The Great Famine was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is sometimes referred to, mostly outside Ireland, as the Irish Potato Famine because about two-fifths of the population was solely reliant on this cheap crop for a number of historical reasons. During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.
The proximate cause of famine was a potato disease commonly known as potato blight, which ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s. However the impact in Ireland was disproportionate as one third of the population was dependent on the potato for a range of ethnic, religious, political, social and economic reasons, such as land acquisition, absentee landlords and the Corn Laws, which all contributed to the disaster to varying degrees and remain the subject of intense historical debate.
Although the potato crop failed, the country itself was still producing and exporting large quantities of food. Ireland exported approximately thirty to fifty shiploads per day to Britain, which was more than enough to feed the population. The food exports in conjunction with draconian laws have led some historians and authors to use the term genocide in relation to the tragedy.
The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island’s demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine entered folk memory and became a rallying point for various Home rule and United Ireland movements, as the whole island was then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The massive famine soured the already strained relations between many of the Irish people and the British Crown, heightening Irish republicanism, which eventually led to Irish independence in the next century. Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as “pre-Famine”.
People have lived in Ireland for over 9,000 years. The different eras are termed mesolithic, neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.
Early historical and genealogical records note the existence of major groups such as the Cruthin, Corcu Loígde, Dál Riata, Dáirine, Deirgtine, Delbhna, Érainn, Laigin, Ulaid. Slightly later major groups included the Connachta, Ciannachta, Eóganachta.
Smaller groups included the aithechthúatha (see Attacotti), Cálraighe, Cíarraige, Conmaicne, Dartraighe, Déisi, Éile, Fir Bolg, Fortuatha, Gailenga, Gamanraige, Mairtine, Múscraige, Partraige, Soghain, Uaithni, Uí Maine, Uí Liatháin. Whle many survived into late medieval times, others vanished as they became politically unimportant.
Over the past 1200 years, Vikings, Normans, Welsh, Flemings, Scots, English, Africans, Eastern Europeans and South Americans have all added to the population and have had significant influences on Irish culture.
Ireland’s largest religious group is Christianity. The largest denomination is Roman Catholicism representing over 73% for the island (and about 87% of the Republic of Ireland). Most of the rest of the population adhere to one of the various Protestant denominations (about 48% of Northern Ireland). The largest is the Anglican Church of Ireland. The Muslim community is growing in Ireland, mostly through increased immigration, with a 50% increase in the republic between the 2006 and 2011 census. The island has a small Jewish community. About 4% of the Republic’s population and about 14% of the Northern Ireland population describe themselves as of no religion. In a 2010 survey conducted on behalf of the Irish Times, 32% of respondents said they went to a religious service more than once a week.
The population of Ireland rose rapidly from the 16th century until the mid-19th century, but a devastating famine in the 1840s caused one million deaths and forced over one million more to emigrate in its immediate wake. Over the following century the population was reduced by over half, at a time when the general trend in European countries was for populations to rise by an average of three-fold.