Troubled Geographies:
A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland

Ian N. Gregory, Niall A. Cunningham, C.D. Lloyd, Ian G. Shuttleworth and Paul S. Ell
Full text available from Indiana University Press
Figures by
Maps by
1. Background
2. The Plantations
3. Pre-Famine Ireland
5. Towards Partition
6. Partition & Civil War
7. Continuous division
8. Towards the Celtic Tiger
9. Northern Ireland, 1971-2001
10. Conflict & death
11. Belfast and the Troubles
12. Stability or change?

4. The Famine and its Impacts: 1840s-1860s


Ireland is the only developed country whose population has declined since the early nineteenth century. This decline started with the Great Famine of the late 1840s which was followed by several decades of less spectacular decline or stagnation. The Irish potato crop was first affected by blight in the autumn of 1845. Much of the rural population depended on potatoes for survival and when the crop continued to fail in subsequent years the result was that by 1851 1.1 million people are believed to have died as a direct result of the Famine.


Population density, legend
Population density 1821
a. Population density of Irish baronies, 1821
Population density 1831
b. Population density of Irish baronies, 1831
Population density 1841
c. Population density of Irish baronies, 1841
Population density 1851
d. Population density of Irish baronies, 1851
Population density 1861
e. Population density of Irish baronies, 1861

Fig 4.1: Population density of Irish baronies in (a) 1821, (b) 1831, (c) 1841, (d) 1851 and (e) 1861.

Figure 4.1 shows how Ireland's population density changed from the period from 1821 to 1841, the period of rapid growth described in the previous chapter, and then over the Famine period from 1841-1861.

Population change, legend
Population change 1841-61
Percentage population growth by barony between 1841 and 1861

Fig 4.2: Percentage population growth by barony between 1841 and 1861. Sources: 1841 and 1861 Population censuses. Data have been mapped onto 1841 barony boundaries. Unshaded areas have no data due to boundary changes between these two dates.

Figure 4.2 shows population change over the famine years. The maps shows that in addition to coastal areas on the western seaboard, traditionally associated with the famine, many inland baronies, particularly in northern Munster and north Leinster also saw major population losses. The population of Ulster was relatively stable while the two baronies that made up Belfast saw rises of 44 and 63 percent respectively. Other urban areas showed more modest growth or stability. The rapid growth in Offlay East, west of Dublin in County Kildare is likely to be explained by the rapid expansion of the Curragh Camp military base following the 'Young Ireland' rebellion of 1848.


Catholics 1861, legend
Catholics 1861
a. Catholics as a percentages of the population by barony, 1861
Church of Ireland 1861, legend
Church of Ireland 1861
b. Church of Ireland as a percentages of the population by barony, 1861
Presbyterians 1861, legend
Presbyterians 1861
c. Presbyterians as a percentages of the population by barony, 1861

Fig 4.3: Ireland's three largest religious denominations in 1861 showing (a) Catholics, (b) Church of Ireland, and (c) Presbyterians.

The 1861 census was the first to collect data on religion. It showed that Catholics made up 78 percent of the population. Despite the Famine, the geographies that it shows are broadly consistent with those from 1834 shown in chapter 3. Comparing these maps with the map of population change over the Famine period also shows that it was areas with large Catholic populations that experienced the largest loss of population. The fact that the Fa mine disproportionately impacted on Catholic areas, or perhaps more accurately, that Catholics were over-represented in the poorest areas which, in turn, were hardest hit by the Famine, served to reinforce sectarian divisions in the post-Famine era.

Social impacts

Illiteracy in English, legend
Illiteracy 1841
a. Illiteracy in English by barony, 1841
Illiteracy 1851
b. Illiteracy in English by barony, 1851
Illiteracy 1861
c. Illiteracy in English by barony, 1861

Fig 4.7: Illiteracy in English by barony, (a) 1841, (b) 1851 and (c) 1861.

Figure 4.7 shows how the percentage of each barony's population who could not read or write in English, and were thus classed as illiterate, changed over the Famine period. In 1841 illiteracy was heavily concentrated on the western seaboard, with baronies with rates of over 80 percent or more covering all of Connemara in western County Galway and areas of Mayo, south Kerry and the Ring district in County Waterford. The extent of these high rates contracts significantly over the Famine period. The areas with the lowest levels of illiteracy, below 20 percent are chiefly found around Belfast. It must be noted that these patterns are not so much a reflection of differing levels of education, although there were many with religio-political agendas who claimed that they were, but rather of the persistence of Gaelic in western parts of Ireland. This had not been widely used in north-east Ulster for over two centuries.

