|In order to understand why the famine affected different parts of Ireland in so many different ways, it is necessary to understand the different types of agriculture that existed across the island. Ireland was certainly not homogeneous. In fact, five main agricultural regions can be identified in mid 19th century Ireland. (Note that the boundaries between these regions were extremely blurred, and there were many areas where two or more forms of agriculture competed).|
Ireland was famous for its linen in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the country became one of the top producers worldwide. Ireland had a key advantage over Scottish rivals in that it could grow its own flax. Due to flax's particular adaptability to the inferiour drumlin country of Ulster, it was grown almost exclusively there. Linen exports soared from 500,000 yards in 1712 to 46,000,000 in 1796. Most linen weaving was done by hand. By 1820 there were 70,000 weavers in Ulster. The industrial revolution hit Ulster first, and the area around Belfast became festooned with mills. This allowed even more linen to be produced. The linen industry was so prosperous that the rural population density of Ulster soared to the highest levels in Europe (reaching 190/km2 in county Armagh by the start of the famine; it was 102 in 1991). Ulster's economy was therefore export-oriented and dependent mostly on flax. The Ulster flax-farmers purchased a lot of their food (mainly oats and potatoes) from north Leinster and Connaught. You can see a large collection of Linen machinery and tools in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
On the good lands of eastern Leinster, the farmers engaged in commerical agriculture, growing food to be sold rather than for subsistence. In 1770, their chief trade was in flour sold to the growing Dublin city. By the start of the famine this also included growing produce for breweries. The commercialisation of the tillage economy caused a rapid population increase in the early 19th century. Farm labourers (who made up about half the population in the region) were given a small cabin and around 0.4 hectares of land. These plots were used for potatoes and cereal crops year about, as one prepared the soil for the other.
With the growth of importance of the potato, butter, which was perviously an essential nutrient in the diet, was freed up for selling on the market. Since the 1690s, Cork had been the centre of Ireland's dairy producing regions and this tradition was still as strong in the early 19th century. A large landowner owned several hundred cows which were rented to 'dairymen' on a per-cow basis. The dairymen were allowed to keep the calves and were given a small cabin and a plot of land on which to grow potatoes for subsistence. The upland areas were used to grow hay to feed the cattle in winter. As the region prospered in the years before the famine, many farmers sub-let their land, farm sizes decreased and population increased.
Ireland's climate and rich limestone pastures made it ideal for cattle rearing. As discussed above, Munster used cows for dairying but the central areas fattened them to be sold. Some were sold to other farmers, some to other parts of Ireland and some were exported to Britain and the USA, neither of which was yet self-sufficient in cattle. As cows required large pasture lands, these regions did not become so densely populated as other areas of Ireland. In the lowland areas, some sheep grazing was also undertaken.
Between 1700 and the famine, Ireland's population increased rapidly. As land became more crowded, many farmers were forced to seek new lands for growing food on, and the only available areas were the scantly populated but poor lands of the Atlantic coast. Thousands of farmers settled in those areas, and there grew food mostly for subsistence, using the egalitarian 'Rundale' system of periodic land redistribution among the families. The land around the houses was used primarily for growing oats or potatoes while the higher ground was used for cattle grazing. The burgeoning population in these areas and lack of good soil prompted some ingenious solutions to problems, such as seaweed fertiliser and burning turf rather than wood or coal. It was soon discovered that potatoes thrived on seaweed and the potato soon became one of the main staple foods. The thin soil also prompted the invention of 'lazy beds': a potato is placed atop a sod, and adjoining sods folded over it. Traces of these furrows can still be seen in western Ireland (do not confuse natural soil creep with lazy beds. Lazy beds are vertical lines. Soil creep is made up of horizontal lines). In short, the west of Ireland was a densely populated area of small farms, many of which relied on the potato. Although it was never the dominant form of agriculture in Ireland, this region was to suffer most from the effects of the famine.
This section was largely based on the research of Professor Kevin Whelan as published in "The Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape", Cork University Press, 1997.
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