Contributors: DÓC.

Malone. … My father died of starvation in Ireland in the black ’47. Maybe you heard of it?
Violet. The Famine!
Malone (with smouldering passion) No, the Starvation. When a country is full of food, and exporting it, there can be no famine. Me father was starved dead; and I was starved out to America in me mother’s arms. English rule drove me and mine out of Ireland . …

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903)

God sent a curse upon the land because her sons were slaves;
The rich earth brought forth rottenness, and gardens became graves;
The green crops withered in the field, all blackened by the curse,
And wedding gay and dance gave way to coffin and to hearse.

Anonymous poet, 1849

Famine in Ireland

Famine is a failure in food supplies over a prolonged period in a whole society, or in a large part of it. It was common in Ireland in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—for example in 1740–41 (bliain an áir ‘the year of the slaughter’), 1756–7, 1800, 1807, 1821–2, 1830–34, 1836, and 1839—but it was also common elsewhere in Europe. The western seaboard was worst affected. On each occasion, the Government tried to cope with distress. It shipped oats, corn, and biscuit to the affected areas, and made funds available for harbour and fishery development and other public works. New roads were built. Government inspectors were appointed to oversee fever hospitals and money was spent on infirmaries. It was, however, a peculiar form of famine.

Comments of the Duke of Wellington (1830)

Politicians were well aware of the underlying causes though they did nothing to tackle them. For example, on 7 July 1830 the Duke of Wellington wrote:

I confess that the annually recurring starvation in Ireland, for a period differing, according to the goodness or badness of the season, from one week to three months, gives me more uneasiness than any other evil existing in the United Kingdom.

It is starvation, because it is the fact that, although there is an abundance of provisions in the country of a superior kind, and at a cheaper rate than the same can be bought in any other part of Her Majesty’s dominions, those who want in the midst of plenty cannot get, because they do not possess even the small sum of money necessary to buy a supply of food.

It occurs every year, for that period of time that elapses between the final consumption of one year’s crop of potatoes, and the coming of the crop of the following year, and it is long or short, according as the previous season has been bad or good.

Now when this misfortune occurs, there is no relief or mitigation, excepting a recourse to public money. The proprietors of the country, those who ought to think for the people, to foresee this misfortune, and to provide beforehand a remedy for it, are amusing themselves in the Clubs in London, in Cheltenham, or Bath, or on the Continent, and the Government are made responsible for the evil, and they must find the remedy for it where they can—anywhere excepting in the pockets of Irish Gentlemen.

Then, if they give public money to provide a remedy for this distress, it is applied to all purposes excepting the one for which it is given; and more particularly to that one, viz. the payment of arrears of an exorbitant rent.

However, we must expect that this evil will continue, and will increase as the population will increase, and the chances of a serious evil, such as the loss of a large number of persons by famine, will be greater in proportion to the numbers existing in Ireland in the state in which we know that the great body of the people are living at this moment. [Wellington to Northumberland, 7 July 1830, in Despatches, vii 111–2; repr. in P. S. O’Hegarty, A history of Ireland under the Union (London 1952) 291–2]

The political culture of the time encouraged philanthropy, and charitable organisations were founded in Britain to help the Irish poor, whose miserable plight was described by writers and travellers such as Walter Scott (1771–1832), Gustave de Beaumont (1802–66), J. G. Kohl (1808–78, a German geographer and traveller, writing in 1843) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59, a French traveller and political analyst, writing of his visit to Ireland in 1835). Above all, Irish landlords were exhorted to do their duty by the poor. Some did, and spent substantial sums of money to help distressed areas. Many did not.

The Great Famine

The Great Famine or ‘Great Hunger’ of 1845–9 is the most important event in modern Irish history. It was the worst catastrophe in modern European history before the twentieth century. If one judges famine by the percentage of the population that dies of it and its effects, it was the worst famine in modern times. It was caused, in the first place, by the failure of the potato on which about one third of the population depended for survival. The potato was attacked by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, previously unknown, which came to Europe from North America.

This caused a crisis that the Government failed, in general, to cope with. The near complete failure of the potato crop made disaster on an unprecedented scale inevitable unless other food could be provided. As Cormac Ó Gráda writes:

The Irish famine relief effort was constrained less by poverty than by ideology and public opinion. Too much was expected of the Irish themselves, including Irish landlords. Too much was blamed on their dishonesty and laziness. Too much time was lost on public works as the main vehicle of relief. By the time food was reaching the starving through the soup kitchens, they were already vulnerable to infectious diseases, against which the medical science of the day was virtually helpless. Too much was made of the antisocial behavior inevitable in such crisis conditions. Too many people in high places believed that this was a time when, as the Times put it, “something like harshness is the greatest humanity”. … Most important, public spending on relief went nowhere near the cost of plugging the gap left by the failure of the potato. … a shortfall of about £50 million in money. … exchequer spending on famine relief between 1846 and 1852 totaled less than £10 million. [Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and beyond: the Great Irish Famine in history, economy, and memory (Princeton NJ 1998) 82–3]

The Government’s reaction to the crisis was slow. Food continued to be exported from Ireland and arrangements for the importation of other foods were not effective. Rev. Dr McEvoy, parish priest of Kells, wrote in October 1845:

On my most minute personal inspection of the potato crop in this most fertile potato-growing locale is founded my inexpressibly painful conviction that one family in twenty of the people will not have a single potato left on Christmas day next. Many are the fields I have examined and testimony the most solemn can I tender, that in the great bulk of those fields all the potatoes sizable enough to be sent to table are irreparably damaged, while for the remaining comparatively sounder fields very little hopes are entertained in consequence of the daily rapid development of the deplorable disease. With starvation at our doors, grimly staring us, vessels laden with our sole hopes of existence, our provisions, are hourly wafted from our every port. From one milling establishment I have last night seen not less than fifty dray loads of meal moving on to Drogheda, thence to go to feed the foreigner, leaving starvation and death the sure and certain fate of the toil and sweat that raised this food. For their respective inhabitants England, Holland, Scotland, Germany, are taking early the necessary precautions—getting provisions from every possible part of the globe; and I ask are Irishmen alone unworthy the sympathies of a paternal gentry or a paternal Government? Let Irishmen themselves take heed before the provisions are gone. Let those, too, who have sheep, and oxen, and haggards. Self-preservation is the first law of nature. The right of the starving to try and sustain existence is a right far and away paramount to every right that property confers. … [The Nation, 25 October 1845; repr. in P. S. O’Hegarty, A history of Ireland under the Union (London 1952) 293]