Fourth class housing, legend
Fourth class housing 1841
a. Fourth class housing by barony, 1841
Fourth class housing 1851
b. Fourth class housing by barony, 1851
Fourth class housing 1861
c. Fourth class housing by barony, 1861

Fig 4.8: Fourth class housing as a percentage of dwellings per barony, (a) 1841, (b) 1851 and (c) 1861.

Figure 4.8 shows the percentage of housing defined by the census as fourth class. This was the lowest calibre of housing as defined by the census as consisting of 'mud cabins having only one room.' In 1841 these were overwhelmingly concentrated in the western half of the island. The subsequent two maps indicate a remarkable decline in the poorest quality of housing over the ensuing two decades. By 1861 only the entire county of Kerry and isolated parts of western Cork, Galway and Mayo showed concentrations of poor quality housing of over 20 percent.

The reason why illiteracy in English declined and housing quality improved was because an entire class of people, including the landless, cottiers and small farmers, disappeared from the Irish landscape between 1841 and 1861.

Economic impacts

In economic terms the Famine was more remarkable for its continuities than its disruptions. This can in part be explained by its spatial and social impact as it disproportionately affected the west of the country and the poorest tier of the population.

Farms of less tha 15 acres, legend
Farms of less than 15 acres 1852
a. Percentage of farms of 15 acres or less by barony, 1852
Farms of less than 15 acres 1861
b. Percentage of farms of 15 acres or less by barony, 1861
Farms of less than 15 acres 1871
c. Percentage of farms of 15 acres or less by barony, 1871

Fig 4.9: Percentage of farms of 15 acres or less by barony (a) 1852, (b) 1861 and (c) 1871.

Figure 4.9 shows the percentage of small farms, those that are 15 acres or less from 1852 to 1871. Over the period the pattern remains relatively stable, the areas with the highest proportions are in eastern Connacht, the north midlands and south Ulster. The south Ulster concentration can be explained by the high population densities in this region and the growing of flax for the linen mills of the Lagan valley. In eastern Connacht and the north midlands it can be explained by the heavy population loss during the Famine leading to a consolidation of smallholdings. Thus, entrepreneurship was spreading into Irish agriculture as the subsistence system was swept away. Real power, however, still remained with the landlords rather than the farmers and they responded to the collapse in incomes caused by the Famine by evictions, creating a legacy of bitterness that would last generations. Even this was not sufficient to save many estates who went bankrupt. This did not lead to the estates being broken up but did put land reform on the political agenda for much of the later nineteenth century.

Manufacturing, legend
Manufacturing 1841
a. Males employed in the manufacturing sector as a percentage of the male population at county level, 1831
Manufacturing 1851
b. Males employed in the manufacturing sector as a percentage of the male population at county level, 1851
Manufacturing 1861
c. Males employed in the manufacturing sector as a percentage of the male population at county level, 1871

Fig 4.10: Males employed in the manufacturing sector as a percentage of the male population at county level (a) 1831, (b) 1851 and (c) 1871.

The final series of maps in this chapter shows the male population employed in agriculture at county level. As discussed in chapter 3, in 1831 the counties of Ulster and Leinster were already ahead of the south and west of the country in terms of manufacturing employment. 1851 and 1871 saw a much more intense pattern of industrialisation in north-east Ulster as the domestic linen industry was replaced by the mills of Belfast and the Lagan valley and the beginnings of the emergence of heavy industries around Belfast. Dublin is the only other county with over 12 percent of its population working in manufacturing, in this case based on food processing rather than textiles or engineering. A clear separation is also starting to emerge between the east and west of the country with the west largely lacking in any manufacturing even after the development of the railway network before 1871.


In some respects the Famine was a watershed in Irish history, fundamentally changing the country's development. In other respects it merely altered the trajectories or accelerated trends that were already taking place. The previous chapter illustrated that prior to the Famine period Ireland was divided demographically, religiously and economically. The Famine threw those divisions into sharper relief. The inadequacy of the British response threw into question the whole idea of a United Kingdom, while the reluctance of Ulster to subsidise the cost of relief elsewhere underlined the lack of fundamental unity already apparent within the island. Cullen's1 description of the Famine as more of a regional than a national disaster is accurate in another, albeit unintended sense: Ireland's experience of, and reaction to, the disaster was indicative of an island which increasingly saw itself as more of a series of regions than a cohesive national entity.

1. L.M. Cullen, An Economic History of Ireland Since 1660 (London: Batsford, 1972), p.132.




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©Ian Gregory & Niall Cunningham, 2013