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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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CelticShamrock Gifts


An Gorta Mór: The Great Hunger


Archival famine print

by Suzanne Barrett

One hundred-sixty-three years ago, Ireland was in the grip of a calamity so horrific it took decades to recover. The time would become known as "Black 47", a time when even the elements seemed to be against the Irish. Over one million people died, another million and one half emigrated, mostly to Canada and the United States--on ships so crowded and bereft of comforts that one third or more died on or shortly after the journey. Read about An Gorta Mór, an event that rivals the Holocaust in a people's suffering, and which has by law in several states, been made a part of the U.S. educational curriculum.

Prelude to Disaster
In 1800, Ireland's population was approximately four and one half million. By 1841, when a census was taken, the population had swelled to 8,174,124, an increase of 172%. The increase in Wales by comparison, was 88%. So, Ireland was experiencing a tremendous boom in peoples, enough that Benjamin Disraeli called them the most populous country in Europe from a density standpoint. But the 1841 census also showed that 45% of land holdings were fewer than five acres. Many farmers, especially in the West, farmed in a joint tenancy system known as "rundale", that is, the land was held in common and was parceled out so that a man might have a share of good, average, and poor lands--likely, no one plot adjoining the other. In one Co. Mayo townland, 167 acres were divided into 330 portions, the 110 farmers each having three half-acre shares.

Bridget O'DonnellAs a result of the scarcity of land, rents were exorbitantly high--eighty to one hundred percent higher than in England. High prices were further encouraged by the practice of letting the land to the highest bidder. This was leased land--almost no Catholic man could have owned his own land. The Penal Laws set up in 1695 and not repealed until 1829 (Catholic Emancipation) were intended to reduce the Catholic Irishman to little more than a slave--retribution for his support of James II against William of Orange. No Catholic could serve in the army, navy, the law, or commerce, nor could he engage in any civic activity. He could not vote, could not hold any office under the Crown or purchase land. He was forbidden an education, couldn't own a horse worth more than five pounds. Informing on his neighbors was considered a service to the Crown whose local administrators considered priest-hunting a sport. If a Catholic landowner died, his estate was to be equally divided among his sons unless the eldest became a Protestant, in which case, all the land passed to him.

Thus, by design, Ireland's manhood was stripped of its power as the country was stripped of its resources, and Irishmen were reduced to incredible poverty and tenancy on a tiny parcel of Irish land often held by absentee English landlords.

With a high birthrate and little land, the people were forced to pay the exorbitant rates, and forced to sell cereal crops to pay their rents or face eviction. The potato, which could be grown in poor soil and with large yields in small space, was the crop that sustained the people. A comparable grain crop yield required four to six times as much land.

One and a half acres in potatoes could feed a family of five or six for twelve months. Furthermore, the impoverished farmer needed no knowledge of tillage. A spade could do the work. So, by the summer of 1845, the Irish peasant farmer was almost completely dependent upon a potato crop that did not fail. However, the potato of the mid-nineteenth century was not immunized by breeding and was liable to failure. The 1851 Census of Ireland reported sixteen failures or partial failures in the nineteenth century beginning with a "general" failure of the crop in 1800 and ending almost at the eve of the famine in 1844 with a "wide loss of the early crop."

Woman begging at ClonakiltyDid the government know the precariousness of the situation in 1845? Were warnings unheeded? History indicates they did, and were. But the unreliability of the potato, and the vagaries of the weather were largely accepted and caused no particular alarm. The Devon Commission reported in 1845 that Ireland was in a "grave state," but this report was dismissed on the grounds that it contained nothing new. This was but one of 175 commissions and special committees assembled since the Act of Union--all prophesying disaster for Ireland due to her rapidly increasing population, seventy-five percent unemployment rate, and appallingly pitiful housing and living conditions.

An Irish Poor Law Act had been passed in 1838, not so much to mitigate the suffering of the Irish poor, but to keep them from coming into England. It had been pointed out that poverty in England and in Ireland were entirely different, that enormous sums of money--as much as five million pounds a year--would have to be funnelled into Ireland to relieve the situation there. Britain, under Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, ultimately decided that "the property of Ireland must support the poverty of Ireland" as there was no possibility of raising such a sum.

famine1At the beginning of July the weather was dry and hot, bringing reports of a bountiful potato crop. But an abrupt change brought more than three weeks of chilling rains and fog. On 23 July, the Freeman's Journal reported: "the poor man's property, the potato crop, was never before so large and at the same time so abundant." On 25 July, The Times printed favorable reports. In August, disquieting news was heard from the Isle of Wight. The blight which had ravaged the North American potato crop the year before, had crossed the Atlantic.

England worried, not only about Ireland, but about her own crops. For the past fifty years, the potato had replaced much else in the diet of the laboring classes. In fact, it was reported that the potato comprised two meals each day for the laborer. A potato blight would be serious for England, disaster for Ireland.

By 23 August, the blight had spread to England. Covent Garden was infected. It had even spread to Belgium. Could Ireland be far behind?

On 13 September, the Gardener's Chronicle halted publication to issue a dramatic report. "We stop the Press with very great regret," Dr. Linley announced, "the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland."

Read next week about the effects of the potato failure and the reaction of the government as we continue this very important series called An Gorta Mór.

woman with dying child

Woman and dying child

All sketches are in the public domain.

Until next time.

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