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The famine

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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 effect.

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).

The arrival of blight

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 putrid.

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 later.

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 was enforced.

Relief Efforts

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 again.

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 in 1850.

The Workhouse

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 holdings.

The Illustrated London News, Feb. 13, 1847.

"....We first 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. "

The aftermath

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 Research Form.

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 million.

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