The Great Famine

Irish Famine

During the first forty years of the Nineteenth Century the population in Ireland was rising faster than in any other country in Europe. It had risen from about 2 million in 1700 to over 5 million in 1801 and the first proper census in 1841 recorded a population of 8,175,124. In the past terrible plagues and epidemics had kept the population in check. During these years from 1800 no country-wide catastrophe occurred. Population growth was greatly helped by the cultivation of the potato – a crop brought from America in the late sixteenth century. Unlike corn, potatoes could feed a family for around ten months in a year. By the 1840s about half the population depended on the potato and at least one third lived almost exclusively on the potato (a dreary diet: about 14 pounds of potatoes needed to feed each person every day).

The potato was the principal source of nutrition for the vast majority of the poorer classes because this crop produced more food per acre than wheat and could also be used to generate income. The practice of Conacre/Land Division meant that peasants needed to produce the biggest crop possible. The most popular variety of potato was the ‘Aran Banner’ which, whilst producing high yields also was very susceptible to Blight. Many farmers had a few animals; the pig, easily fed on left-overs and requiring little space, was quite common. In many cases, however, other crops and animals were used to pay the rent and were never regarded as food

Tennant farmer evicted by his Landlord during the FamineLandlords in Ireland lived in style in elegant great houses (like Mountstewart and Brownlow House) or in Britain. Their income came from rents paid to them by farmers – in total, their rents were greater than the money spent each year by the Government on the Royal Navy (the largest fleet in the world). Tenant farmers grew corn, raised cattle and fattened pigs on potatoes but this output had mostly to be sold to pay the rent.

A third of Ireland’s people lived on the edge of existence. They lived in one-room cabins (no door, no chimney, no windows, no beds) and usually rented scraps of land from farmers who in turn paid rent to landlords. Many had to beg when the old potatoes had been eaten up and the potato crop was still maturing (no ‘early’ Comber potatoes in early July in those days). They had nothing to spare if disaster struck and strike it did in the summer of 1845.

No one knew why the flourishing potato crops suddenly withered and the tubers rotted (by all accounts the smell in the countryside was awful). We now know that the crops were struck by a new disease, phytophthora infestans, a microscopic fungus originating in America. About half the crop was destroyed (Fermanagh, for example, largely escaped). Then in 1846 the disease returned. This time the loss was almost total and millions faced starvation.

Many turned to the workhouses for support and the people of Lurgan were no different. The potato failure of 1845 did not have a significant impact in the Lurgan union. Indeed, it proved to be rather localised in nature and the only reference to it was that potatoes supplied to the workhouse by Joseph Berry of Moira had been found to be "very insufficient, there being a great number of rotten and of very small size." The poor quality of the crops ensured that prices increased and this was manifested by the gradual replacement of potatoes with oatmeal and yellow Indian meal in the workhouse diet.

Potato FamineHowever the second successive and much more sudden failure of the potato crop in July-August 1846 proved to be much more widespread and devastating in its effects. By November the numbers in the workhouse totaled over five hundred and, given the condition of those therein, it is hardly surprising that serious fever outbreaks resulted. On 11 November the workhouse Master, Meason, died and in the three weeks that it took to appoint a replacement, numbers increased dramatically so that by the end of December the workhouse was filled to capacity with 805 inmates - a point made by John Hancock, agent to Charles Brownlow, who in a letter to the Board of Works in Dublin commented: "Distress is increasing here in consequence of the severe frost and our workhouse is filling rapidly." This pattern was not unique to Lurgan and was repeated throughout the country - by the end of November the workhouses of the Ballina, Cork, Granard, and Waterford unions were full. Indeed by Christmas over half of the 130 workhouses were full. With the Poor Law now stretched to its limits, the burden of relief fell on local relief committees. Such groups had emerged in other parts of Ireland in 1845 but now that the north-east was experiencing problems similar to those in the south and west, people felt the need to establish committees which could help alleviate widespread destitution at a local level. Consequently relief committees were established in Lurgan, Portadown, Kernan, Drumcree, Clonmacate, Moira, Donacloney, Magheralin, Tullylish and Ballinderry.

The policy of ‘Laisse Faire’ (meaning to leave alone) meant that Governments did not interfere in business markets or the economy in general. This policy was disastrous when famine struck as it meant that there was no way of quickly rectifying the crisis. Scarce food became costly and the poor simply starved.

