The crisis was triggered when a deadly fungus, having originated in South America and escaped in the holds of cargo ships, destroyed potato crops throughout northern Europe.
As food grew scarce and prices soared, 100,000 poor people died of starvation and disease in France, Belgium, Holland, Scotland and Prussia.
However, its effect on Ireland was truly devastating and the resulting famine has become ingrained in our national psyche.
To mark the 175th anniversary of the tragedy, a two-part series, The Hunger: The Story Of The Irish Famine begins on RTÉ1 on Monday at 9.35pm.
Narrated by Liam Neeson, it reveals and develops a challenging analysis of the crisis, and is one of the first occasions that one of the most defining historical moments in national history has been comprehensively shown on television.
In Ireland, where half the population relied on the potato as their primary source of food, the famine caused the deaths of more than a million people and, between 1845 and 1855, the flight of a further two million to north America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Today, Ireland is the only country in the western world with a population lower than it had in the 1840s.
The crisis had far-reaching repercussions: it triggered the downfall of the British government led by Robert Peel in 1846, was a catalyst for the revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848, became the root for the exponential rise of the Irish Diaspora that today numbers 70,000,000, and was among the causes that would ultimately lead many in Ireland towards the cultural revival and quest for independence.
The TV series, made by Tyrone Productions and Create One with RTÉ and ARTÉ, in association with UCC and the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, presents a challenging, in-depth and comprehensive assessment of the worst humanitarian disaster of the 1800s — and the last major food crisis to impact Europe, Britain and Ireland.
Among the contributors are former UCC historian Professor Joe Lee,
Episode one outlines the social, political and economic conditions that allowed the famine to occur and charts the first three years of the crisis.
In Ireland, we see how the British government’s initial response was successful in staving off the worst impact of the famine.
But with the coming of a new government under John Russell in 1846, the response hardens as they struggle to deal with the fall out of an economic crash. While in Europe authorities acted fast, in Ireland resources ran out.