Ireland in the early
to mid 19th Century had a complete and utter dependence on
the potato as the main food source for the majority of the
population The land of the tenant was used for little else.
So when the potato blight arrived in 1847 is had a devastating
Only about one-eighth
of the population lived in urban areas. The rest would consist
mostly of tenant farmers and labourers. The land was ultimately
owned by a rich English or Anglo-Irish class, many of whom
where 'absentee Landlords', in that they rarely if ever ventured
to Ireland, relying on agents to collect rent from those tenant
farmers on their land.
The vast majority of
Tenant farmers did not have security of Tenure. Some might
have a life lease but this was rare. So it meant the threat
of eviction was always there for failure to pay rent or the
whim of the landlord. One of the biggest problems was the
sub-division of land. A father owning a small plot of land
would divide off a portion for one of his sons, who will build
a small dwelling and who himself in turn would sub-divide
for his children. It got to a point leading into the mid-1800's
where large families' survival in terms of food and their
ability to pay rent depended of a very small plot of land.
Of the potatoes grown,
some had to be used to feed perhaps a pig or other animal
that would be sold to pay the land rent, the rest would feed
the family. Some eggs or butter might be used to make a little
more money towards paying the rent.
The potato seed was
sown in April and would be ready for harvest in August. The
crop would only be edible till the following May. So there
was no potato available during the summer months. People would
buy oatmeal or similar to survive till the next crop of potatoes.
Farmers had originally
used the good potato types which where full of vitamins and
did provide a good food source for families. But with tenant
holding getting subdivided and the pressure to produce more
crop, a move was made to the 'lumper' potato type, that would
give a large crop regardless of the quality of the land, but
hadn't the same vitamin content. But ironically, this had
no resistance to the arriving 'blight' (phythophthora infestans).
News came in June of
1845 of a disease attacking the potato crop there. Europe
unlike Ireland didn't have a dependence in the crop, and it
didn't have the impact it was about to reign on Ireland. The
Dublin Evening Press newspaper ran a report on the 6th September
1845 of the Botanic Gardens discovery of diseased potatoes
in Ireland. The blight had reached Irish shores.
More than anything
there was a smell; overpowering as you walked past fields
of wilted potatoes destroyed by blight. It made the leaves
go black and curl at the edges. The potatoes themselves turned
black under the their skins eventually turning rotten and
Crowds of people could
be seem out of desperation on their hands and knees in a field
eating the raw turnips from the ground. Cattle would have
blood sucked from them by starving people in the dead of night.
Even birds and dogs soon disappeared having been killed and
cooked to avoid starvation.
People having to bury
their own family, would be too weak to dig a sufficiently
deep grave, and ravenous dogs would dig up the body a time
There were cases of
people deliberately committing crime in the hope of being
arrested and transported, as it seemed a better chance of
survival than staying in Ireland. See Deportation
& Convict Records for more information.
People tried to survive
on perhaps some oats they may have gown as well as the potato,
but they weren't allowed harvest any more then a quarter of
it till their rent had been paid in September. The Landlord
saw this as a form of security on your ability to pay the
rent and he would have stewards that would insure this rule
Against political opinion
of the time, Sir Robert Peel, the then British Prime Minister
purchased 100,000 pounds worth of corn for Ireland. It was
a generous gesture given the attitude of liassez-faire of
the time, where it was felt the government shouldn't interfere
in such a situation.
The Relief commission
set up in late 1845, distributed grain to local relief committees
throughout the country. They in turn would sell it on a cost
price to the local population. Officially, food was only to
be distributed in an area when the local Workhouse was full,
but this rule wasn't greatly observed, and it got to a point
that people became too poor and desperate to pay for food
and it was simply distributed for free.
Relief works were set
up to allow people work for money on public works such as
road building. The wage from relief works still didn't cover
the cost of food to keep a family from starvation. And not
all could get a place on a relief project. Some people were
obviously too weak to do any real work but were still taken
on lest they starve.
The potato crop failed
again in 1846. People couldn't believe the crop had failed
for a second time. They had just barely managed to struggle
through Winter with the thought of the coming harvest. By
1847 half a million people were on relief works and many more
were trying to join. So many were far too weak to do any useful
work, and the one-shilling per day wage was woefully inadequate
with which to buy food, and it was decided to distribute the
food for free rather than make the people buy it. It came
with what was known as the 'Soup Kitchen Act'. It distributed
food from allotted points. Some of the food was poor in quality
and portions were very small so people were still in a desperate
situation. The soup kitchens only continued till September
of 1847 but had fed three million people during their operation.
