Many people consider the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 to be an unprecendented occurrence, and believe it caught the country’s government by surprise. However, the failure of the potato crop that began in 1845 was no stranger to Ireland’s inhabitants.
Crop failures had plagued Ireland in both the 18th and 19th centuries prior to An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger. In the winter of 1739-1740, the potato crop was ruined by frost: close to half a million Irish died from starvation and related diseases (a number that is statistically higher per capita than The Great Famine).
Another crop failure took place in 1782 and 1783, but at that time laws were enacted to keep Irish food in Ireland to feed its populace, so the death rate was not nearly so high.
In 1816, a widespread general crop failure occurred in most of Europe, due to unusual weather conditions (secondary, we now know, to a volcanic eruption in the Indian Ocean). The English Parliament under Sir Robert Peel created a contingency plan to prevent widespread disaster in the case of another potato crop failure.
In 1822 and in the early 1830s, regional crop failures occurred, but were considered unimportant and unrelated. By the mid-century, the British government had essentially adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Ireland; when the crop failed again in 1845, only small parts of Peel’s contingency plan were put into effect. The Corn Laws, laws that kept the price of English corn artificially high, were repealed; however, the populace had no money with which to buy the corn even at reduced prices.
Ironically, American ships loaded with donated corn arrived in Ireland – after much ado about who had the authority to accept the corn, the American grain was distributed for free, while English corn rotted away in warehouses, waiting for someone with enough money to buy it.