Famine and Evictions

The Great Famine was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852. During the famine, one million people died and a million more emigrated. While the cause of famine was potato blight, Ireland was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. Fifty shiploads per day of food was being exported. Absentee British landlords were either consciously or unconsciously engaged in genocide.

The 1847 "Gregory Clause" provided that no tenant holding more than a quarter acre of land was eligible for workhouse "public assistance". To become eligible, the tenant had to surrender his holding to his landlord. Some tenants sent their children to the workhouse as orphans so they could keep their land and still have their children fed.
Tenants who surrendered their land but tried to remain living in their houses were evicted and their homes were burned. Estate-clearing landlords and agents were supported by soldiers or police when carrying out evictions and destroying cabins. Helpless evicted people were driven off the land to seek temporary shelter behind wall or ditch, or in bog-holes unfit for human habitation. Disease and starvation left the roads littered with emmaciated corpses.

When there was widespread criticism in British newspaper over the evictions, the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, refused to bring criminal proceedings against evicting landlords. As a grand gesture of goodwill, he made it a misdemeanor to demolish a dwelling while the tenants were inside, and prohibited evictions on Christmas day and Good Friday. Eventually, the Irish Poor Law made landlords responsible for relief of the poor on the smallest properties. This gave landlords the incentive to evict tenants or pay passage for them on "coffin ships".

The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. It was a rallying point for Home Rule and the United Ireland movement which eventually led to Irish independence.