Others nearer the administration made a like complaint. The Mansion House Committee, of which the Duke of Leinster and Lord Cloncurry were chairmen, addressed a Resolution to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, in November 1845:

We have ascertained beyond any shadow of doubt, that considerably more than one-third of the entire potato crop in Ireland has already been destroyed by the potato disease; and that such disease has not, by an means, ceased its ravages, but, on the contrary, is daily extending more and more; and that no reasonable conjecture can be formed with respect to the limits of its effects, short of destruction of the entire remaining potato crop. … that our information on the subject is positive and precise and is derived from persons living in all the counties of Ireland, from persons of all political opinions and from clergymen of all religious persuasions. We are thus unfortunately able to proclaim to all the inhabitants of the British Empire, and in the presence of an all-seeing Providence, that in Ireland famine of a most hideous description must be immediate and pressing, and that pestilence of the most frightening kind is certain and not remote, unless immediately prevented. … That we arraign in the strongest terms, consistent with personal respect to ourselves, the culpable conduct of the present administration, as well in refusing to take any efficacious measure for alleviating the present calamity with all its approaching hideous and necessary consequences; as also for the positive and unequivocal crime of keeping the ports closed against the importation of foreign provisions, thus either abdicating their duty to the people or their sovereign, whose servants they are, or involving themselves in the enormous guilt of aggravating starvation and famine, by unnaturally keeping up the price of provisions, and doing this for the benefit of a selfish class who derive at the present awful crisis pecuniary advantages to themselves by the maintenance of the oppressive Corn Laws. … that the people of Ireland, in their bitter hour of misfortune, have the strongest right to impeach the criminality of the ministers of the Crown, inasmuch as it has pleased a merciful Providence to favour Ireland in the present season with a most abundant crop of oats. Yet, while the harbours are closed against the importation of foreign food, they are left open for the exportation of Irish grain, an exportation which has already amounted in the present season to a quantity nearly adequate to feed the entire people of Ireland, and to avert the now certain famine; thus inflicting upon the Irish people the abject misery of having their own provisions carried away to feed others, while they themselves are left contemptuously to starve. … Signed John L. Arabin, Lord Mayor of Dublin [John O’Rourke, A history of the Great Irish Famine (3rd ed. Dublin 1902), 65–7; repr. in Colm Tóibín & Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish famine: a documentary (New York 2002) 47–8]

The statistics of modern scholars support these observations. In 1845 the excess of exported over imported grain was 485,000 tons; and in 1846 it was 87,000 tons. In 1847, however, Ireland became a net importer of grain, 763,000 tons; and in 1848, 125,000 tons.

How many died?

Because data are poor, historians arrive at different estimates of the number that died. In the period 1846–1851 between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 people died: we cannot be certain of the number. Besides, births and marriages dropped significantly. Those hardest hit were the agricultural labourers, the class that had increased most rapidly in numbers in the decades before the Famine. As Karl Marx stated, ‘The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only’ (Capital, i, pt vii, chapter 25). The poor were the first and the most to die. The unprecedented scale of deaths was not due to starvation alone: infectious diseases such as typhus, relapsing fever, and cholera, killed very many.

Famine deaths and diseases

Starvation is a slow killer. First the body uses up all its deposits of fat. The metabolic rate sinks and physical and mental activity declines. Blood pressure falls. The internal organs, including the intestines, degenerate. The skin grows paper-thin, dull, grey and blotchy. Fluid is retained in the body (famine oedema). Normally, one-third of body weight is lost before death occurs. The final stages are uncontrolled diarrhoea and cardiovascular collapse. Children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable. They suffer from muscle waste, a wizened and shrunken appearance that makes them look like old men and old women, swelling of the abdomen and lower limbs, lesions and darkening of the skin, and diarrhoea. Reports describe these conditions:

… a vast number of impotent folk, whose gaunt and wasted frames and ghastly, emaciated faces were too obvious signs of the suffering they had endured. The little boys and girls presented a hideous sight. In many instances, their heads had become bald and their faces wrinkled like old men and women of seventy or eighty years of age. [Thomas Armstrong, My life in Connaught (London 1906) 13; repr. in L. A. Clarkson & E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and famine: a history of food and nutrition in Ireland, 1500–1920 (Oxford 2001) 140]

… We entered a cabin. Stretched out in one dark corner … were three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs … perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voices gone, and evidently in the last stages of actual starvation. On some straw … was a shrivelled old woman, imploring us to give her something,—baring her limbs partly, to show how the skin hung loose from the bone. [William Bennett, ‘Extracts from an account of his journey in Ireland’, Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland 1846 and 1847 (Dublin 1852) 163; repr. Clarkson & Crawford, ibid.]

With hunger came the vitamin deficiency diseases: scurvy, pellagra and xerophthalmia that get worse the longer hunger continues. Scurvy is caused by deficiency of vitamin C. Symptoms are swollen bleeding gums with loosened teeth, soreness and stiffness of the joints and lower extremities, excruciating pain, bleeding under the skin and in deep tissues, and eventually death by haemorrhage. It had been rare in Ireland because potatoes have adequate vitamin C. Now it became common. Sudden deaths of workers on relief schemes can be attributed to scurvy. Pellagra, caused by a deficiency of niacin (part of the vitamin B complex), is characterised by dermatitis, diarrhoea, and dementia. This was caused by malnutrition, mostly over-dependence on a relief diet of Indian corn. Xerophthalmia is an eye disease associated with vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition in general. Children aged from three to five are particularly vulnerable. Symptoms are night blindness and, later, ulceration of the cornea, leading to blindness. All these conditions are reported during the Famine.

In famines, most people do not die of hunger but of hunger-related fevers and diseases. The most important of these are typhus, relapsing fever, dysentery, and cholera.

Epidemic typhus is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia prowazekii, which is carried by the human body louse (Pediculus humanus; Irish míol cnis). Lice become infected by feeding off an infected human: there is no known animal reservoir. When infected lice feed on a human, they may defecate. When the person scratches the bite, the faeces (which carry the bacteria) are scratched into the wound or into the mucous membranes. Typhus can also be caught by inhaling the faecal dust of lice in bedding and clothing. The incubation period is seven days. Symptoms are headache, coughing, muscle pain; abrupt onset of high fever, chills, prostration; and mental confusion. By the sixth day, a rash appears on the trunk and spreads, and may become haemorrhagic and necrotic. Other common manifestations are delirium, photophobia, eye pain, kidney failure and enlargement of the spleen. Without modern treatments, nearly 100% of patients die of the disease in epidemic conditions.

