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What was the Great Famine?

Typically the term refers to the Great Irish Famine, which began in 1845. That year crops failed across Europe, resulting in widespread hunger and disease, claiming 2.5 million lives. The famine was especially severe in Ireland, where many peasants exported their grain and millet and depended on potatoes for their own sustenance. The failure of the potato crop in 1845 was the twentieth in Ireland since 1727, and it marked the beginning of the Great Famine—which lasted into 1848 due to more disastrous crop failures each successive year. The crops had failed due to blight (previously unknown to Ireland), which was caused by a microscopic organism (fungus) believed to have been introduced by a ship from North America. British charity and government relief did little to alleviate the suffering. The resulting famine was responsible for a drastic decline in the Irish population—due both to death and emigration. Between 700,000 and 1 million people died in Ireland, and nearly 2 million people left the country in search of a better life elsewhere.

Other severe, or “great,” famines include one in 1769 in Bengal; the disaster claimed the lives of 10 million Asian Indians, one-third of the population. In 1878 up to 20 million Chinese people died as a two-year drought held Asia in its grips, causing widespread crop failures. It is still considered the worst famine in history.


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