The ‘Forgotten Famine’ of 1879

The Forgotten Famine of 1879

One of the most significant events in Ireland’s history was the Great Hunger in the mid-19th century when a million people died and another million were forced to leave their homes.

What is not so well known is that Ireland suffered another famine in 1879 that also left a lasting impression on the country.

The 1879 Famine, sometimes referred to as the ‘Forgotten Famine’, affected the west of Ireland, where again the potato crop had failed.

The farmers in the west relied on the potato crop because the land could not grow other crops in sufficient quantities.

However, heavy rainfall in the weeks ahead of harvest saw the yield less than half that of the previous year and the lowest in a decade.

The vast majority of homes in Ireland at the time were owned by landlords, with tenant farmers under the constant threat of eviction if they could not pay their rent.

Aid from America

The 1879 failure of the potato crop put a huge strain on thousands of Irish families. They received a great deal of aid from America, where the conditions and unjust nature of land ownership received great coverage.

Several major US publications featured regular articles on the issue, and hundreds of thousands of pounds were raised to ease the suffering.

Many of those who donated money, were Irish Americans who had been forced to leave Ireland themselves during the Great Hunger just a few decades earlier. Many of these Irish people had flourished in America and their sons and daughters were in a financial position to be able to help their struggling families back home.

The Land League ‘Boycott’

Back in Ireland, there were also changes being made. Michael Davitt, an Irish nationalist, had formed the Land League which waged war on unjust landlords.

It was during this time that the term ‘to boycott’ emerged. The Land League encouraged Irish people to make the lives of unjust landlords as uncomfortable as they possibly could.

This involved the tenants refusing to harvest their crops so they couldn’t make any money from the land. They were also shunned, intercepted and obstructed in their business, and refused service in shops and pubs.

English Captain Boycott was one such landlord to be inconvenienced by this tactic, and it worked so well that he gave up on his land and returned to England.

Elsewhere in Parliament, Charles Parnell had put enough pressure on the government to achieve the 1881 Land Act, which granted tenants the right to pay fair rents, and the possibility to purchase the land they farmed.

Although it was not as big an event as the Great Hunger, the 1879 Famine was an important time in Irish history, which saw the rights of the people strengthened, and national pride increased for people in Ireland and amongst those who had emigrated.

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