Louse-borne relapsing fever is caused by the spirochete bacterium Borrelia recurrentis. No animal reservoir exists: pediculus humanus is the vector. The louse feeding on infected humans acquires the bacterium which then multiplies in the gut of the louse. The louse bite itself will not transmit the bacterium to another person. When an infected louse feeds on an uninfected human, the organism gains access when the victim crushes the louse or scratches the area where the louse is feeding. Borrelia recurrentis infects the patient either through the scratches or through mucous membranes (including nasal ones) and then invades the bloodstream. The incubation period is 2 to 14 days. The patient develops a sudden-onset high fever. The initial episode usually lasts 3–6 days and is usually followed by a single, milder episode. The fever episode may end in a “crisis”—shaking chills, followed by intense sweating, falling temperature, and low blood pressure. This stage may result in death After several cycles of fever, patients may develop dramatic central nervous system symptoms such as seizures, stupor, and coma. The disease may also attack heart and liver tissues, causing inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) and inflammation of the liver (hepatitis). Diffuse bleeding and pneumonia are other complications. Mortality rates from 30 to 70% are reported in untreated patients during epidemics.

Typhus and relapsing fever spread rapidly where there is poor hygiene and where lice-infested starving people crowded together in workhouses, fever hospital, feeding centres, and crowded ships without sanitation; and in the squalid, decrepit, and hideously over-crowded urban areas to which famine victims fled. Unwashed clothing and bedding are an ideal environment for the proliferation of lice. Irish mortality rates are those typically reported for untreated typhus and relapsing fever epidemics.

Dysentery is an illness involving severe diarrhoea, often with bloody faeces, vomiting, septicaemia, and fever. It is caused by the bacterium Shigella dysenteriae and is highly contagious. It is a major threat in crowded areas with inadequate sanitation, poor hygiene, and bad water because it is spread by faecal contamination, whether by personal contact or water-borne. Epidemic dysentery is fatal in about 5–15% of cases—particularly to children, the elderly, and the under-nourished. Deaths from dysentery rose sharply in 1846–7, and remained high until 1849.

Cholera appeared in 1849. It is an acute diarrhoeal disease caused by infection of the intestine by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. When the infection is severe it is characterised by profuse watery diarrhoea, vomiting, and leg cramps. Rapid loss of body fluids leads to dehydration and shock. Without treatment, death can occur within hours. The disease is got by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. In an epidemic, the source is usually the faeces of infected persons and cholera spreads rapidly where there is inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water. Its effects were most severe about the ports. It was the principal killer after typhus and relapsing fever.

Mortality from other diseases—especially tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever—rose rapidly in a population whose immune system was lowered by hunger and exposure.

Health care and workhouses

Medicine of the mid-nineteenth century had no real understanding of these diseases, and no therapy for most. Doctors could sometimes diagnose but hardly ever cure. Two hundred doctors died in 1847; ironically, their medical attentions were mostly worthless, sometimes harmful. Many landlords, clergy, workhouse officials and others who were in regular contact with the poor also died of contagious diseases.

In any case, most areas lacked hospitals and the health system was too uncoordinated to cope with the emergency. Relief of the poor was deficient. Until 1838 Ireland had no system of poor relief. The provision made in the poor relief system of 1838 (one workhouse per 62,000 persons) was inadequate even in good times: it collapsed when famine struck. Sadly, overcrowded and dirty fever hospitals and workhouses spread disease: they provided the ideal environment for the killer diseases, principally typhus, relapsing fever, and dysentery.

The workhouses were the nurseries of fever. The Economist reported of Castlerea workhouse on 2 January 1847:

… the dormitories resembled pig-styes more than habitations of human beings, and the effluvia from them was overpowering to the highest degree.

Here is a brief extract from a report on conditions in Fermoy workhouse in March 1847, a building with accommodation for 800 and no fever hospital.

A pestilential fever is now raging through the house, every room of which is so crowded as to render it impossible to separate the sick from the healthy. … All the horrors of disease are aggravated by the foul air engendered by a multiplicity of impurities unavoidable where fifty patients are crowded into a room too small for twenty. … On the first of January last, the number in the house was 1,377, from which date to the 8th of March inst. the admissions exceeded the discharges by 917, making a total of 2,294, of whom 543 died. … By reason of this overcrowding of the house, the supply of bedding is so short as to render it necessary to place 4 or 5 in many of the beds, & on this day 30 children labouring under disease were found in 3 beds. [Minute Book, Fermoy Board of Guardians, 1847–8, 10 March 1847; cited in James S. Donnelly, The land and the people in nineteenth century Cork (London 1975) 94]

Fever spread rapidly in the crowded understaffed under-equipped workhouses, as this extract shows:

In Ballinrobe the workhouse is in the most awfully deplorable state, pestilence having attacked paupers, officers, and all. In fact, this building is one horrible charnel house, the unfortunate paupers being nearly all the victims of a fearful fever, the dying and dead, we might say, huddled together. The master has become the victim of this dread disease; the clerk, a young man whose energies to the well-being of the union, has been added to the victims; the matron, too, is dead; and the respected esteemed physician has fallen before the ravages of the pestilence, in his constant attendance on the diseased inmates.

This is the position of the Ballinrobe house, every officer swept away, while the number of deaths among the inmates is unknown; and we forgot to add that the Roman Catholic chaplain is also dangerously ill of the same epidemic. Now the Ballinrobe board has complied with the Commissioners’ orders, in admitting a houseful of paupers and in striking a new rate, which cannot be collected; while the unfortunate inmates, if they escape the awful epidemic, will survive only to be the subjects of a lingering death by starvation!

We have heard also of the inmates of the Westport workhouse and several of the officers being attacked by fever, but fortunately without any fatal results. Ballina and Swinford, too, have not escaped the dreadful contagion, and Sligo has been fearfully scourged. The Master—for many years a colours sergeant of the 88th Regiment, who fought through many a bloody field unscathed—has fallen before dire disease, and the paupers are dying in dozens. [Mayo Chronicle, 23 March 1847; repr. in Colm Tóibín & Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish famine: a documentary (New York 2002) 119]

Besides, some workhouses were without funds because they had more inmates than they could pay for, and they had to turn away the destitute and the starving. Prisons, too, became places of death.

Descriptions of the Famine

People died in their cabins and on the roadside and many were buried without coffins in mass graves.

