Population and poverty in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine

Alan Fernihough, Cormac Ó Gráda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
62 Downloads (Pure)


We revisit the link between demographic pressure and economic conditions in pre-Famine Ireland and harness highly disaggregated parish-level data from the 1841 census in our analysis. The results indicate that on the eve of the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, population pressure was positively associated with two measures of poverty—illiteracy and the prevalence of poor-quality housing. Malthus mattered in the sense that our results indicate that a “no population growth” scenario between 1800 and 1841 would have led to a 6% improvement in poor-quality housing and a 4% reduction in illiteracy. However, the strength of this relationship is reduced when additional explanatory factors are considered, and factors relating to location and economic geography offer greater explanatory power. Incorporation of data from the 1821 census reveals that in the two decades before 1841, population growth was fastest in areas under less population pressure, supporting the notion that preventive check forces were at play. These findings are consistent with some elements of Malthusian theory, although ultimately they refute the notion that overpopulation was the principal cause of pre-Famine Irish poverty.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1607-1630
Number of pages24
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 01 Oct 2022


  • Famine
  • Ireland
  • Malthus
  • Population


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