The Act of Union passed in 1800 was a drastic and far-reaching political decision that formed a new country which would be called 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland'.
19th Century Ireland was no stranger to hunger, but between the years 1845 – 1852 the country saw mass starvation on a scale never witnessed before. It is estimated that in Ireland during the Great Famine approximately one million people died and over a million more emigrated. Such widespread hunger was the result of the total dependence of one third of the population on the potato for food.
The sheer magnitude of the Famine was not only caused by crop failure. A large number of the Irish lived in abject poverty even at the best of times, dependent on their Landlords, whose power over them was virtually unlimited. During the 1800s the majority of Irish landlords were Anglican Protestants since the law forbade Catholics from owning land. The Irish peasants from these affected groups lived almost exclusively on a diet of potatoes since land was scarce and potatoes were easily grown. Then, in 1845 the potato blight struck and destroyed almost one-third of the potato crop in Ireland. By 1846, the potato supply was non-existent. When the crops failed the starving tenant was often evicted from his home by greedy landlords for non-payment of rent and these disenfranchised families added to an already out-of-control problem. Throughout this period Ireland continued to export food whilst its people starved.
While the British Government set up soup kitchens and workhouses to relieve the stress of the disaster, they drastically underestimated the problems they were facing and much of the relief failed to reach its intended victims. The majority were completely oblivious to the Irish plight.
The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. It was at this stage that the great ‘Irish Emigration’ began (especially to America). The Famine Ships offered hope for a better future and many left Irish shores, facing the unknown.