A rising population and crushing poverty among the displaced Catholic tenants led to the greatest catastrophe in Irish history – an Gorta Mór when the collapse of the potato crop led to mass starvation and flight across the Atlantic in Coffin Ships.
In spite of widespread impoverishment and displacement of the Catholic population the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a population boom in Ireland on the back of a booming trade with America, the widespread adoption of the potato on the poorer lands of the west and the high agricultural prices resulting from the wars of the French revolution and Empire. The Protestant Ascendancy left its mark in the shape of a series of planned estate landscapes and fear of a French military intervention in support of an Irish rebellion (which almost happened in 1796 and did happen in 1798) led to the construction of a network of Martello towers and semaphore stations around the coastline. The rapidly expanding population saw the creation of vernacular settlement clusters of small stone houses in increasingly marginal land and the active exploitation of every inch of the sea-shore. In coastal regions, particularly on the west and north coasts, smuggling of wool, wine and butter was rife and wrecking of ships was also widely practiced. As the population expanded, restrictions on Catholicism were also gradually relaxed, between 1778 and 1800 when the Act of Union was passed, many of the prohibitions on Catholic landholding and entry into the professions were lifted although full emancipation was not attained until a campaign led by Daniel O’Connell achieved success in 1829. O’Connell sought to follow up on this success with a campaign to repeal the Act of Union but had made little progress was the potato blight struck in 1845.
The widespread failure of the potato crop between 1845 and c.1853 as a result of the potato blight led to a collapse in the population amid widespread horror and simultaneously bankrupted many of the landed elite. The Great Famine (Gorta Mór) was also one of the first humanitarian tragedies to take place in the era of the mass media. Newly created popular newspapers such as the Illustrated London News brought descriptions and illustrations of the tragedy into homes across the English speaking world and beyond, not only bringing humanitarian aid from as far away as America and the Ottoman Empire but also leaving a precious historical record of those years.