Potatoes were not native to Ireland or, for that matter, to Europe. They were introduced to Europeans in the 16th century by Spaniards returning from Peru where they were a staple of the Incan diet. The English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh is thought to have brought the first potatoes to Ireland to his estate in west Cork in the latter part of 1500s. The crop was not met initially with favor as food in either Ireland or Europe in general. In fact, its primary use for over a century was as feed for stock and, to a lesser extent, as food for the poor. By the late 17th century, though, they had gained more acceptance in part because of shortages of other staples and in part because they were so easily cultivated. By 1850 potatoes constituted a significant portion of agricultural acreage in Ireland and, for the poor especially, up to 60% of the daily diet.1

Potato blight began to infest the Irish crop in 1845 and continued for the better part of a decade resulting in a dramatic transformation of the Irish population by death from starvation, by disease, and by emigration - particularly to the United States and Canada. In this unit you will explore the physical and social effects of the blight on the Irish population, efforts to provide relief, the emigration out of Ireland as a result of the famine, and the immigration of Irish into the United States

The Quaker Church in England was among the first private institutions to realize the seriousness of the potato famine in Ireland and to engage in trying to deal with the catastrophe. The following activity will introduce you to the devastating impact of the blight, to the geography of Ireland, and to several social and historical issues that compounded the decade long tragedy - issues that you will study in more detail in later lessons.

Click on the map above to open a story map. It leads you in a trip through Ireland in 1847 through the eyes of William Bennett, a London Friend, whose travel goals were to assess the situation in Ireland for his church and to distribute limited amounts of vegetable seed, money, and clothing to those in need. The letters he wrote home were published shortly after his return to England along with his conclusions about the Irish situation. Several of these letters are excerpted in the map journal. Click on the map to begin your trip. As you read through Bennett's letters pay particular attention to the author's observations about:

  • the individuals he meets from various social classes,
  • the geography he encounters,
  • the potential for agriculture in the places visited, and
  • the ways in which different individuals, groups, and government agencies were trying to meet the needs of the starving

To Start You Thinking

1) In his conclusion, Bennett describes a geographic division of Ireland in terms of the extreme effects of the famine. Briefly describe this division and make a sketch of Ireland showing it.

2) On the road to Sligo Bennett writes that "the strength of the country is departing." Briefly explain what it was he was describing.

3) Bennett obviously has an eye on the physical character of the Irish landscape. Open the  Irish Famine map  at the right and zoom in on the various mountainous regions in Ireland. How high are the five highest mountains you find? Compare your results with classmates and come to an agreement about which five mountains are the highest.

4) Bennett describes a variety of forms of famine relief in his letters. List and briefly describe as many as you can identifying who was responsible for each.

5) During the years of the famine tenant-landlord relationships played a significant role in the lives of the Irish. Compare and contrast at least two different types of landlord behaviors that Bennett encountered in his travels.

6) Zoom in on the Irish Cities layer in the  Irish Famine map  and explore the region surrounding each city. What physical geographic characteristic(s) do most of these cities share?

7) The Irish Cities layer shows the relative populations of several Irish cities in 1841 and 1851. Select to Show Table and arrange the cities in ascending order of population in 1851. What do you notice about the populations of the cities comparing the 1851 populations with those from 1841?

8) Turn on the Irish Famine layer to show the counties of Ireland. Examine the counties in relation to various aspects of the physical geography of the country (rivers, mountains, etc.). Describe which counties you think would be generally most favorable to agriculture. Explain your choices.


1John Crowley, William J. Smyth, & Mike Murphy, editors. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Last modified in October, 2021 by Rick Thomas