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The Great IrishFamine and Population: The Long View


The Great Irish Famine killed at least 1 millionpeople and led more than that number to emigrate,but the Famine is not the only dramaticelement in Ireland'spopulation history. Between 1700 and 1845 Ireland's populationmore than quadrupledto over 8 millionpeople. Followingthe Famine the population declined for more than a century. Depopulation did not cease until 1951, and even then increaseswere modest and not alwayssustained.Ireland'spopulation history remains a testing ground for theories about the relationship between populationand economicgrowth,and it has some relevanceto those issues in contemporarysociety. This paper first sets the demographicconsequencesof the Great Famine in the context of Ireland'slong-termpopulation history and then discusseswhat may be the most puzzlingfeature of Irish population history,the demographic patternsthat emerged duringthe second half of the 19th century.The paper focuses on ruralIreland, where these changeswere most stark. Ireland'spopulationhistoryhas long been presentedin franklyMalthusianterms (e.g., Kenneth H. Connell, 1962; D. B. Grigg, 1980). According to this view, population growthbefore the Famine was too rapid to

be sustained by a small, primarilyagriculturalcountry.This line of thinkingviews the Famineand subsequentdepopulationas two sides of a Malthusiancoin: Irelandwas first visited by the positive check in the form of the potato blight, after which the Irish turnedto the more gentle preventative check to get their demographichouse in order. Recent research has cast doubt on the idea that pre-FamineIrelandwas overpopulated in any simple sense (Joel Mokyr and Cormac 0 Grada, 1984; Mokyr, 1985; O Grada, 1993). Nor does the post-Famine experience correspondwell to Malthusian thinking, which is inconsistent with some evidence and tends to obscure the indirect role of the Famine in the characterof the adjustmentthat followed. demographic
I. Irish Populationin the 18th and 19th Centuries

tDiscussants:John R. Harris, Boston University; Ruth-AnnM. Harris,NortheasternUniversity;T. N. Yale University. Srinivasan, *Departmentof Economics,Yale University,New Haven, CT 06520. This paper summarizesarguments and evidencepresentedin more detail in the author's The Vanishing Irish: Households,Population,and the Rural Economy in Post-FamineIreland, forthcoming from Princeton UniversityPress. I thank John and Ruth-AnnHarris,Kevin O'Rourke,and T. N. Srinivasanfor comments.

Figure 1 presents Ireland's population from about 1700 through 1975; it includes England's population for comparison. (In absolute terms England's population was about 2.5 times as large as the Irishpopulation in 1700.) Populationgrowthin ireland in the centuryprior to the Famine was fast by the standardsof the day, averaging1.4 percent per annum during the period 1751-1841. Today, growth rates like these are lamentably common-several low-income countriescurrentlygrow at more than 2 percent per annum-but for the period this was rapid indeed. The famine initiated a century of population decline, a century that saw robustdemographic growthin most other European countries. From 1841 to 1911, the period over which Ireland'spopulation fell by half, the populationsof countries such as England and Germanymore



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700600 5 500 :,400>




300 200

100 1700 1725 1750 1775 1800 1825 1850 1875 1900 1925 1950 1975 Year | Irishpopulation Englishpopulation

1876 than before, suggestingthat the pull of overseas labor markets was relatively less importantfrom that time onward. For my purposes,however,the nature of the shock to which the Irish economy was reactingis not of primaryimportance.Ireland'spopulation did fall after the Famine. In the absence of industrialization-the paucityof which is anothergreat questionin Irisheconomic history-one could hardly expect anythingelse.
Demographic Components of Depopula-


Notes: Population totals for Ireland prior to 1841 are conjectural. English figures prior to 1821 are based on a national sample of parish registers. Pre-1821 data are for England (less Monmouth) only; later data are for England and Wales. Sources: Ireland, pre-1821, Leslie Clarkson's estimates, as presented and discussed in Mokyr and 0 Grada (1984 table 1); Ireland after 1821, official census; England, pre-1821, E. A. Wrigley and Roger S. Schofield (1981 table A3.1); England after 1821, official census. Official census estimates for Ireland and for England and Wales are reproduced in Mitchell (1980 series BO).

