by Seán Kenny (Lund University) and Jason Lennard (Lund University and National Institute of Economic and Social Research)
The Irish Famine of the 1840s is one of the great tragedies of history. Beginning with a bout of potato blight, the Irish population subsequently declined by 20 per cent between the censuses of 1841 and 1851 and has never recovered (O’Rourke, 1991). How did an agricultural shock have such devastating effects? Lynch and Vaizey (1960) argue that a lack of monetization facilitated self-dependence and barter, leaving the Irish economy vulnerable to exogenous shocks like the Famine.
In a forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review available here, we constructed new monthly estimates of the narrow money supply and annual estimates of the broad money supply between 1840 and 1921. The aggregates were constructed from a range of archival sources and contemporary publications. A major task was to reconstruct the Irish coin supply. We did this by tracking shipments of coin between the Royal Mint and Irish banks using records held at the National Archives. These flows were then added to stocks, which were either recalculated from contemporary estimates or based on recoinages.
A number of interesting results emerge from the data. First, we find that, by standard measures, Ireland was no backwater, but well monetized on the eve of the Famine. Not only was it more monetized than other European countries for which data is available, such as Norway and Sweden, it was decades ahead of others, such as Germany and the Netherlands. The new data is therefore at odds with the Lynch and Vaizey hypothesis.
A second major finding is the scale of the collapse in the money supply during the Great Famine. This monetary contraction was the largest during any event in the economic history of Ireland since 1840 and perhaps one of the deepest in economic history more generally. Currency in the hands of the public, the nation’s liquidity, collapsed by more than half, the monetary base (currency in the hands of the public plus reserves) by 48 per cent and the broad money supply (currency in the hands of the public plus net deposits) by 27 per cent.
Figure 1 plots the narrow (M0) and broad (M3) money supplies in Ireland during the Great Famine against equivalent measures for the United States during the Great Depression. As can be seen in this tale of two crises, the narrow money supply slumped much deeper during the Great Famine than in the Great Contraction. The broad money supply initially declined more steeply in Ireland than in the US. However, the Irish recovery was underway from 1849, while the American contraction continued until 1933.
This new data shines a light on Ireland’s statistical Dark Age, allowing us to revisit old hypotheses and others to develop new ones. On the monetary origins of the Great Famine, we found that Ireland was no less monetized than its European peer group. The Famine did, however, unleash the Great Irish Contraction, during which the money supply drastically slumped.
To contact the authors:
Friedman, M. and Schwartz, A. J., A monetary history of the United States, 1867–1960 (Princeton, NJ, 1963).
Kenny, S. and Lennard, J., ‘Monetary aggregates for Ireland, 1840–1921’, Economic History Review (2017).
Lynch, P. and Vaizey, J., Guinness’s brewery in the Irish economy, 1759–1876 (1960).
O’Rourke, K. H., ‘Did the Great Irish Famine matter?’, Journal of Economic History, 51 (1991), pp. 1–22.