Given such circumstances the importance of local relief committees cannot be overstressed - without them many hundreds of people would undoubtedly have perished. Their major role was the purchase and distribution of food - usually meal and soup. This was financed by public subscription to each fund complemented with an equal amount from government funds in Dublin. Most of those subscribing were local clergy, farmers and gentry, although money was donated by many outside relief agencies. Hence we find donations from groups such as the Belfast Relief Fund, the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, and the Durham Relief Association. As a result of such subscriptions the Lurgan committee was able to sell "good substantial nourishing broth" at one penny per quart. In Ballinderry and Donacloney Indian meal was being sold at half price while the committees of Moira and Drumcree were catering for three hundred and two thousand five hundred people respectively. One of the worst affected areas was Tartaraghan where soup and meal were being given to over 1,300 people, a number, according to Rev. Clements, which was "expected daily to increase." The same source offered this general picture of the area:

"Both weavers and labourers are daily becoming less equal to work, and starvation is pictured in their countenances. Numbers are subsisting on less than one meal per diem and upon raw turnips and any herbs they can gather. Already one case of death from starvation has occurred ... and several have only just been preserved from it while fever has attacked very many in the district ... we hardly know where to turn for assistance."

Assistance for many, however, meant a greater strain on the workhouse but as the weeks passed, it appeared that this refuge offered more chance of death than survival. The first week of January saw 18 deaths in the workhouse and in the following weeks mortalities totalled 36, 55, 58 and 68 until 6th February when 95 died. Such a large number of deaths had not gone unnoticed by the Poor Law Commissioners and they sent a letter to Dr. Bell demanding an explanation of the situation. Bell stated the majority of deaths occurred because many people in a very sick condition, were admitted to the workhouse and died very shortly afterwards. Hence, in his view, "mortality in the workhouse is much greater than under ordinary circumstances and it is a well-known fact that many dying persons are sent for admission merely that coffins may be thereby obtained for them at the expense of the Union" As regards sanitary conditions, the doctor reported that as there were four times the usual number of inmates, the building was now overcrowded and as a consequence it had been impossible to provide dry beds: "This sleeping upon damp beds has also increased fever and bowel complaints which have in many cases proved fatal".

Before the gates of the WorkhouseDrastic action was called for, and on 5 February the Guardians decided to have the following notice pasted throughout the Union:

"Notice is hereby given that in consequence of the present state of the Workhouse and Fever Hospital the Guardians have been obliged to close the doors, for the present, against all further admissions."

The Poor Law Commissioners were obviously still monitoring the situation and decided to send Dr Smith from the Board of Health to investigate the Workhouse. The fact that Dr Smith only visited two other workhouses, Bantry and Cork, both of which were suffering severely, and then traveled almost 300 miles to Lurgan, demonstrates how seriously they regarded the situation here and their determination to effect a remedy as soon as possible. In a long and detailed report, Smith described "a picture of neglect and discomfort such as I have never seen in any other charitable institution".

The male and female infirmary wards were found to be overcrowded with, in some cases, two, three or four patients to each bed. The walls had not been whitewashed for a long time; buckets, used as lavatories, were allowed to sit for hours without being emptied and medicines and drink were served out on the floor which was in a filthy state. As regards burials, it was found that many had taken place close to the fever hospital - in some cases less than four yards from it. The centre of the burial ground was a well which was used to supply the hospital with water - the graves had been dug so close to it that the water had become muddy and unfit for usage. Smith concluded that the problems in the workhouse had developed when the master had died in November; a three week period elapsed before the appointment of a successor and in the meantime overcrowding emerged and was allowed to continue until the end of January. Thus "ventilation, whitewashing and cleanliness appear to have been neglected at the very time when the strictest attention to these important means of arresting the spread of disease were most imperatively called for."

However, Smith also believed that what he termed "a little more activity" on the part of Dr Bell and a stricter surveillance by the Guardians would have prevented much of the mortality. He concluded: "I am of the opinion that the chief causes of the evil in question are internal and the result of defective management of the institution."

Inside the workhouseSmith's report proved to be a damning indictment of the Guardians and staff in the workhouse but worse was to follow when a letter from the Episcopalian Chaplain, Rev Oulton, necessitated an internal inquiry and further eroded the credibility of those charged with administering the workhouse. In a long letter Oulton complained bitterly of the quality of food being served in the workhouse: "It is hardly to be wondered at that so much disease should be in the workhouse if the description of food has for any length of time been such as I saw here today." He stated that the bread used for supper was dark coloured, insufficiently baked and sour. Coupled with this, the broth was so bad that many paupers could not use it. Indeed the master had reported that cutting the meat for broth the smell was so offensive that he could hardly stand over it. Oulton himself described the meat as being "of the worst description that could be got in Lurgan Street - more like the flesh of an animal that had died of disease than being killed for food." He also doubted if the cooking utensils and kitchen were clean, remarking "It was once in a very bad state and might be so again." The clergyman concluded by expressing the following opinion: "I could not refrain from mentioning these matters to you which doubtless have had no inconsiderable share in producing the dreadful mortality which has sweeped our workhouse.

