Nick Wilson, "Political Ecology and the Irish Potato Famine"


Ireland before the famine was performed. Under conacre, which was somewhat similar to sharecropping, an agricultural laborer was essentially allowed a license to grow subsistence provisions for himself on a particular piece of the landlord's land in exchange for his labor in producing cash crops. Rents were also paid "either in casual labor which could be supplemented through seasonal migration, or through the sale of a pig,"29 but it should be noted that agricultural laborers still directly grew their subsistence through the potato. Furthermore, the pig was used in a crude effort to "save" the potato from spoilage. Pigs were fed part of the crop, and were later either slaughtered when the potato harvest was consumed, or, more commonly, were used as a means of paying rent on the land being farmed.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that advocates of Irish modernization desired a reform of the land system. When the Irish Poor Law Extension Act (discussed above) passed through parliament in 1847, it contained the "Gregory clause," which stipulated that anyone who owned more than a quarter-acre of land was ineligible for relief. Of course, to an Irish farmer who depended upon the potato both as his source of subsistence and of income, owning more than a quarter-acre of land was meaningless in the context of the famine. Also, since their source of both rent and expendable income-the pig-had been decimated by two seasons of famine, most farmers had little left to do but accept eviction from their land. The result was mass evictions and demolition. Kinealy estimates that around 500,000 people were evicted in this way over the course of the famine.30  This, in turn, seems to have been a way for Irish landlords to escape their chronic indebtedness as well as achieve mass consolidation of land.31  Further, the famine destroyed the system of baile and rundale as community bonds deteriorated and communal leases became impossible to maintain.

29.Christine Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland (London, 1997), 50.
30. Kinealy, 155-156.
31. James S. Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Sutton, 2001), 164-166.
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