Catholics made up 80 percent of the population, the bulk of whom lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity. At the top of the 'social pyramid' were the English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and who had more or less limitless power over their tenants. Some of their estates were vast: the Earl of Lucan, for example, owned over 60,000 acres (240 km2). Many of these landlords lived in England and were called 'absentee landlords'. They used agents to administer their property for them, with the revenue generated being sent to England. Absentee landlords living in England never set foot in Ireland. They took their rents from their impoverished tenants or paid them minimal wages to raise crops and livestock for export.
In 1843, the British Government set up a Royal Commission made up solely of landlords to inquire into the laws with regard to the occupation of land in Ireland. Irish lawyer, Daniel O'Connell wrote,
"It would be impossible to describe the privations which the Irish labourer and his family silently endure. In many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water. Their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather. A bed or a blanket is a rare luxury, and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property."
During the eighteenth century a new system for dealing with the landlord's property was introduced in the form of the middleman system, invariably described as 'land sharks' and 'bloodsuckers',
Landlords in Ireland used their powers remorselessly, and the people lived in dread of them, industry and enterprise were extinguished and a peasantry created which was one of the most destitute in Europe. Holdings were so small that only that no other crop but potatoes would suffice to feed a family.
They had to work for their landlords in return for the patch of land they needed in order to grow enough food for their own families. This was the system which forced Ireland and its peasantry into monoculture, as only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity. The rights to a plot of land in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the early 19th century.
The potato was introduced to Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry. By the late seventeenth century it had become widespread as a supplementary rather than a principal food, the main diet still revolved around butter, milk and grain products. In the first two decades of the eighteenth century, it became a base food of the poor, especially in winter.
The potato's spread was essential to the development of the cottier system, delivering an extremely cheap workforce, but at the cost of lower living standards. The principal beneficiary of this system was the English consumer. [Does this not remind us of U.S. affluent consumption while half of a U.S. dominated world lives on around or below a dollar a day?]
The Celtic grazing lands of Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonized the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home. The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of Ireland. Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.
The period of the potato blight in Ireland from 1845-51 was full of political confrontation. The people watched as their potatoes melted in rottenness, while heavy-laden ships, spread sail for England.
John Mitchel, one of the leading political writers of Young Ireland, was convicted under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years transportation to Bermuda, for warning of the famine about to happen.
A humanitarian remedy that the rest of Europe had adopted in times of famine, was to retain in the country the food raised by her people till the people were fed.
Ireland at this time was, according to the Act of Union of 1801, an integral part of the British imperial homeland, "the richest empire on the globe," and was "the most fertile portion of that empire," John Mitchel wrote:
"That an island which is said to be an integral part of the richest empire on the globe ... should in five years lose two and a half millions of its people (more than one fourth) by hunger, and fever the consequence of hunger, and flight beyond sea to escape from hunger."
(The industrialized capitalism was crueler than the Britain's pre-industrialized empire.)
Records show Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of starvation. When Ireland experienced an earlier crop failure in 1782-83, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests. An export ban did not happen in the 1840s.
While many English gorged themselves, large sums of money were donated by overseas charities. In Calcutta Irish soldiers employed by the East India Company raised £14,000. Pope Pius IX sent funds. Queen Victoria donated £2,000!