns alongside Davitt, claimed that his appeal to the west of Ireland people was not just his grasp of political theory and strategy:
What they understood and loved in Mr. Davitt was not the philosopher - more often than not he spoke above the heads of his listeners - but the one-armed Fenian chief, the darling son of their own Mayo, evicted like themselves, saturated with a hatred of Landlordism as fierce as their own, returning untamed by penal servitude to the old struggle, by new methods, perhaps, but with the old, unconquered men gathering behind him.
'A war against landlordism'
Davitt's goal was to organise 'a war against landlordism for a root settlement of the land question.' He sought to internationalise the Irish quest for land, declaring that the cause was the same 'from the China towers of Pekin to the round towers of Ireland, from the cabins of Connemara to the kraals of Kaffirland, from the wattled homes of the isles of Polynesia to the wigwams of North America'.
Remarkably in a still profoundly agrarian society, Davitt was able to set in train the legislative displacement of an entire landed class, predating the massive upheavals in Russia a few decades later.
This achievement depended on his ability to fuse the agrarian and the political issue, bringing together under a common umbrella the Physical Force (Fenians) and Constitutional (Home Rule) strands of Irish nationalism in a unified campaign.
Charles Stewart Parnell was also central to this achievement, advising western tenants in 1879 not to repeat the mistaken passivity of their families during the famine:
'You must show the landlords that you intend to hold a firm grip on your homesteads and lands. You must not allow yourselves to be dispossessed as you were dispossessed in 1847'.
The appeal to general history was also an appeal to personal history: the children of those who had suffered the Famine clearances had fused the personal and the political and this steeled their determination in the 1880s.
Their memory of the Famine was a direct one, not some second-hand perversion inculcated by rabid ideologues and nationalist zealots through speeches, newspapers, and crude propaganda. They did not need historians to tell them what the Famine was: Davitt claimed that:
'The men who made the Land League were the sons of those who went through the horrors of the Great Famine'.
This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.