The letter of N. M. Cummins, absentee landlord and justice of the peace in Cork, of 17 December 1846, written to the Duke of Wellington, gives eloquent expression to the miseries of the poor:

My Lord Duke, Without apology or preface, I presume so far to trespass on your Grace as to state to you, and, by the use of your illustrious name, to pre-sent to the British Public the following statement of what I have myself seen within the last three days: —

Having for many years been intimately connected with the western portion of the County of Cork, and possessing some small property there I thought it right personally to investigate the truth of the several lamentable accounts which had reached me of the appalling state of misery to which that part of the county was reduced. I accordingly went on the 15th inst. to Skibbereen, and to give the instance of one townland which I visited as an example of the state of the entire coast district, I shall state simply what I saw there. It is situated on the eastern side of Castlehaven Harbour, and is named South Reen, in the parish of Myross. Being aware that I should have to witness scenes of frightful hunger, I provided myself with as much bread as five men could carry, and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, 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 what seemed a ragged horse-cloth, and their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive; they were in fever—four children, a woman, and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the details—suffice it to say that in a few minutes I was surrounded by a least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious, either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on. In another case—decency would forbid what follows, but it must be told—my clothes were nearly torn off in my endeavours to escape from the throng of pestilence around, when my neck-cloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn. I found myself grasped by a woman with an infant, just born, in her arms, and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins—the sole covering of herself and babe. The same morning the police opened a house on the adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two frozen corpses were found lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats.

A mother, herself in fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of her child, a girl about twelve, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones. In another house within 500 yards of the cavalry station at Skibbereen, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying, unable to move, under the same cloak—one had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse.

To what purpose should I multiply such cases? If these be not sufficient, neither would they hear who have the power to send relief, and do not, even “though one came from the dead.”

Let them, however, believe and tremble that they shall one day hear the Judge of all the Earth pronounce their tremendous doom, with the addition, “I hungered and ye gave Me no meat; thirsty and ye gave Me no drink; naked and ye clothed Me not.” But I forget to whom this is addressed. My Lord, you are an old and justly honoured man. It is yet in your power to add another honour to your age, to fix another star and that the brightest in your galaxy of glory. You have access to our young and gracious Queen—lay these things before her. She is a woman, she will not allow decency to be outraged. She has at her command the means of at least mitigating the sufferings of the wretched survivors of this tragedy. They will soon be few, indeed, in the district I speak of, if help be longer withheld. Once more, my Lord Duke, in the name of starving thousands, I implore you, break the frigid and flimsy chain of official etiquette, and save the land of your birth—the kindred of that gallant Irish blood which you have so often seen lavished to support the honour of the British name—and let there be inscribed upon your tomb, Servata Hibernia (‘Ireland was preserved by me’). [James Carty, Ireland from Grattan’s Parliament to the Great Famine (1783–1850) (4th ed. Dublin 1965) 172–3]

There are dozens of similar reports from elsewhere. A local correspondent of the Cork Examiner reports from Tallow, Co. Waterford:

While I am writing these few lines in a miserable cabin there lie the gaunt and ghastly bodies of a mother and her son, found dead in each other’s arms by the remaining little boy, who had gone out a day or two before to beg something for their relief. And this morning, before men had left their beds, the same sad postulant was at doors, begging therewith to purchase coffins to consign them to their mother earth. In fact … it is impossible to walk in that part of the country without being frightened by the rabid, hunger-stricken faces which meet you on your way—faces you can no longer recognise, so altered were they from what they were. Nor is the foregoing the only—no, not the tenth—instance of death from starvation which has occurred in this locality. [Des Cowman & Donald Brady (ed), Teacht na bprátaí dubha: the Famine in Waterford, 1845–50 (Dublin & Waterford 1995) 163; repr. in L. A. Clarkson & E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and famine: a history of food and nutrition in Ireland, 1500–1920 (Oxford 2001) 141]

Landlords and politicians

Many landlords did their best to provide relief and some suffered great financial hardship in so doing. Others refused to help. Some held that they were already paying enough in the rates that funded the new workhouses created by the Irish Poor Law Act (1838).

By early October 1845 the British Government faced a major crisis in Ireland. This was made clear to it by Irish officials and by politicians such as Daniel O’Connell. In December 1845 O’Connell said:

It is melancholy and deplorable to think of the manner in which the Government have delayed opening the ports for the reception of provisions from foreign countries; and see the inevitable result of this tardiness on their part. Other countries are receiving supplies of food from abroad, and securing themselves against threatened scarcity. … Ireland, too, is situated in this peculiar position. There never was a richer or more abundant harvest of oats in Ireland than this year. The crop was decidedly more than average in quantity and most excellent in quality. Indeed I am justified to the fullest extent in saying that the produce of the oat harvest is superior to that of the last twenty years; and the breadth grown was unusually large. If our ports were closed against the exportation of this abundant supply of grain, see how advantageous and beneficial it would prove to the great bulk of the population. … [The Nation, 6 December 1845; cited in P. S. O’Hegarty, A history of Ireland under the Union (London 1952) 295]

On 17 January 1846 O’Connell raised the matter of famine in the House of Commons.

I have shown you our distress. I have shown you that there are no agricultural labourers, no peasantry in Europe, so badly off—suffering such privations as do the great body of the Irish people. … There are five millions of people always on the verge of starvation. I have shown you from Government documents … that its [Ireland’s] people are threatened, that they are in the utmost danger of fearful famine, with its concomitant horrors.… I call upon all the members of this House to join in the most energetic measures to stop the impending calamity. You cannot be too speedy, you cannot be too extensive in your remedies. … death to an enormous amount will be the consequence of neglect. [Hansard, 17 February 1845; repr. in P. S. O’Hegarty, A history of Ireland under the Union (London 1952) 296]

Sir Robert Peel

The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel who, however, declared that it was ‘wise not to be too liberal’ and that the ‘greatest dependence must of course be on the spontaneous charity of the landed proprietors and others’, knew well that the Government had to act. His main relief measures were those used in earlier Irish famines. He appointed a scientific commission to advise the farmers about the potato crop, but that was of no practical value. He set up food depots with secretly purchased Indian meal (the meal was known as ‘Peel’s brimstone’). Some £185,000 was spent on the Government’s schemes, of which £135,000 was recovered through sales of the food by local committees or private customers. Relief schemes were begun in March 1846, giving employment to about 140,000 in building roads, bridges, and piers to improve fishing. However, these schemes were badly run and often corrupt.

Lord John Russell and the Whigs

In the summer of 1846, coinciding with the second more devastating outbreak of the potato blight and the repeal of the Corn Laws (26 June 1846), Peel’s government fell and he was replaced by Lord John Russell who formed a Whig Government.