than doubled (Brian R. Mitchell, 1980 series B1). Recent research suggests that depopulation would have occurred,famine or not, as a result of changingexternaleconomic conditions. Ireland was a small part of the expandingAtlantic economy. Depopulation reflected the Irish economy's reaction to two externalchanges. Growingdemand for labor in Britain and North America meant that Irish workers would have to be paid more at home or seek their fortunes elsewhere. At the same time, the increases in grain imports into Western Europe-the so-called "grain invasion -encouraged Irish farmersto switch from growingcrops to less labor-intensivepastoral agriculture. Rural districtsof Englandwere exposed to similarforces and in some cases also experienced depopulationduringthe same period. Kevin O'Rourke(1991) has shown that for Ireland overseas labor markets were the dominantof these two changes for the period up to 1876. The prices of agricultural products shifted more dramaticallyafter

tion.-Economists are often content to examine population growth rates rather than the underlyingdynamics that cause those growth rates. In the Irish case the components of populationchange are instructive. A populationgrowsthroughsome combination of positive net immigration,a surplus of births over deaths, or both. Marriage patternsin historicalWesternEuropeansocieties add a wrinkleto the births issue. In most other historical societies nearly all women married and did so by their late teens. Many women in western European societies never married,and most who did marrywaited until their mid-twenties.Because of what John Hajnal (1983) calls the "western European marriagepattern,"the numberof births per thousandpeople in a western European population is a function
both of marriage behavior and the fertility of

births complicate marriages.(Extra-marital this picture in some societies. Ireland was not one of them, however; extra-marital birthswere rare.) Thus the relationshipbetween births and deaths is a function of mortality,marriagepatterns, and the number of children born to couples who do marry. Unsatisfactorysources have not permitted agreement on the causes of the preFaminepopulationincrease.The most likely holds that high maritalfertilinterpretation ity coupled with some change in marriage behaviordrove the rapid growthof the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Mokyr and OGrada, 1984).During the early 19th centuryemigrationbecame commonamongthe farming classes. Mokyr (1985 p. 230) estimated that at least 1.5 million people left

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Irelandbetween 1815 and 1845. Because of this emigration,and perhapsaided by some changes in marriage behavior, population growth in the two decades prior to the Famine had slowed considerablyfrom its peak. The Famine initiated mass emigrationby the poor. Net emigrationrates from Ireland remainedhigh throughoutthe period up to WorldWar I. The officialtally of emigrants for the period 1850-1910 is 4.2 million persons, althoughthe true numberis probably higher. In many years during this period emigrantsamounted to 1 percent or more of the population,and emigrationfell below this figure consistently only in the 1890's (W. E. Vaughanand A. J. Fitzpatrick,1978 table 54). The more striking post-Famine developmentwas the emergence of a large fractionof each cohort who never married. In 1851, about 10 percent of Irish adults aged 45-54 had never married.This figure implies that Irish nuptialitywas entirelyunremarkable;about the same proportionof English, French, and German adults had nevermarriedat mid-century. By 1911about
one quarter of men and women aged 45-54

populationwas thus heavy emigrationcombined with unremarkable overall birthrates. What makes the depopulation seem more exotic is that the Irish arrivedat unremarkable birthrates through a combination of large familiesbut low marriagerates.
II. The Famine's Direct Impact

in Ireland had never married. The age at which people in Ireland married also rose duringthis period, althoughrelativelymodestly. Marriage patterns in England and other major western European countries changed less. Ireland's marriage patterns are striking,but to call them "unique"is an exaggeration. Ireland was not absolutely alone in seeing a decline in the popularity of marriageduringthis period. More important, people who never married in Ireland were not doing anythingthat did not have long roots in Europeantradition. Irish demographicbehavior was distinctive in another respect for not changing. Most Western European societies experienced a fertilitydecline startingin the 1870's or earlier(AnsleyJ. Coale, 1986).In Ireland the fertilitytransitioncame later, not starting until the 1890'sor later (O Grada,1991). Yet these large families were not sufficient to offset the numberswho would leave Ireland for good, and those who would remain but never marryand have childrenof their own. The proximatecauses of Ireland'sde-

