The Demographic Impact

The effects of the famine on the Irish population were catastrophic. The country's population declined by over three million between the census years of 1841 and 1851.1 In County Mayo alone the population decline was over 29%. Approximately one million Irish died as a result of starvation and disease during the famine years. Over two million emigrated - mostly to North America.2

As you can see in the map at the left the impact of the famine on population varied by county. County Dublin actually saw a population growth of about 9% - most of the population being concentrated in the city of Dublin itself where migrants from the countryside had fled in search of work.

The impact of the famine was felt very differently across social and economic class as well as geographically. You will explore these differences in the activities below.

The article that accompanies this drawing of a funeral in Skibbereen, County Cork in southern Ireland from the Illustrated London News in January, 1847 notes that this was "no unusual occurrence." Death from starvation and fever were literally everywhere. However, death was not evenly distributed among the population. Nor was the ability to flee the famine by emigration. Different segments of the population in different regions of the country fared very differently.


Geographers Stewart Fotheringham, Mary Kelly and Martin Charlton argue that there are a number of demographic factors that can be examined that allow for better understanding of the effects of the famine.3 Among these they include:



Data related to these topics is included in the Famine in Ireland Map. Open and use the map as you address the questions below and build for yourself a picture of the famine's impact.

To... Click...
• Navigate your map
• Change the basemap
• Zoom in/out
• Display data in a table
• Open a feature's pop-up window
• Use a bookmark
• Change feature styles
• Filter data
• Measure distance/area
• Share your map

Viewing web maps
Choosing a basemap
Viewing web maps-Navigate
Show table
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Access bookmarks
Change style
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Create Presentations



To Start You Thinking

1) Recreate the map at right showing the percent change in population from 1841 to 1851. To do this select to Change Styles using Counts and Amounts (Color) to show the % Change 1841-51 field. Describe any patterns you see that show where the population loss was greatest and least. Which counties were most dramatically affected?

2) Create a similar map to describe the change in population in the decade from 1851 to 1861. Was the same pattern of change apparent? Were the same counties affected?

3) Population density is normally measured as the number of people per unit of area (square mile, acre, etc). In the case of the data you have in the Famine map, though, population density is given as the ratio of population to total acres in crops giving a better sense of the ability of the available land to feed the population. Create maps showing the population densities in 1841 and 1851 and discuss where the the densities are greatest and least and any changes over the decade of the 1840s.

4) Which counties in Ireland have the largest and smallest percentage of the land in agricultural use? Compare the Acres in Crops 1851 divided ( or normalized) by the Area Acres of each county. That is, find the percentage of the area of each county that was devoted to agriculture in 1851. How are the results in this map correlated with the 1851 population density map you created in #3? Does the relationship tend to be positive - the same counties shaded similarly in each map? Or is it negative - counties tending to be shaded in opposite patterns? Explain what this relationship means in terms of the affects of the famine in the counties across Ireland.

5) Farming in Ireland at the time of the famine had been bound within a system of landlord-tenant relations since the English under Oliver Cromwell conquered Ireland in the early 1650s. Lords had been awarded large tracts of lands. They then leased their land in return for payment in kind or currency to individuals who may have further leased land down several levels to the point where those at the lowest level may have had less than an acre of land to farm and both pay their rent and feed their family. The size of the farm an individual worked can therefore be used as an indicator of their social level. Map the % of Farms Under 20 Acres 1851 in the counties across Ireland and analyze the relationship between this variable and the others you have examined above. Make a similar comparison involving the % of the Population in the Worst Housing 1851.


image from "Mortality in Skibbereen,"from Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849 as found at Views of the Famine

1 Cormac O'Grada, "Mortality and the Great Famine," in John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy eds. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (New York: New York University Press. 2012.

2 Kerby A. Miller, "Emigration to North America in the Era of the Great Famine, 1845-55," in John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy eds. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (New York: New York University Press. 2012.

3 Stewart Fotheringham, Mary Kelly and Martin Charlton, "The Demographic Impacts of the Irish Famine: Towards a Greater Geographical Understanding," in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2012.

Last modified in May, 2015 by Rick Thomas