Population in the mid 1800's
The population of Ireland in 1837
was at a historical high - or at least so the census of 1841 showed
four years later. At a time when records were kept regularly but
infrequently, such measures can only be approximate.
The 1841 census showed that there
were 8,175,124 people living in the four provinces of Connacht,
Leinster, Munster and Ulster. Only 40 years later, this figure
had fallen by over 3 million to 5,174,836 at the 1881 census, 63%
of the former value. This figure continued to fall to a recorded
historical low of 4,228,553 by 1926.
The population increased slowly to
a figure today of about 5,602,603, this is made up from 3,917,336
in the Republic of Ireland (Census 28 April 2002) and 1,685,267
(Census 29 April 2001) in Northern Ireland.
The population of Ireland 1700-2000 numbers in millions
Why did the Population Fall?
Ireland had always had a reasonable
amount of emigration, to the USA and England in particular, but
in the late 1840's, this steady but narrow stream was to increase
to a flood. The reason for this was the Great Famine that itself
caused the deaths of an estimated 1 million inhabitants, another
1 million are estimated to have emigrated by 1851.
Today there are approximately 1 million
Irish-born people living abroad and around 70 million who can claim
some Irish ancestry.
The Great Famine
the 1830's and 1840's, the rural population of Ireland had become
very dependent on the potato as a staple part of the diet - over
dependent in fact. The price to pay for this dependence was to become
the famine of "the black forty seven" in 1847.
The cause of the famine was a disease
called Potato Blight, caused by a fungus Phytophthora infestans.
This fungus was not new at this time, it had caused the loss of
crops before the 1840's with some regularity, in 1830/31 particularly
bad outbreaks of potato blight had led to localized hardships in
some parts of Ireland and reduced a good many families to begging
to stay alive.
was particularly bad and ultimately tragic about the 1847 outbreak
was that it wasn't simply one poor season for potatoes, but a series
of poor seasons that had begun in the almost total loss of the 1846
potato crop. Phytophthora infestans like most fungi enjoy
damp conditions and these years were especially damp even for a
regularly rain-drenched island such as Ireland is. So the fungus
became more common place and widespread and there were precious
few places where a good potato crop could be grown.
The particularly tragic aspect of
the famine is that despite the failure of the main crop that should
have provided the staple diet for over a third of the population
(generally the poorest third) Ireland did successfully produce a
good crop of grain in 1847. This grain was owned in the main by
absent landlords and was exported for cash while many of Ireland's
own people were starving. Despite the over-reliance on potatoes,
grain is unaffected by the potato blight fungus and this could have
averted the worst effects of the famine, had this grain been used
at home to feed the people.
Emigration had always been an aspect
of Irish life, but the famine speeded up the flow enormously. Emigration
was not an easy way out by any means, as well as the usual worries
and problems of leaving home and going to a new foreign country,
there were additional difficulties of a lack of funds to pay for
the trip and also a lack of money for provisions on the trip.
The fares were around 55 shillings
to Canada, and 70 to 100 shillings (£5) to the USA. Travel on board
the ship was either in standard class or steerage. Standard class
included berths and the passengers could walk on the decks (small
though they were). Steerage passengers were treated more like livestock,
they were crowded together below decks, often not being allowed
to use the deck. For the majority of emigrants, steerage was the
most they could afford.
Many people who left Ireland by ship
for the United States in particular never arrived, dying of starvation
or related disease en route, disease that was made worse by the
cramped and unsanitary conditions on the ships. Some of the ships
that left Ireland during these famine years were known as "coffin
ships" for good reason. On some ships up to 40% of passengers
died during the voyage or shortly after arrival. Overall about 1
in 7 did not survive the crossing.
The pre-famine rate of emigration
in 1845 was at around 50,000 per year. The next year 1846 as the
famine started to hit hard 100,000 left. The peak was in 1847, the
hardest famine year when 250,000 left. It continued at an average
of around 200,000 per year for the next five years, before beginning
to fall again.
Caption reads: "Here and There, or, emigration, a remedy"
From a cartoon in "Punch"
Emigration was not always an active
choice on the part of the emigrant, there were so called "landlord
emigrations" where landlords would pay for the poor living
on their land to emigrate. In this way, the landlord reduced the
taxes that they had to pay. The economics were quite straightforward,
the cost of emigrating a pauper was about half the cost of maintaining
him in the work-house for a year. Once the ship had sailed the emigrants
were usually never seen again, they could return only with immense
In 1847 there was a strong temptation
by many landlords to ship off as cheaply as possible those unfortunates
who, through age, infirmity or the potato failure, had become useless
and an apparently endless source of expense.
Between 1840 and 1850 about 70%
of emigrants went to the USA, 28% to Canada (the cheapest place
to get to) and 2% to Australia.
Many emigrants did eventually make
something from the opportunities that emigration gave them, particularly
the young and fit men. Once in their destination country, the emigrants
problems were far from over however. Arriving without funds, often
ill, often illiterate, sometimes resented or unwanted and the target
for every crook and low-life who saw them as easy pickings for what
meagre belongings they had, the emigrant still had an uphill struggle.