Though 1847 was free from blight, few seed potatoes had been planted, and so the famine continued. Yet the country was producing plenty of food. As the Irish politician, Charles Duffy wrote: "Ships continue to leave the country, loaded with grain and meat". As food was scarce people would eat anything such as nettles, berries, roots, wildlife, animals, dogs and cats in order to survive. Peasants who ate the rotten produce sickened and entire villages were consumed with cholera and typhus. Parish priests desperate to provide for their congregations were forced to forsake buying coffins in order to feed starving families, with the dead going unburied or buried only in the clothes they wore when they died. Meanwhile many lives were saved by private charity. The work of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) would not shame a modern relief agency.

Waiting for the shipsThose who could decided to leave Ireland altogether. Liverpool, with a population then of 250,000, had to cope with the arrival of 300,000 Irish, who caused a fever epidemic in the city. Huge numbers, especially from Ulster, poured into Glasgow. Most dreamed of emigrating to America. The United States had imposed strict standards on its passenger vessels. This meant that the fare across the Atlantic was too dear. However, British traders importing timber could pack Irish emigrants into their ships on the return journey to Canada. Fares were low but not enough water, food and bedding were provided. Great numbers of passengers died from fever spreading below decks. These vessels soon became known as ‘coffin ships’. One ship leaving Westport in County Mayo sank, drowning its passengers, within sight of those who had just bid them farewell.

The condition of the ships in which tens of thousands of people emigrated were appalling as many middle-men used sub-standard vessels and carried too many people, with a view to making a quick profit. On one of these coffin ships, of the 348 passengers, 117 died at sea; on another, going to Canada, 158 died of a total of 476 passengers. Coffin ships made their way to the St Lawrence River in Canada. Many died there in quarantine on Grosse Isle. One who did not die was the grandfather of Henry Ford, the founder of modern motor car production. Survivors walked to the United States to seek work in Boston and New York. The fare to Australia was far too expensive for most. But some landlords, keen to get rid of starving tenants, paid the passage to Australia for those they cleared from their estates.

The Irish Famine of 1846-50 changed the social and cultural structure of Ireland in a number of profound ways. The Irish language, which was already in decline, suffered a near fatal blow from the Famine, since it was the more remote areas which still used Irish that were most affected by the famine. Land holdings became larger, as the tendency to subdivide the family farm declined. From now on, the farm was given to one son and the others often had little choice but to emigrate. The Famine also changed centuries-old agricultural practices, hastening the end of the division of family estates into tiny lots capable of sustaining life only with a potato crop. The famine affected the poorest classes - the cottiers and labourers - most of all, the cottier class being almost wiped out.

At least a million people died in Ireland during the Great Famine between 1841 and 1851. Another two million emigrated abroad during eleven years during and after the Famine. Tens of thousands more perished on the journey or soon after their arrival in Britain or North America. The 1851 census revealed that the population had fallen by 20% to 6,552,385. Those who died were cottiers and labourers, drawn from the poorest ranks of society. The densely-populated districts on the Atlantic seaboard and mountain districts inland were hardest hit. Contrary to popular belief, Ulster suffered more than the eastern province of Leinster – County Armagh, then the most densely-populated rural area in the UK, suffered severely because its domestic linen industry could no longer compete with steam-powered mills.

The Government contributed £7 million towards famine relief in Ireland. From one point of view, no European state had ever taken such vigorous action to cope with a natural disaster. Another view is that this sum was paltry when it is considered that landlords were able to collect 75% of their rents, that the ports were not closed, and that, soon after, £69.3 million was spent on fighting the Crimean War.

The Landlord class was ruined by the famine. The Government introduced the Encumbered Estates Act in 1849, making it easier for landlords to sell off their land. The land acts later in the century fought for by Parnell and Davitt finally put paid to this hated system of authority in rural Ireland.

Gone from the land of their fathers

Click HERE to download a copy of the Passenger Lists for those leaving Ireland during the Famine Years.

Our thanks to Gerard Mac Atasney and J. Bardon for some of the information used in this article.

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