Russell’s Government was deeply unsympathetic to Irish suffering. On 17 August 1846 Russell expressed Government policy as follows:

It appeared to the Government that, while there should be public works, and these public works should be undertaken under due control, they should not defray the cost of these works from any Parliamentary grant, but that they should be defrayed from a loan to be repaid by the counties. … with reference to the supply of food, the Government did not propose to interfere with the regular trade by which Indian corn and other grain food could be brought into that country [Ireland]. He proposed to leave the trade as much at liberty as possible. He believed that the markets would be best supplied without the interference of Government. … He did not propose to interfere either with the wholesale or retail trade. [The Nation, 22 August 1846; repr. in P. S. O’Hegarty, A history of Ireland under the Union (London 1952) 306]

Public Works

The Government’s programme of public works proved to be a tragic error, especially in the bitter winters of 1846–47 and 1847–48. Workers were, by law, paid on piece-work, and bad weather reduced their income further. Piece-work also penalised the weak, the elderly, and the undernourished who were not able to labour effectively. Workers were poorly clothed and their health suffered from exposure. Besides, they were too badly fed to do heavy work, and many died of malnutrition. The average pay was 13 pence a day (but often less; for example, 8 pence per day in Skibbereen in December 1846) and not enough to sustain a family because of the steeply rising price of food. Besides, there was fraud, favouritism, and jobbing; and in some cases the truly destitute got little or nothing, as Government inspectors report. Here is an extract from a report on relief work in Skibbereen, in December 1846:

Yesterday morning at daybreak, I saw a gang of about 150, composed principally of old men, women, and little boys, going out to work on one of the roads near the town. At that time the ground was covered with snow, and there was also a very severe frost; seeing that they were miserably clad, I remarked to a bystander that it was a miracle that the cold did not kill them even though they had nothing to eat. In less than half an hour, one of them, an old man, named Richard Cotter, was brought on a man’s back dying, and I had to give a cart to take him home. In the course of the day, I went out to visit this gang, who were opening a drain inside the fence on the Marsh road, and such a scene I hope I may never again be called upon to witness. The women and children were crying out from the severity of the cold, and were unable to hold the implements with which they were at work; most of them declared they had not tasted food for the day, while others said that but for the soup supplied by the Committee, they must starve. The actual value of the labour executed by these could not average two pence each per day, and to talk of task work to such labourers would be too ridiculous. [T. H. Marmion, Cork Constitution, 17 December 1846; repr. in Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and beyond: the Great Irish Famine in history, economy, and memory (Princeton NJ 1998) 68]

Political Economy: market economics and the Famine

The Government’s trust in the market was not well founded. Beginning in late 1846, there are widespread reports of speculation in grain by merchants and retailers. This is what one expects. There was large-scale profiteering in the grain being imported from the United States and this was well known to the authorities. Writing from Cork to Charles Edward Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, on 16 December 1846, Fr Theobald Mathew, who worked closely with the victims of hunger, stated:

I deeply regret the abandonment of the people to corn and flour dealers. They charge 50% to 100% profit. Cargoes of maize are purchased before their arrival and are sold like railway shares, passing through different hands before they are ground and sold to the poor. [repr. in N. M. Cummins, Some chapters of Cork medical history (Cork 1957) 114]

Writing from Limerick to Trevelyan, on 30 December 1846, General Hewston stated:

Last quotations from Cork: Indian corn, £17 5s. per ton ex ship; Limerick: corn not on the market; Indian meal £18 10s. to £19 per ton. Demand excessive. Looking to the quotations in the United States markets, these are really famine prices, the corn (direct consignment from the States) not standing the consignee more than £9 or £10 per ton. The commander of an American ship, the Isabella, [come] lately with a direct consignment from New York to a [merchant] house in this city, makes no scruple, in his trips in the public steamers up and down the river, to speak of the enormous profits the English and Irish [merchant] houses are making by their dealings with the States. One house in Cork alone, it is affirmed, will clear £40,000 by corn speculation; and the leading firm here will, I should say, go near to £80,000, as they are now weekly turning out 700 to 900 tons of different sorts of meal. … I sometimes am inclined to think houses give large prices for cargoes imported for a market, to keep them up; it is an uncharitable thought, but really there is so much cupidity abroad, and the wretched people suffering so intensely from the high prices of food, augmented by every party through whose hands it passes before it reaches them, it is quite disheartening to look upon. [John O’Rourke, The history of the Great Irish Famine of 1847 with notices of earlier Irish famines (3rd ed. Dublin 1902) 171; repr. in Colm Tóibín & Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish famine: a documentary (New York 2002) 182]

The Poor and their Betters

The poor could expect little charity from the Irish merchants, shopkeepers, officials, and prosperous farmers who treated them much as Irish society has treated itinerants until the present time. The Nation pointed out on 12 December 1846, that the widespread increase in arms sales, reported in the newspapers, was not for any revolutionary purpose. In fact, the arms were being bought by comfortable farmers to defend their property and crops from attack and theft by the large numbers of the poor and unemployed who wandered the countryside in search of food.

It seems that many evicted small farmers and labourers had held sub-leases, not from Protestant landlords, but from Catholic head tenants and strong farmers who now turned them out. Under pressure from famine, grown children turned out their parents. Fearful of hunger and death, many saved themselves at the expense of neighbours, family, servants, and dependants. Their actions were described by a Quaker observer in 1848 as

‘the most unscrupulous … knavery, cunning & falsehood’.

The survivors’ sense of guilt and shame led to ‘famine denial’ and a transfer of the whole responsibility for starvation and death to others—the Government and the landlords. Few families admitted that any of their members died in the Famine or sought refuge in the workhouse. After the Famine many districts distanced themselves from the shame of famine: they claimed, wrongly, that they were unaffected, while others suffered.

The poor had long been spiritually neglected by a Roman Catholic clergy whose care was principally for the better-off elements in society. However, in the moment of crisis, most clergy of all denominations (though there were exceptions), usually in an unwonted spirit of ecumenical cooperation, were effective advocates of their starving flocks, publicists on their behalf, and tireless helpers in the relief efforts. Besides, clergy of all churches suffered severe losses by ministering, in workhouses and parishes, to the fevered and the dying. In 1847 forty Protestant parish clergy died from famine fever, sufficient evidence of their selfless care for the distressed. However, a small minority of Protestant clergymen, mostly evangelical New Reformers, engaged in proselytism, urging the people to change their religion in return for food. This was vigorously denounced by Roman Catholic priests in sectarian terms. The best known of these attempts is Edward Nangle’s Protestant colony in Achill but there were many others. These attempts at conversion generally failed: most converts returned to Catholicism, as the 1861 Census shows, and English support for the Protestant mission in Ireland fell away.