Before consideringthe Famine's indirect role, it is worth consideringtwo counterfactual questionsto get an idea of the Famine's direct role in Irish depopulation. First, if the Famine had not occurred, could one still imagine depopulationrapid enough to reach the actual 1911 population?The answer is yes. From 1851 to 1911 the population declined at an average rate of 0.65 percent per year. Had the Famine not occurred, a rate of depopulationof 0.88 percent from 1841 to 1911 would have left Ireland with her actual 1911 population. This rate of depopulation is indeed rapid, but amountsto little more than extendingto larger areas of the country the rates that some regions did experiencebetween 1851 and 1911. The populationof CountyClare, for example, declined at a rate of 1.09 percent per annum during the period 1851-1911. Whether such depopulation could be sustained by the population as a whole depends, of course, on the 1841 population's age and sex structure.Simulations using demographic projectionmethodsshow that depopulationrates of 1.09 percent and even higher were, in fact, feasible. This example establishes an importantpoint. The Famine'sdirect impacton the Irish population was considerable.But if we posit that Ireland's population had to shrink by the end of the 19th century,which is to say that Ireland would remain heavily agricultural and could not support a population of 8 million with such an economy, then the Famine'sdirect demographic impactwas by no means necessary. This simple counterfactual assumes a constant growthrate and so ignores an important aspect of any human population, which is its abilityto react to a shock such as a famine. Europe's historicalexperience was to see increases in population growth



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rates after a famine or epidemic. Increases in the land/labor ratio increased wages, permitting more people to marry and to marry at younger ages. Higher wages also increase net immigration rates and may reduce mortality.Noting this effect implicitly poses a different counterfactual: if nothing else had changed after the Famine, could population growth rates have increased enough to make good the losses of 1845-1849? The answer seems to be yes. Susan C. Watkinsand Jane Menken (1985) have recentlyaddressedthe long-rundemographic impact of the recent South Asian famines,using a simple model that incorporates a population'sabilityto react to severe shocks. Their most severe set of assumptions (a five-yearfamine with a 150-percent increase in mortality, which reduces the population by nearly one-quarter) corresponds roughly to the Irish Famine. Even this simulation implies that 50 years later the famine's effects are barely noticeable (Watkins and Menken, 1985 table 3). Yet their analysis,while entirely credible in the context they model, incorporates two assumptionsthat do not pertain to 19th-century Ireland:early and more nearly universal marriageand zero net migration.These assumptionsamount to sayingthat prior to the postulated famine the population had little or no unused reproductivecapacity, and that none of the people born to this populationwould be lost to emigration.In Ireland, on the other hand, the Famine survivors could in theory have increased overall fertility through earlier and universal marriage,and a cessation of emigration would have meant that none of the new birthswould be lost to emigration.In other words,if a South Asian famine cannot have
long-run effects strictly through its impact on

impacton simple numberswould have been erased quicklyhad external conditions not changed and had the Famine not brought about other changes in Irish economic and social organization.
III. Afterthe Famine

numbers,then the Irish Famine could not, either. Just how rapidly the post-Famine population could make good the loss depends, once again, on the specifics of the age- and sex-structure of the survivors. Demographic projectionmethodsconfirmwhat the Watkins-Menkenstudy suggests: Ireland's population could have recovered quickly.The Famine killed thousands and forced thousandsmore to emigrate,but its

