1801, the population of Ireland was about 5 million. Forty years
later in 1841 the census revealed a population of 8,175,124. (See
page.) As the population grew, farms were subdivided and dwindled
in size. Many farming families
lived on potatoes and little else. In 1845, blight affected the
potato crop in widely separated areas. The following year it appeared
throughout the whole country. The potatoes rotted in the ground,
throughout the country the air was filled with the stench of the
rotting tubers, and many people faced starvation.
Charles Tteveleyan permanent Head of Treasury
under Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, introduced relief schemes
in the poorest areas to enable people to earn enough money to buy
maize that the government imported from the United States. Maize
is a grain which needs
to be ground exceptionally finely to deliver its nutritional value,
the Irish did not have the means to do this, the coarsely ground
maize passing through their systems largely undigested. These measures
proved to be totally inadequate, and the next government, under
Lord John Russell, had to distribute food free of charge. But these
relief measures were also inadequate. Hundreds of thousands died,
along the roadsides or in their huts, where sometimes entire families
lay unburied, their corpses gnawed upon by stray dogs and rats.
In a hovel in County Mayo a old woman was found barely alive with
parts of the arms and face eaten off by rats, she died shortly after.