The Irish Famine and Unusual Market Behaviour in Cork

18 Aug 2017

Scholars have long debated whether there was enough food in Ireland to feed the population during the Great Irish Famine; there has been less detailed examination of high-frequency data to understand how markets distributed food after the harvests failed. This article explores a hitherto unused weekly price and quantity data set from the Cork city markets to analyse how markets may have hindered the distribution of available food from 1846 to 1849. Although, historically, economists have long suspected that raw data on the market for potatoes during the Irish Famine behaved like that for a classical ‘Giffen’ good, there is little evidence for this among foodstuffs available throughout the crisis in Cork. But bacon pigs – a food that never reached a stable equilibrium but completely disappeared from the market in 1847 – exhibited some characteristics which do not appear to accord with the classical law of demand. Further analysis of this data suggests that middle-class purchasing power outbid the poorest people in Ireland at a time when there was a surplus of superior foods and a deficiency of inferior foods. These circumstances indicate that unusual market behaviour may have made the crop failure’s redistributive consequences – as well as its mortality toll – much worse.