There's still lots we don't know about the famine years

We have heard so much about the famine that we have grown to thinking we know all that is to be known, but somehow I feel that there is a lot more to the story and places where the famine left its imprint than we know. The first thing that you must think of is the way the population of the country was reduced, not by the famine itself but by the opportunists chance for the recovery of parcels of land which were rented to the small farmer of the cottiers.

Unless something unexpected happened these people were bound for a foreign land because of the savage rise in rents.

Prior to the famine the population of Ireland was in the region of 8 million according to statements made by the Governments in 1841 with about 80% living in the countryside. In a survey taken in the 1830's it was found that there were 585,000 labourers, with families of over one million children had no work for seven or eight months per year.

This is why the Irish had to try to spread what food they had as carefully as they could because it was impossible to get more and even on the rare occasions when there was extra food they could not afford to but it, they had no money. It was also the reason why they made the potato their stable diet, it was the cheapest food they could get and in the winter with the short days and long nights most of them only ate two meals a day.

Another factor in their lives was the fact that the inhabitants of the poor were really primitive. Some, if they were lucky enough to have a half decent employer would get permission to scoop out the centre of a clay bank between two fields. What remained of the bank would be the walls of his house and the open top would be covered by branches over which he put a layer of rushes. Mud cabins were also common and were built by gathering mud and allowing it to harden. These walls were about a metre thick and were strengthened by putting rushes and young saplings in to the mud as it went into the walls. The house was then left to dry for a few days before a doorway and maybe a window was cut out with a spade or shovel. The table, if there was one, was a few lengths of wood with what was called a strap board holding them together.

As far as the potato sowing went they got as much as they could out of whatever bit of land they had by using what was called the 'lazy bed' method. Four or five long rows of potatoes were placed in untilled soil and a trench was dug on each side of the rows and the soil from the trench spread over them.

In 1846 it was realised that the potato crop was even worse than the previous year and more and more died with the hunger.

Conditions were so bad that some of the establishment organised soup kitchens. One such soup kitchen was on the Croppies Acre in front of the Royal Barracks near Kingsbridge (Heuston Station).
The Lord Lieutenant had made a soup on the advice of a friend on which a grown man could survive on one meal a day. A French chef, Alexis Soyer, was invited over from London to test this special soup and state if the claim was right or wrong. He stated that it would keep a man alive and asked the Lord Lieutenant for the recipe: This was the recipe - ox heads, corn, carrots, turnips, onions, cabbage, peas, leeks and water. His soup kitchen in the Croppies Acre had a boiler capable of holding three hundred gallons of soup.

A wooden hut was constructed with a door at each end. It contained long narrow tables, which allowed 100 people to eat at a time. Each person had to pay a penny a day at the entrance where they were given a bowl with a spoon attached by a short chain, they then had their bowl filled with soup and were given a piece of bread, they went out the door at the other end of the hut where the bowls were collected from them, rinsed and given to the next batch. Those who were on the end of the line, fearing that the supply would run out, often fought with each other for place. At the height of the famine 8,750 portions were served in a day.

In other parts of Leinster what was called 'life saver' houses were on the roads to New Ross where people walking to get the boat for the USA or Canada were able to get a small portion of boiled potatoes and onions. The people of the house were told when a group would be passing the house and have the food ready. Sometimes it was cold as the walkers would be later than expected and dare not stop to eat near the house for fear of the house being found out, as it was against the law at the time to give potatoes, cooked or otherwise to strangers. One such house was O'Sullivans of Gurteen near Bunclody and a tree near the house was know as "The Lookout' where watch was kept for police or soldiers while a couple of members of the party brought food to the group. This was in east Leinster, things were far worse in other parts of Ireland.

A magistrate visiting Skibbereen in 1846 reported - "I have entered some of these hovels and the scenes that 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 appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering appeared to be a ragged horse cloth, and their wretched legs hanging about naked above the knees. I approached in horro, and found a low moaning that they were alive, they were in fever - four children, a woman and what had once been a man."

Compare this report, written by a government official, with an order issued in 1847. Little as it was the soup kitchen not which arranged for a number of soup kitchens to be established in the country was keeping thousands alive, each adult was to receive a bowl of soup and a pound of bread each day. It was now that the Treasury began to get alarmed at what was termed 'this extravagance'. Trevelyan's secretary wrote to each Poor Law Union telling them that he suspected that the act was being 'applied solely as a means of adding to the comforts of the lower classes when it was meant for the utterly destitute. His remedy was brutal - all government relief under the soup kitchen act was to cease by October 1847. This was the final nail in the coffins of thousands who died by the roadside, several with grass in their mouths.

The main food chosen by the government to replace the potato for the poor was Indian meal made from crushed maize grain. This was hard and required a lot of soaking and boiling. This was of little use to those most in need for they had little fuel to cook it and they dare not cut there employers timber. With the death roll rising all the time one London paper said "That an Irishman would soon be as rare a sight in Connemara as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan."

Two well known old Irish songs are attributed to this period of Irish history; "Skibbereen" and "The Fields of Athenry" and still plenty of Irishmen sing them in all parts of the world.

Courtesy of Willie White and The Carlow Nationalist
27 October 2006