Government Policy

Those really in charge of whatever Government relief was provided were the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, and the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Charles Edward Trevelyan, who carried out Russell’s policy. Both were firm believers in laissez faire, and were determined to ensure that the Government intervened as little as possible, and then only to help local efforts, not replace them. They believed that Irish landlords should bear the main cost of the relief. They called for an end to Government relief schemes and to the distribution of food. Near Famine conditions throughout Europe led to rising food prices. In Ireland, even where food was available, the starving people could not afford to buy it.


As tenants failed to pay their rents, they were evicted. Estimates of how many were evicted because of the Famine vary greatly. Dr Timothy O’Neill estimates that 144,759 families (about 580,000 people) were evicted in the period 1846–54, and that 97,248 families were evicted in 1846–48 alone. For most, eviction was a virtual death sentence. They were left without housing or means of subsistence other than charity or meagre Government relief. The Times protested vigorously against the the eviction of 300 tenants from the estate of Mrs Gerrard at Ballinglass, Co. Galway, on 13 March 1846:

How often are we to be told that the common law of England sanctions injustice and furnishes the weapons of oppression? How long shall the rights of property in Ireland continue to be the wrongs of poverty and the advancement of the rich be the destruction of the poor? [Times, 31 March 1846]

However, as the Famine went on, sympathy lessened. Others sided with the evicting landlords and took harsh view of their hapless and impoverished victims. The Illustrated London News commented:

The truth is that these evictions … are not merely a legal but a natural process; and however much we may deplore the misery from which they spring, and which they so dreadfully aggravate, we cannot compel the Irish proprietors to continue in their miserable holdings the wretched swarms of people who pay no rent, and who prevent the improvement of property as long as they remain upon it. … it sounds very well to English ears to preach forbearance and generosity to the landowners. But it should be remembered that few of them have it in their power to be merciful or generous to their poorer tenantry. … They are themselves engaged in a life and death struggle with their creditors. Moreover, the greater number of the depopulators are mere agents for absent landlords or for the law-receivers under the courts acting for creditors. [Illustrated London News, 13 October 1849; repr. in Colm Tóibín & Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish famine: a documentary (New York 2002) 144]

Famine Relief

The Poor Law system, never intended to deal with so dreadful a crisis, was completely inadequate. People were dying of hunger and fever in the workhouses, at their gates, and in the countryside. By the end of 1846 the Board of Works was collapsing under the strain. Government grain depots were opened in the West of Ireland in December: there, grain was offered to the starving at the market price plus 5%. Many were too poor to buy it.

Private relief organisations were established during 1846. The Irish Relief Association raised £42,000 and the General Central Relief Committee £63,000. The Ladies Work Association provided clothes. Major attempts to deal with the crisis in the West of Ireland were made by the Society of Friends whose organisers included William Edward Forster and James Hack Tuke. Another organisation, the British Relief Association, collected about £400,000. Queen Victoria gave £2,000.

Duties on imported corn were suspended in January 1847. The Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons (Ireland) Act, generally known as the Soup Kitchen Act, became law in February 1847.

A bitterly ironic ballad comments on the soup kitchens:

Rejoice and make merry you’ll hunger no more
John Bull will soon send you all victuals galore;
A French cook to dress them, with boiler and pot
And a kitchen well heated, to keep the broth hot.

Two gallons of water, two ounces of drippin’
A quart of this soup with a biscuit to dip in
Will be doled out to stout men, the papers do say
To provide ample feeding throughout a whole day.

’Tis but to be feared they will all grow too fat
Unaccustomed to fare so nutritious as that;
While famine and fever and dysentery
With soup and the poor laws will vanish away.

For John Bull is bountiful, give him his due,
In dealing with others, just, generous too;
If he got our mutton, beef, butter and grain
He’s now bringing meal for us over the main. …

[Fermanagh Reporter, 1 April 1847; repr. in Clogher Record 17 (2000–01) 78–79]

Although soup became the chief item of the diet for the starving, there were too few soup kitchens and the soup itself was not nutritious. A report from Clones in March 1847 states:

The progress of the famine in this neighbourhood, despite the various means that have been adopted to check it, is truly alarming. Its sad concomitants, fever and dysentery, are daily carrying off their victims; whole families in town and country are being carried away …. The soup kitchens, no doubt, afford great relief and are keeping many out of the jaws of death, but the number thus sustained when compared to those suffering the horrors of starvation is scarcely worth the naming. It is the very maximum if two out of any ten that are absolutely starving get relief in this way and even those wretched few only receive what is barely necessary to sustain life. If they have families, as is in most instances the case, they must either provide for them in some other way or suffer them to perish. These are simple unvarnished fact which every one in the neighbourhood who pays any attention at all to what is passing before him is fully aware of. It is a matter of almost daily occurrence to see some of these unhappy wretches who could no longer bear up under their afflictions falling in the street through absolute inanity. The police then endeavour to get them into the workhouse where, in general, they expire after a few days. Nor does the workhouse itself present a less frightful picture. The number of deaths in any day during the last week has not been so small as twenty within its walls. It has come to that state that among the living of the inmates there can scarcely be found as many in health as are able to bring to the grave and inter the dead, and while famine is producing these dreadful effects—so dreadful that it is impossible to contemplate them without shuddering—the land of the poor is lying waste. No preparations are being made by them for another season and how, then, can we expect that next year will bring about a happier state of things? Alas! it seems but an idle hope. [Fermanagh Reporter, 4 March 1847; repr. in Clogher Record 17 (2000–01) 76]

Lord George Bentick’s bill for a state-aided railway building scheme to provide employment was heavily defeated in the House of Commons in February 1847. In June 1847 a separate Irish Poor Commission was set upon and put in charge of further assistance under the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, which allowed Boards of Guardians of Workhouse Unions to give outdoor relief to the aged, infirm, and sick poor, and to poor widows with two or more dependent children. It also permitted the Boards to give food to the able-bodied poor for limited periods, but it excluded those holding more than a quarter-acre of land (the infamous Gregory Clause). These were now forced to choose between meagre public relief and any hope that their paltry holding might provide for them.

Lord John Russell announced that there could be no more relief until the Irish Poor Law rate of five shillings in the pound was collected. Nearly £1 million was collected, frequently by force. Violence increased during the unusually severe winter of 1847/48, especially attacks on rates and rent collectors. The Government passed the Crime and Outrage (Ireland) Act in December 1847. A force of 15,000 troops was sent to Ireland and martial law was proclaimed in disturbed districts. Frightened property owners fled the country.

Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation

The more extreme members of Young Ireland, who had formed the Irish Confederation in January 1847, became more aggressive in tone. John Mitchel, a leader of the Confederation, in his newspaper the United Irishman, urged the starving people not to pay rents or rates, to resist eviction, to ostracise all who would not co-operate, and to arm themselves. In May 1848 Mitchel was arrested under the Treason Felony Act and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation. The Confederation’s attempt at revolution was a farce. It was led by an elite that was out of touch with the people and that did not understand them and their mental and physical exhaustion. There were two affrays, both insignificant—‘the battle of Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch’ in July 1848 near Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary; and an attack on Cappoquin police barracks in September 1849. Membership of the Confederation was made an offence and, like Mitchel, many of the its leaders were convicted of treason and transported to Tasmania (Van Dieman’s Land). The rebellion fizzled out: the writings and memoirs of the gentlemen rebels were more important than their actions. As agricultural production rose and economic conditions improved, social order was restored.

Economic and Social Background to the Famine

The causes of the Famine are debated by historians. Its real context was Ireland’s vulnerability and the fragility of its economy. Even modest farmers were not at risk: the poor were. By British standards Ireland was poor, and the Irish poor, two-thirds of the population, were dangerously dependent on the potato for survival. It is a food that cannot be stored for more than a year, and thus good harvests could not compensate for bad ones. The Irish land system was inefficient and fragile. Relationships between landlord and tenant farmers were difficult, often hostile. Relationships between farmers on the one hand and the cottiers and rural labourers on the other were often bad. Agrarian violence, at different levels, rumbled below the surface.

The industrial revolution in England devastated cottage industries in Ireland in the 1830s and 1840s, especially the weaving and spinning of textiles, and many hundreds of thousands were left without employment. Thus the numbers dependent on the potato rose dramatically.

Investment in the Irish economy was low, and therefore productivity was low. The poor had nothing to invest, and those who had money invested it elsewhere. Most landlords took little interest in the development of their estates, and invested little. British capital was not much invested in Ireland and Irish poverty tended to be seen as the result rather of Irish laziness, incompetence, and even immorality.

When the natural disaster of the potato blight struck, Ireland lacked the resources to cope with the crisis by itself. It urgently needed Government help.

Relations between Britain and Ireland

The relationship with Britain was problematical. Though both countries were united under the Act of Union and the whole of the United Kingdom was now a free trade area, Ireland was not really considered part of Britain. This point is made eloquently by Isaac Butt, Professor of Political Economy in Trinity College Dublin:

What can be more absurd, what can be more wicked, than for men professing attachment to an imperial constitution to answer claims now put forward for state assistance to the unprecedented necessities, by talking of Ireland being a drain on the English treasury. The exchequer is the exchequer of the United Kingdom. … If the Union be not a mockery, there exists no such thing as an English treasury. … How are these expectations to be realized, how are these pledges to be fulfilled, if the partnership is to be one of loss and never of profit to us? if, bearing our share of all imperial burdens—when calamity strikes upon us we are to be told that we then recover our separate existence as a nation, just so far as to disentitle us to the state assistance which any portion of a nation visited with such a calamity has a right to expect from the governing power? If Cornwall had been visited with the same scenes that have desolated Cork, would similar arguments have been used? [Isaac Butt, Dublin University Magazine 29 (April 1847) 514; repr. in Colm Tóibín & Diarmaid Ferriter, The Irish famine: a documentary (New York 2002) 185]

As the American economist and historian, Joel Mokyr, writes:

Most serious of all, when the chips were down in the frightful summer of 1847, the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them perish. There is no doubt that Britain could have saved Ireland. The British treasury spent a total of about £9.5 million on famine relief. … Financed largely by advances from London, the soup kitchen program, despite its many inadequacies, saved many lives. When the last kitchen closed in October 1847, Lord Clarendon wrote in despair to the Prime Minister, Russell: “Ireland cannot be left to her own resources … we are not to let the people die of starvation”. The reply was: “The state of Ireland for the next few months must be one of great suffering. Unhappily, the agitation for Repeal has contrived to destroy nearly all sympathy in this country”. … A few years after the famine, the British government spent £69.3 million on an utterly futile adventure in the Crimea [the Crimean War,1853–5]. Half that sum spent in Ireland in the critical years 1846–9 would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It is difficult to reconcile this lavishness with claims that British relief during the famine was inadequate because the problem “was too huge for the British state to overcome”. … The contribution of Westminster to the relief of this horror was a pittance. … It is not unreasonable to surmise that had anything like the famine occurred in England or Wales, the British government would have overcome its theoretical scruples and would have come to the rescue of the starving at a much larger scale. Ireland was not considered part of the British community. [Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland starved: a quantitative and analytical history of the Irish economy, 1800–1850 (rev. ed. London 1985) 291–2]

Populations and Class

Famine had many social and economic consequences. It greatly reduced the labouring classes in rural Ireland who had made up two-thirds of the population. They lost more to famine and famine fever than any other class. Excess deaths, that is, deaths over and above the normal rate, for 1846–51 are reckoned at between a million and a million and a half. The population declined by 2,225,000 in the period 1845–51 from a probable high of 8,200,000.

Migrants and Economic Refugees

The first Famine migrants fled to Dublin, Cork, and other cities and to bigger towns. They found no welcome. Famine victims, bringing famine fevers, crowded into Dublin. The cost of poor relief rose dramatically, stretching the city’s Poor-Law Unions to their limits. In 1847 the North Dublin Union had to expand its capacity from 2000 to 4000. Rising crime filled the prisons, mostly with thieves and beggars (about eight out ten of the beggars were from the country). A report of spring 1850 states that the Liberties were full of the fever-stricken from many parts of the country, especially Mayo, Galway and the western counties. Despite Famine deaths, Dublin’s population rose from 232,726 in 1841 to 258,361 in 1851, an increase of 11%. It has been argued that this Famine migration into Dublin drove down wages and swelled the pauper population of the city’s slums.

Before the Famine there had been emigration of well over 100,000 a year. Now it rose greatly, changed in kind, and remained a notable characteristic of Irish society long after the Famine.