During this time the
Quakers or Society of Friends did amazing work in setting
up their own Soup Kitchens, and to this day are fondly remembered
in Ireland for the kindness and generosity.
The Outdoor Relief
commission took over from the Soup Kitchens in providing food.
Non-able bodied poor could get relief in or outside the workhouse.
For those able bodied, but unemployed, they had to enter the
workhouse for relief. Many were fearful of this, for in some
cases the conditions within the Workhouse were worse than
those outside. Only if the workhouse was full would the able
bodied get relief, and even then only for 2 months.
The crop from 1847
didn't fail, but little was planted because much of the population
was too weak to plant the land. In 1848 large amounts were
seed were planted to produce a large harvest but blight struck
It was in this year
the Quakers had to give up their Soup Kitchen aid, being unable
to fund it any longer.
The Relief commission
ended in September 1847 and was replaced by Outdoor relief.
Rates were supposed to cover the cost of grain distribution,
but the poor were unable to pay their rent, and larger farmers
and landlords were deserting the land so the debt of local
unions (groups changed with distribution for an area) increased.
Also a 1/4 acre clause forced people to give up their land
to qualify for relief.
By the Summer of June
1848 over 800,000 were claiming outdoor relief. The 1/4 acre
clause helped reduce the number claiming relief. But only
by the stubbornness of people desperate to hold onto their
land even if it meant starvation.
It was also insisted
upon that people collect the food daily. Many were too weak
even to do this, so numbers receiving aid dropped further.
But both this and the 1/4 acre clause were relaxed to save
people from absolute starvation.
By 1849 many of the
Poor Unions charged with the distribution of food were bankrupt.
As a last desperate measure, the 'Rate-in-aid' act was introduced
where the stronger Unions supported the poorer ones. The administrative
ineptitude continued till the worst of the famine subsided
The fate of many who
entered the Workhouse is described in more detail here
With famine came disease.
In this case Typhus. This was carried by lice and it had the
perfect breeding ground in the current atmosphere. It would
lie in clothes that got sold by desperate people and was so
carried onto the unwitting purchaser. In the cramped conditions
of the workhouse and emigration Ships
where people would huddle to seek refuge, their health would
be affected. Scurvy also became a huge problem through the
poor diet and lack of vitamins. Symptoms were vomiting, temperature
and a darkening of the skin.
A new Poor Act had
a 'quarter-acre clause' which meant that tenants with more
than 1/4 acre of land would not be helped by the Poor Law
Act. There was a struggle for them between pride and almost
certain starvation. Many did die with their families, but
others gave up their land to the delight of landlords by getting
rid of the poorer tenants and increasing the size of typical
The Illustrated London
News, Feb. 13, 1847.
proceeded to Bridgetown, a portion of which is shown in the
right hand distance of the sketch; and there I saw the dying,
the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the
same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth,
save a few miserable rags upon them. To point to any particular
house as a proof of this would be a waste of time, as all
were in the same state; and, not a single house out of 500
could boast of being free from death and fever, though several
could be pointed out with the dead lying close to the living
for the space of three or four, even six days, without any
effort being made to remove the bodies to a last resting place.
"To complete my
melancholy visit to this scene of horror, and to visit Skibbereen,
every corner of next morning, accompanied by a Mr. Everett,
whose knowledge of the country I found most useful, I started
for Ballydehob, and learned upon the road that a hut or cabin
we should come to in the parish of Aghadoe, on the property
of Mr. Long, were four or six dead people had lain days; and,
upon arriving at the hut, the abode of Tim Harrington, we
true; for found this to be there lay the four bodies, and
a fifth was passing to the same bourne. On voices, the hearing
our sinking man made an effort to reach the door, and ask
for drink or fire; doorway; he fell in the there, in all probability
to die; as the living cannot be prevailed to assist in interments,
for fear the of taking the fever. "
When famine final subsided
five years later in 1850 it is estimated that between one
and one and a half million people died from starvation and
disease. Another million emigrated. You can search the list
of those who emigrated by filling in the Ancestor
Though there were many
relief efforts directed from England over a five year period,
they proved woefully inadequate. During this years 1845-50
about 8 million pounds of aid passed into the country, but
consider that the defence budget for just one year was 16