The main cause was a disease which affected the potato crop, upon which a third of Ireland’s population was dependent for food.
There had been crop failures before but during the famine it failed across the whole country, and reoccurred over several years.
Given that a high proportion of Irish MPs were landowners, or their sons, Parliament was fully aware of the situation.
Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, purchased £100,000 of Indian corn (sweetcorn) in the United States and arranged for its transport to Cork.
He believed that by selling this cheaply the price of food would be kept low. Meanwhile, a relief commission raised funds and distributed food, and a board of works initiated road building to keep unemployment down.
Corn Law repeal moves
Initially, the government’s policies met with some success. In 1846 Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws, tariffs on grain that kept the price of bread artificially high, although this did little to ease the situation in Ireland as the famine worsened.
The repeal of the Corn Laws also split the Conservative Party and when, on 25 June, Peel was defeated on the second reading of an Irish Coercion Bill (designed to combat famine-fuelled violence), he resigned as Prime Minister four days later.
A new government led by Lord John Russell did not handle the famine effectively.
Public works projects achieved little, while Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was in charge of the relief effort, limited government aid on the basis of laissez-faire principles and an evangelical belief that “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”.
Parliament legislated to place the financial onus for famine relief on Irish landowners, who in turn tried to save money by ejecting tenants from their land.
How many died?
Assessments of how many people died during the Great Famine, either of disease or hunger, stands at around 1,000,000. This, along with emigration to escape the famine, significantly reduced the population of Ireland.
It also had a revolutionary impact on Irish politics, becoming a defining moment for Irish nationalists. The famine was also the backdrop for Daniel O’Connell’s exit from Parliament.
Already seriously ill, in February 1847 he implored the House of Commons to treat Ireland with generosity. He died, en route to Rome, three months later.