After the Great Famine from 1845-1852, Ireland’s population was decimated, and dropped from over 8 million to about 5 million people. Even today, there are less people on the entire island than before 1845. The problem began when a fungus infection destroyed the potato crops.
The British government, who ruled over Ireland at the time, adopted a laissez-faire policy to the problem. First off, there were plenty of other crops which weren’t affected. It was only the poor Irish, who ate a diet that relied almost entirely on the potato, that suffered. The majority of Ireland’s poor were Catholics. The British penal laws, which essentially punished anyone believing in a different religion than the British Crown (Protestant), meant that Catholics couldn’t get an education, vote, own land or sign long-term leases.
The British government wasn’t eager to save a demographic that they considered a problem, and it was believed that the potato plants would start growing again soon. They did grow after a few seasons, but the poor Irish farmers had lost their rented land and what little money they had due to the failed crops.
It is generally believed that over 1 million people starved to death, and approximately 2 million people emigrated from Ireland, most of them arriving in North America. One third of those who set off on what became known as “coffin ships” didn’t survive the journey.
Over 70 million people worldwide have some degree of Irish ancestry. The EPIC Irish Emigration Museum explains the waves of migration and how Irish culture has spread with it. The ancestry lines probably run a lot further than you’d think.
Docked on the River Liffey outside the museum is a working replica of the Jeanie Johnston, one of the ships that sailed migrants to North America. It was however one of the very few ships that never had a death onboard. The Irish owner made sure that conditions onboard were clean to prevent the spread of disease. For most other ships, the often foreign owners simply sold tickets at the port of origin, and the ships set off with its human “cargo”. How many survived the journey didn’t matter for the ship owners, who had already collected their money.