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Irish History

Punishment and Starvation (1700-1850)

The passage of the Penal Laws during the reign of William III stripped Catholics of their civil rights, and ushered in an era of economic, religious and political discrimination and persecution. The Penal Laws made it so advantageous to be Protestant (and so life-threatening to be Catholic) that the British Crown assumed all Irish would convert and Catholicism would be driven out of Ireland for good.

Clearly, William was ignoring the lessons of history, including the longstanding Irish penchant for rebellion and disobedience. Starting in 1798, Ireland saw the beginnings of civil revolt, a failed incursion by French invasion forces, and the tragic loss of 40,000 lives in the Wexford rebellion.

By this time, growing numbers of Catholics and Protestants alike were contemplating exodus from Ireland in search of freedom from British restrictions and rule. In 1801, following the abolition of the Irish Parliament, Ireland was incorporated into the United Kingdom, and punitive measures directed at Irish Catholics were relaxed. Revolutionary sentiments continued, however, as evidenced by the unsuccessful revolt in 1803 of Irish rebels led by Robert Emmet. In 1829, Catholics in Ireland earned a measure of vindication when the efforts of Irish leader Daniel O'Connell led directly to the admission of Roman Catholics into the British Parliament itself.

Mass Exodus: The Famine Years

Stripped of their wealth, estates, and property since the times of Cromwell, most Irish people lived as tenant-farmers on vast estates owned by absentee British landlords. With the exception of potatoes, all the crops grown were sold to pay the rent on the land. This left the Irish farmers with a diet consisting almost entirely of potatoes.

The country was thrown into turmoil in 1845, when a potato blight caused a total crop failure. The Irish people began to starve, and farmers were evicted from their lands for nonpayment of rent. When the next four years in a row failed to yield a potato harvest, the island was gripped with disease and starvation. British rulers were very slow to address the resulting famine; within a few years, the death toll topped 1 million people, and 1.5 million Irish people had emigrated to other lands, many to the United States. The most militant Irish immigrants in the States formed an underground Fenian movement, dedicated to the eradication of British rule of Ireland through force of arms.

The Great Famine set a mass exodus in motion that continued unabated through the end of the twentieth century. In 1841, the population of Ireland was more than 8 million; by 1960, that number had fallen to a mere 4.3 million.

Article Series: A Brief History of Ireland
Part 1 Beginnings (Prehistory to 300 A.D.)
Part 2 Christians, Vikings and Brian Boru (300-1100)
Part 3 The Bloody British (1100-1700)
Part 4 Punishment and Starvation (1700-1850)
Part 5 Strides Toward Independence (1850-1940)
Part 6 The Irish Republic and the Troubles Up North (1940 to present)

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