The Great Famine

The insistence of landlords and their agents in squeezing exorbitant rents out of tenants, who were in no position to afford them, resulted in a dreadful series of evictions that cast little credit on those who perpetrated them. Under the constant threat of such evictions the unfortunate tenants were compelled to sell their grain-crops and livestock in an effort to raise enough money to satisfy the greed of their masters. And when the population exploded in the short space of forty years, the situation quickly became worse because now the smaller tenants could never even hope to grow sufficient grain crops or raise enough animals for sale in their endless efforts to raise the rent money. The result then was that these tenants, with their corn and livestock gone, became completely dependent on the potato crop for their daily sustenance, and it could truly be said that their every meal consisted of potatoes. The potato was easily grown; the soil and climate suited it; and it could be cultivated on even the smallest of plots.

The onset of the Great Famine, which would ravage the country for the next few years, would create an absolutely disastrous situation. Famines had struck on a number of occasions previously and the people suffered terribly but nothing in comparison to the agony they would have to endure from 1845 to 1848. A new disease called ‘phytophtora infestans’ attacked the potato crop in the autumn of 1845 and within a few weeks the bulk of the crop was wasted. This was a microscopic fungus that had never appeared in Ireland before and for which there was, at that time, no known remedy. The stalks turned black and the tubers rotted in the ground.

There was consternation but a disaster could still have been averted had use been made of the bumper 1845 harvest of corn crops that was even described in the Belfast “Northern Whig” newspaper as “the best crop in quantity and quality that had been seen for ten years.” But then the corn crops had to be sold in order to raise the money for the rents. Nevertheless, the new year was looked forward to with great hope but when the disease struck again in the late summer of 1846 it was obvious that a major disaster was in the offing. Throughout the month of September the odour of decaying potatoes polluted the entire atmosphere.

The prime minister, Peel, had repealed the corn laws in June to encourage the importation of cheap grain and had also advanced loans to the Grand Juries to provide employment for destitute people. Unfortunately, the head of the treasury, Trevelyan, objected to the distribution of cheap food, insisting that the poor should work for their food, and this only made matters worse. The Government eventually agreed to the setting up of corn depots in several counties but particularly along the western seaboard, and these were to be controlled by army personnel.

The situation became chaotic as Indian corn was costing £18 per ton while Irish corn was being exported to England and all calls to close the ports still went unheeded. Trevelyan, who devised a system of public works, later known as ‘relief works’ in August of 1846, ordered that these should not be in competition with any capitalist programme, and this resulted in much of the money being spent on ridiculous projects, such as the building of roads that led to nowhere and the erection of walls that served no purpose other than to enclose the estates of unsympathetic landlords. In addition, the magistrates who had the responsibility of issuing tickets to the destitute, entitling them to work on these schemes, frequently abused their privileged positions, and many who should have been given work tickets never received them.

The winter of 1846-47 was one of the worst in living memory with heavy snows and frosts lasting from November right up to the following February, and this added to the suffering and distress of the already overburdened people. The death toll rose alarmingly as people fell by the way-side, hundreds of them too weak even to travel to the nearest soup kitchens, many of which had been set up by the Society of Friends and by several friendly and sympathetic landlords, who had come to realise the seriousness of the situation. Yet Trevelyan still refused to close the ports.

The Workhouse had been set up in the 1830s, to be run by the Board of Works, for the accommodation of the destitute, but in the beginning many Irish refused to go into them, regarding it as an indignity and those in charge of them as hostile. The Famine, however, changed all that and thousands upon thousands now thronged into these very same Workhouses, which very quickly became over-crowded and reeking with disease. Hunger was quickly followed by fever as weakened bodies provided poor protection against infection, and, with typhus, dysentery, scurvy and “famine dropsy” rampant, the already dreadful situation became even worse.

An eye witness wrote: - “The roads spread with dead and dying bodies,” while a Co. Mayo road inspector reported that he had buried 140 bodies which he found lying by the wayside. A Co. Cork magistrate named Nicholas Cummins visited Skibbereen in December 1846 and wrote: “I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive - they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through in detail ... the same morning the police opened a house, which was observed shut for many days ... and two frozen corpses were found lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats.”

1845 had been bad, 1846 had been worse, but 1847 surpassed all previous years in severity, with the result that it became known in Irish history as “The Black 47”. The extended severe winter and the weakness of the human frame meant that the men were incapable of partaking in many of the relief works, even if they were selected for them, and this resulted in all relief works eventually being abandoned by the middle of 1847, the government finally realising that they had been a complete disaster.

An act passed in February 1847, which was called the “Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons in Ireland Act”, led to the setting up of relief committees and soup kitchens all over the country. Stirabout made from boiled Indian corn was also distributed but this frequently did not agree with the constitution of stomachs used only to a potato diet and further illnesses resulted. The emaciated bodies soon fell to the ground and perished, the daily numbers of funerals rising by the hour. It was even reported that bodies were taken to the grave in coffins with a hinged floor so that the body could be dropped into the grave and the coffin used again. In July of that year it was estimated that well over three million people were being fed daily, the burden of relief falling on the workhouses who were financed by rate-paying landlords, many of whom now became bankrupt. As a result, most of the workhouses became totally run down and the condition of the inmates were put in greater jeopardy. Administration soon became a shambles, yet the numbers seeking admission increased by the thousand. It was inconceivable that landlords would continue to evict tenants for non-payment of rent during this dreadful period, yet that despicable practice continued unabated.

Death from starvation and fever was daily decreasing the population of Ireland at an alarming rate, but this was compounded even further by the numbers now trekking to the ports in an effort to leave the god-forsaken land far behind them. Passage to Liverpool and to the sea-ports on the eastern coast of America was scraped together for greedy ship owners, while many landlords and clergy paid the passage for their tenants and parishioners, respectively ... the landlords anxious to clear their land of people who could not provide them with rent, the clergy in the hope that their people might find a better life elsewhere.

Ships became over-crowded and many of them were truly described as “coffin-ships” with hundreds of their passengers never reaching the land of their dreams. Even more died on arrival, yet the millions of people of Irish descent in the New World gives testimony to the number that eventually succeeded in getting there and making a new life for themselves in a kinder world. The ‘Famine Museums’ at Strokestown in Co. Roscommon and at other locations throughout the country, as well as the “Emigration Museum” at Cobh in Co. Cork, present a vivid picture of this mass emigration, which effected every single county in Ireland but especially the counties along the western sea-board, rapidly turning them into a wilderness of deserted homes.