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Effects of the Famine 1: Agriculture
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Main Menu \ History Menu \ The Great Famine \
As mentioned in the previous section, the "Gregory Clause" of the Poor Law Extension Act (June 1847) denied aid to anybody owning over a quarter of an acre of land. Another clause, the £4 clause, made the landlord responsible for the all landholding tax on any holding valued at under £4. This latter clause covered most landholdings in Connaught. These two clauses effectively defined smallholders as parasites. For many Landlords it was a ticket to clear their estates. While many cleared the tenants so as to avoid paying these duties, many were nearly bankrupt anyway, due to the effects of the famine. It is estimated that during the entire famine period 500,000 people were evicted.

Size of Landholdings [5kB]It was the small farmers, such as cottiers, that virtually vanished in the years after the famine. As the graph shows, farms under 5 acres accounted for 45% of all farms in 1841, but only 15% a decade later. Many of those who had been evicted emigrated or became paid labourers for other farmers. Many other farms were purchased by large-scale farmers. In general, living conditions seem to have improved, (although it should be stated that some researchers disagree). Before the famine, a third of people lived in fourth-class (the worst) housing. By 1851, it was 10%. Literacy and personal savings also increased.

At the opposite end of the social scale, the famine ultimately sounded the deathknell of the Landlord. Many landlords had seen their incomes fall during the famine and, having removed many of their tenants, many more went bankrupt due to lack of rentals. Over the next half century, most of these estates were sold, their owners encouraged by agrarian laws. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1949 was one law which encouraged farmers to buy land from Landlords. By 1914, two-thirds of Irish tenants owned their own land. Some Landlords survived by diversifying away from potato-growing tenancies and rented out land to graziers. By the end of the 19th century, large parts of Connemara had become grazing areas. As the population continued to fall, agriculture could become less and less intensive, until previously high-yield areas needed only to yield low crops. The potato yields per acre before the famine were never again achieved.

The strong farmer became the ultimate beneficiary of the famine. With both a weakened cottier class and a weakened Landlord class, they were able to acquire lands and add them to their holdings. The number of farms over 15 acres increased from 19% in 1841 to 51% of all holdings a decade later. In retrospect, this can be regarded as a non-violent Peasant revolution, spurred by the famine, and resulting in most farmers changing from being tenants to being landowners.

The very nature of the agricultural divisions in Ireland, as existed before the famine, became meaningless in the years afterwards. The pastoral (grazing) sector overtook the arable sector in this period. Between 1851 and 1911, arable land in Ireland halved from 1.8 million hectares to 0.9 million. Simultaneously, grazing increased dramatically. Many railways had been built in the famine period, as part of work schemes, and these allowed live cattle exports to Britain to increase. From 50,000 animals in the 1820s, exports reached 200,000 during the 1840s. This rose to 400,000 by the 1860s and 800,000 by the 1900s.Whelan says: "By 1908, the hen and the duck were more important in the agrarian economy than wheat and oats together." [1]

In the littoral regions of the west coast, the government set up schemes to help those living in high-population, low-quality areas. The Congested Districts Board was set up to do this. Initially they pioneered new farming methods and improved land, but later they bought up and redistributed land. They had strong powers to purchase inland estates and redistribute the land in the form of dispersed farms to those from the congested areas. Upon its dissolution in 1923, the CDB had purchased and redistributed 1000 estates into 60,000 holdings, built 6000 new houses and renovated 4000 more. Together, the famine and the CDB totally changed the structure of the western landscape. After less than two centuries of intensive human influence, large parts of Connaught returned to the wild. The farms on the hillsides were slowly reclaimed by nature, leaving only the odd ruined cottage and the tell-tale vertical lines of former lazy-beds. Many of these lazy beds can still be seen in deserted areas today; haunting signs of the once-dense human population.

> Next > Effects of The Famine 2: Emigration >


[1] Whelan, Keving; Writing in "The Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape", Cork University Press, 1997.
[2] Hodge, AM; Rees, R; "Union to Partition: Ireland 1800-1921", Colourpoint Books, www.colourpoint.co.uk, 1995
[3] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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