Discussionsof post-Faminedepopulation often employfranklyMalthusianideas, portrayingemigrationand the risingnumberof nonmarried people as two different responses to "populationpressure."Yet this account is inconsistentwith two features of post-Famine history. The first problem is the relationship between wealth and incomes on the one hand and demographic choices on the other. In the Malthusian story a reduction in income leads young adults to postpone or forgo marriage entirely, reducing birthrates. Evidence on post-Famineeconomic growthis imperfect, but rural incomes per head rose substantially between the Famine and the end of the century(0 Grada, 1993 table 30). This increase in incomes came during the same period as the retreat from marriage.Rural Irish people were becoming less likely to marryat preciselythe time they were enjoying (on average at least) larger incomes. The Malthusian story is also inconsistent with the identityof those who did not marry in Ireland. In a cross section, the model implies that nonmarriedindividualsshould be poorer than those who married.This is not true in Ireland,at least in the 1901-1911 period. Those who never marriedwere not restrictedto the poor. In fact, wealthyfarmers were as likely to remain unmarriedas were poor farmers and landless laborers (Guinnane,1991). The Malthusianmodel is also inconsistent with the role of emigration. Several historianshave noted a negativetime-series and cross-sectional relationship between emigrationand the proportionof adultswho never married.Earlier interpretations have claimed the inverse relationship between marriageand emigrationrates as evidence that increases in the numberof single people reflect reactionsto populationpressure. Where emigrationdid not release some of

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this pressure,this interpretation goes, there were insufficient resources to permit the marriageof all those who remained. The relation between emigration and marriage is actually inconsistent with the Malthusianstory. Rising numbersof nevermarried people implies increased poverty, while falling numbersof emigrantsimplies just the opposite. Thinkingabout this issue in terms of revealed preference suggests something different. Emigrationwas costly in both money and personalterms,but millions did leave, and for most emigrationwas a real possibility.Many who stayed in Ireland and did not marry had implicitlyrejected the option to emigrate,revealing,in effect, that Ireland even without marriage was preferableto emigration.Thus the inverse relationbetween marriageand migration propensities reveals not the work of populationpressure,but the judgmentthat life in Ireland even without marriagewas preferable to emigration for larger and largerfractionsof cohorts coming of age in the later part of the 19thcentury.This does not imply that Irish people did not wish they lived in a world where marryingand rearingchildrenwere possiblewithoutsacrificing anythingelse, but it does suggestthat to young people in 19th century Ireland decisionsabout emigrationand marriageinvolved an economic calculus more subtle than that envisagedin Malthusianaccounts.
IV. The Famine'sRole in Subsequent Developments

Malthusian logic, then, cannotexplainthe characterof Ireland's adjustmentto world economic conditions.Much of the problem lies in the model'sahistoricalcharacter.Rural Ireland and rural England both experienced the changing worldlabormarketsand price conditionsthat characterizedthe second half of the 19th century;but Ireland's history dictated the type of adjustmentsit would make when faced with shocks from the outside. Ireland'sruraldepopulationresulted more than England'sfrom the limitation of marriage. The contrasting adjustments reflect two differencesbetween rural Ireland and rural England, both rooted in

their histories. Ireland was dominated by small peasant holdings,Englandby capitalist farmers. Decisions about emigrationin rural England did not involve relationships to land, an asset whichby itself and through familyrelationshipsprovidedinsuranceand a form of old-age support to those who would remainin Ireland.The differencesin land tenure reflect earlier historyand form their own contribution to Irishhistoryin the form of strugglesover the land reform(e.g., B. L. Solow, 1971). Famine survivorsoften felt, rightly or wrongly, that holding land was the best guarantee against starvation; by shapingthe decision to leave, this landtenure system altered the characterof Ireland's post-Famine demographic adjustment. The Famine also shaped the conditions under which later generationsof Irish people made decisions about migration and household-formation. The huge upturn in emigrationduring the Famine deposited a large numberof Irish people in the fastestgrowingindustrialeconomyof the 19th century. Emigration from Ireland was subsequently easier, since individualswere often joining family overseas, and if not family, then individualsthey "knew"throughlocal connections. Irish emigrants continued to send large sums home to parents and to finance the emigrationof siblings, leading couples in Irelandto thinkof a largerfamily not as a burden,but as so many chances in a generouslottery.Those large families also producedgenerationsof young people with a foot in each of two countries and helped to produce the numerous brother-brother or brother-sister households that became something of a substitute for conjugal householdsin post-FamineIreland. Without externaleconomic change in the decades followingthe FamineIrelandmight not have experiencedfurtherdepopulation. However, given the economic forces that brought about depopulation,the Famine's impact was longer-lasting and more farreaching than can be seen in the numbers who fell victim to starvation and disease between 1845 and 1850. The Famine left its stamp on future generationsby altering the decisions young people made about




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