What was the Irish Potato Famine?

A sombre episode of Victoria tells the horrific story of an event that led to the death of a million people

Martin Compston in Victoria

ITV drama Victoria has taken a break from intrigue and power-play and costume balls. Instead, episode six sends us across the Irish Sea to see the horrors of the Great Famine, while the Queen berates her ministers for standing by and doing nothing.

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What was the Irish Potato Famine?

The potato crop failed in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, leading to a period of mass starvation and disease which killed a million people out of a population of eight million. It also led to a mass exodus a huge chunk of the population emigrated to start a new life abroad – many of them in America.

The crop failures were caused by potato blight, a disease that destroys the leaves and the roots of the potato plant. The blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe in the 1840s – but the situation in Ireland made it uniquely devastating.

James Mahony famine

In Ireland, almost half of the population was entirely reliant on calorie-rich, hardy, nutritious potatoes, and the rest of the population also consumed the vegetable in large quantities. So when the crop failed, people starved.

Irish Catholics had previously been prohibited by law from owning land. This changed earlier in the century, but land ownership was still concentrated in the hands of English and Anglo-Irish Protestant families (often absentee landlords) who had unchecked power over their tenants. By the 1840s, many tenant farmers existed at subsistence level on small allotments of land which barely provided enough food even in good years.

During the famine, the landowning class was still exporting grain from Ireland to Britain, benefitting from the Corn Laws which kept the price of bread artificially high. The Irish themselves could not afford the food that was being exported from their country.

The Great Famine became a rallying point for Irish nationalist movements and increased resentment about British rule.

Did Queen Victoria and Sir Robert Peel try to intervene in the Irish Potato Famine?

The British government made ineffective (and unenthusiastic) efforts to relieve the famine. Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel was unable to persuade his party to repeal the Corn Laws in 1845, but he did authorise the import of corn maize from the United States. This helped a little – but not enough.

Lord John Russell became Prime Minister in June 1846 as part of a new Whig cabinet. He wanted to use Irish resources for relief efforts, throwing the financial burden on the Irish landowners and British absentee landowners themselves. But with rents no longer coming in, the most common result was eviction.

Ultimately relief efforts were completely inadequate and half-hearted. Some British intellectuals followed the teachings of Malthus, believing that the crisis was simply nature’s corrective to high birth rates and overpopulation, or that the Irish national character was to blame.

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And Victoria? She had some sympathy for the horrors going on in Ireland and donated £2,000 from her personal resources (although there is a story that, when when Sultan Abdulmecid of the Ottoman Empire offered send £10,000 in aid, the Queen’s ambassador asked him to tone it down to £1,000 so he wouldn’t embarrass the Queen). She also wrote a letter on behalf of the British Relief Association, appealing for money to relieve the distress in Ireland.

Victoria’s long-awaited first official visit to Ireland came in August 1849. It was arranged by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, perhaps to draw British politicians’ focus to what was happening in Ireland but also as a propaganda exercise to shore up British rule.

The famine had a negative impact on the Queen’s popularity, but her visit did seem to alleviate some of that hatred. The Earl of Clarendon wrote: “The people are not only enchanted with the Queen and the gracious kindness of her manner and the confidence she has shown in them, but they are pleased with themselves for their own good feelings and behaviour, which they consider having removed the barrier that hitherto existed between the Sovereign and themselves.”

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Victoria herself fell in love with the country and visited several times over the next couple of decades. But by the 1870s and 1880s the relationship soured – especially when the Dublin Corporation sent back a bust of her beloved Albert that she’d given as a gift.