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Ireland in 1840 was largely a peasant society, where Catholic tenants worked the land of a Protestant landowning elite. Much of the agricultural land in the country was part of the estates of Protestant landlords.<ref>Patrick Hickey, ''Famine in West Cork: The Mizen Peninsula, Land and People 1800-1852'' (Mercier Press, Cork, 2002).</ref> The country was part of the United Kingdom and was ruled by a British appointed administration in Dublin Castle, who were under the direct control of the London government. The country was overwhelmingly agricultural with little or no industry. Much of the population depended on the potato for their livelihood. The vast majority of the Irish population lived in conditions of abject poverty.<ref>Hickey, ''Famine in West Cork'', p.8.</ref> In 1845, the potato blight was inadvertently brought to Europe from South America. The potato blight arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1846. It caused the potato crop to fail in many areas.<ref>Dr Dan Donovan, ‘Diary of a dispensary doctor’ ''Southern Reporter''. February 13th 1847.</ref>
[[File:Irish_potato_famine_Bridget_O'Donnel.jpg|thumbnail|Bridget O'Donnell and her two starving children during the Irish Potato Famine in 1849]]
By the winter of 1846 there was widespread hunger in rural Ireland. The British government began a relief program and purchased maize in large quantities to help the starving Irish. However, the potato blight caused the potato to fail again in 1847. The Irish poor starved in great numbers, many travelled to urban centres, in their desperation for food.<ref>Hickey, p. 350.</ref> A change in administration in London, resulted in a change in the British government’s relief program in Ireland and reduced the amount of food relief available in the country.<ref>Foster, R.F (1988), ''Modern Ireland 1600–1972'', Penguin Group, p. 156.</ref> This led to ever more starvation in the country. The malnourished population began to suffer from various epidemic diseases such as typhus. As the rural poor sought food in urban centres they began to spread these infectious diseases and this led to high death rates in cities such as Dublin, Limerick and Belfast. The potato blight continued to ruin the potato crop until 1850. By 1850, some one million people had died of starvation and disease and Ireland had been changed forever.