Historic Perspective

Given the large fertile land area relative to population, an abundance of temperate foodstuffs have been exported since the Viking age. Hides, wool, grain, butter, and fish were exported through the trading towns, such as Dublin, Cork, and Galway, to Britain and Europe (1).

In 1700 Ireland was similar to other western European countries; her population was about 4 million and most of them worked on the land. From the middle of the eighteenth century, the demand for agricultural products grew sharply. In a century, beef exports had quadrupled, pork increased eightfold, and the carefully supervised butter trade doubled. This supply of low-cost foods was critical in releasing British agricultural labor for factory work, thus contributing to the British industrial revolution. Ireland's population, supported by increased potato cultivation, reached 8 million by 1800, when the Act of Union joined Ireland's Parliament to that of the UK (2).

Much of this population lived in poverty as farm tenants and agricultural laborers, with most of the fertile land owned by the Anglo-Irish gentry in great estates. The Great Famine, 1845 to 1849, was a calamity in which about 1 million died and a further million emigrated (3). It arose from the devastation of the staple food, the potato, through blight. Land tenure was transformed in subsequent decades to family-owned and -operated farms, which now predominate (4).

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