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Effects of the Famine 3: Demographics
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The country left behind by the emigrants was transformed by the famine. The map [1] shows the drop in population islandwide between 1841 and 1851. Only three areas (the metropolitan areas of Belfast, Dublin and Cork) managed to increase their population. This was partly due to an influx of famine victims from rural areas and the fact that the famine had comparatively little effect in urban areas. Elsewhere, the coastal counties of Ulster and Munster suffered the smallest falls, with the inland, southern and western areas suffering the greatest falls.

Population change in Ireland 1841 to 1851 [14kB]

It must be pointed out that the map does not show the 'final' state of the famine years; the decline it depicts continued until after the mid 20th century. The table below shows the population of selected counties (and the two present states) since 1841. In the case of Dublin, the population is ever-increasing. In other cases, eg Waterford, the population fell and recently began to rise. In others, eg Leitrim, the decline has not yet stopped. In the Republic of Ireland, it was only after 1960 that the natural population increase exceeded emigration, and the population has been rising slowly since then. In Northern Ireland, the population decline was reversed around 1900 and has been increasing since then.

Year Mayo Louth Dublin Tipperary Waterford Leitrim Rep of
Northern Ireland
1841 389 128 373 436 196 155 6529 1649
1861 255 91 410 249 134 112 4402 1396
1881 245 78 419 200 113 90 3870 1305
1901 199 66 448 160 87 69 3222 1237
1926 173 63 506 141 79 56 2972 1257
1946 148 66 636 136 76 45 2955 *1338
1961 123 67 718 124 71 33 2818 1425
1981 115 89 1003 135 89 28 3443 1536
1991 110 91 1025 133 92 25 3526 1578
Population of selected Irish counties, in thousands. Figures for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland before 1921 are of the counties that later constituted those areas. *estimate.

The Irish language was another thing to decline in the post-famine years. It must be pointed out that the Irish language was already in decline at the start of the famine, but the famine must surely have accelerated the process. In the early part of the 1800s, around 40% of the population spoke Irish, compared to around 30% in 1845, the eve of the famine [2]. Those who died or emigrated in the famine were disproportionately Irish speakers, mainly because the famine hit rural areas hardest and that is where Irish had survived the longest. In 1861, the number of Irish speakers had fallen to 24%. This decline continued for some years, reaching a low of 18% (figure for Republic of Ireland only) around 1926, when it was revived by the new Irish government. Ó Gráda comments "Neither O'Connellite nor Fenian brands of nationalism did anything to foster Irish, and by the time a more advanced nationalist ideology adopted the old tongue it was too late [2]".

Thanks to a concerted educational policy in the Republic of Ireland, Irish language proficiency is increasing again. From the low of 18%, the number of Irish speakers in the Republic stood at 33% in 1991 [3]. In Northern Ireland, where Irish has not been compulsory in schools, proficiency is less. In 1991, 88% of the population of Northern Ireland claimed to have no knowledge of Irish. Note, however, that these census figures refer to any knowledge of Irish. The number of fluent Irish speakers in the Ireland today probably stands at around 3%. And it has been reported that in Northern Ireland today, more people speak fluent Chinese than speak fluent Irish!

The famine seems to have helped the church expand in Ireland. Before the famine, there is evidence that a large proportion of the population did not take any interest in the church. In fact, in rural Ireland, attendance figures show that only around half the population attended Mass regularly [2]. After the famine, the population became much more dedicated to the Catholic church, and this remains the case today (although there has been a limited fall-off in recent years). There was a boom in church-building after the famine, but it is not clear whether the rise in devotion to Catholicism was due to this increased church building or vice-versa.

Before the famine, it was fairly common for farmers to sub-divide their lands between their sons. The birth rate was reasonably high (around 33/1000 according to the 1841 census), so there were often several sons to divide the farm between. In some areas, this policy was carried to rediculous extremes, with thousands of tiny fields often dividing an area of land. Many historians believed at the time, and still do today, that these subdivisions exacerbated the famine by leaving families very dependant on very small fields. In the post famine period farmers had learned the lesson, and this system of "impartible land inheritance" largely disappeared. In general, parents passed the farm, intact, to a single son while giving educational or financial assistance to siblings, sometimes to settle elsewhere or to emigrate. It also increased the occurrence of "arranged" marriages with dowries, and these marriages occurred later than they would have before the famine. While this did reduce the number of extended families living together, it did increase the opportunities available to children.

In conclusion, therefore, the famine marked a watershed in Irish history, not only for politics but for culture, religion, demographics, agriculture and industry. It is a testament to these effects that the famine is still studied in depth over 150 years after it took place.


[1] Edwards, RD; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine; Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, Re-released 1997.
[2] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[3] Central Statistics Office, Skehard Rd., Cork, Republic of Ireland. www.cso.ie

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