Emigration to Britain, especially to the growing industrial cities, such as Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow, was well established long before the Famine. For example, 17.3% of the population of Liverpool in 1841 were Irish. Here, in cities with rapidly expanding populations but without investment in housing, sanitation, and proper water supplies, the Irish were among the poorest and most despised unskilled workers, living in the squalid slums of the industrial revolution. Now in the face of grim famine at home migration rose dramatically: large numbers of Irish fled Ireland for Britain, most desperately poor and many already afflicted by typhus. The new steamers on the Irish Sea and cut-throat competition between the steamship companies brought transit costs down so that all but the most destitute could afford the fare. For many this was the first stage on their way to America: in 1847 more Irish left Liverpool for America than did from all the Irish ports combined.

For many more Britain was their final destination. The average length of the Dublin–Liverpool passage was 12–14 hours, but bad weather could double that. Dublin was the principal port of departure, but most of the passengers came not from Dublin and its surrounds but from the famine stricken west of Ireland.

The crossing was often horrendous. The steamers were organised to carry corn and animals as food for Britain’s growing industrial cities, not people. Most travelled on the open deck. This was cold and dangerous: there was no cover; no shelter from bad weather or rough seas; and virtually no sanitation. There was chronic overcrowding. The migrants themselves were poorly clothed, often malnourished, and sometimes already ill. The steamship companies had no concern but profit. The following newspaper extract give a flavour of the experiences of some:

… a vessel called the Wanderer has just arrived here [Newport, South Wales] with nearly two hundred of the wretched famished creatures, chiefly from Skibbereen, huddled together in a mass of wretchedness unparalleled. On examining the crowded vessel, it was found that between twenty or thirty starving men, women, and children were lying on the ballast in the hold in dying condition. Their state was most deplorable and had it not been that surgical and charitable aid was rendered the moment the vessel came alongside the wharf, it is said that many would have been brought ashore dead. [Cardiff & Merthyr Guardian, 12 February 1847; repr. in Frank Neal, Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish (Basingstoke & New York 1998) 70]

The evidence of the Liverpool Medical Officers in charge of quarantine is horrendous:

As to the space available to each deck passenger, it may be observed that no portions of the vessels were set apart for such accommodation. The decks and holds were generally filled with cattle, so that even in an uncrowded state there was great difficulty in moving; but when passengers were in such numbers [i.e. 1,000], they were so jammed together in the erect posture that motion was impossible. One woman stated that she had been obliged to sit during the whole of the passage, from the want of room to save herself, while her children were placed under her legs for safety. The common offices of nature, including vomiting from sea-sickness, were consequently done on the spot. … The passengers and cattle were therefore indiscriminately mixed together; the sea and urine pouring on their clothes from the animals, and they stood in the midst of filth and mire. … The smell from the filth, mire, effects of sea-sickness and the engine, were most intolerable. [Captain Denham’s Report to the Board of Trade, 21 May 1849; repr. in Neal, op. cit. 77–8]

The weighmaster of Cork, John Besnard, described the trade as ‘disgraceful, dangerous and inhuman’. Appeals were made to the Government, by the Liverpool authorities and many others, to regulate the chaotic and cruel passenger traffic between Ireland and England. These were ignored: Government would not interfere with business.

Irish arriving at Liverpool, 1847–54
1854154,489 4%
Total 1,944,886

(Source: Frank Neal, Black ’47: Britain and the famine Irish (Basingstoke & New York 1998) 61)

The Irish who settled in Britain were mostly paupers who had no choice but to live in the slums and survive on handouts and begging. Racked by typhus, relapsing fever, and dysentery, made worse by squalid crowded conditions and undernourishment, many died. Their British hosts treated them with a mixture of kindness, contempt, sympathy, and exasperation, but usually no better and no worse than British paupers. Local Boards of Guardians worked hard to relieve them; Government did nothing. When the crisis ended, they were absorbed into the very lowest rank of the British industrial working class, but some rose as publicans and shopkeepers. In Liverpool, Manchester and some other cities, there was a growing Irish Catholic merchant and professional class that provided the leadership of Irish communities that were fed by continuing immigration. Writing in 1848 George Poulett Scrope feared that Irish immigration might ‘spread through Britain the gangrene of Irish poverty, Irish disaffection, and the deadly paralysis of industry …’ (How to make Ireland self-supporting (London 1848) 28). He need not have worried overmuch. Though there were conflicts and, for a time, ‘Little Irelands’, assimilation, intermarriage, and slow upward social mobility led to the absorption of most.

Emigration to North America had been mainly from Ulster but now emigrants came mostly from the south and west, and emigration was on a massive scale—about 100,000 in 1846, about 200,000 in 1847, almost 250,000 in 1851. The haunting image of the coffin ships entered Irish history and Irish-American communal memory. According to recent historians, this is a myth: despite dreadful sufferings, misery, and many deaths, the great majority made it safely to the New World.

It was still a baleful experience. Deaths reached 20% on the Canadian route in 1847 and about half the emigrants from Major Mahon’s Strokestown estates died in transit. British shipping regulations were lax; transit conditions were harsh; ships were often inferior, especially on the Canadian routes; many vessels were barely modified cargo ships in the British North American timber trade, not passenger ships; a lot of ship owners and agents were unscrupulous profiteers; ‘passage brokers’ hawked tickets at inflated prices and fraud was common; the crews were often callous; passengers were given inferior food or very little, and dirty or too little water; and the Famine passengers were very poor (though not the poorest in Ireland) and were so riddled with disease that many were quarantined on arrival in North America.

Stephen de Vere, an Irish landlord from Curragh Chase, Co. Limerick, who made the passage to Grosse Île in Canada, the quarantine station for Quebec, thirty miles below the city, reports on the ship and its passengers:

Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man. How can it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children, of all ages from the drivelling idiot of 90 to the babe just born, huddled together, without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a foetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart … the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them … a change of position … by their agonized raving disturbing those around them … living without food or medicine except as administered by the hand of casual charity, dying without spiritual consolation and buried in the deep without the rites of the church. [cited in Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger (London 1962; repr. 1965) 221; repr. in Arthur Gribben (ed), The Great Famine and the Irish diaspora in America (Amherst MA 1999) 137]

Some landlords, for example Lord Mounteagle, assisted emigration generously; others, like Lord Palmerstown (later British Prime Minister) and Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown (assassinated in late 1847), notoriously shipped destitute tenants to North America. Here is an account by George Mellis Douglas, medical superintendant of Grosse Île, of the first ship of Mahon’s tenants to arrive:

The Virginius sailed from Liverpool, May 28, with 476 passengers. Fever and dysentery cases came aboard this vessel in Liverpool, and deaths occurred before leaving the Mersey. On mustering the passengers for inspection yesterday, it was found that 106 were ill of fever, including nine of the crew, and the large number of 158 had died in the passage, including the first and second officers and seven of the crew and, the master and steward dying, the few that were able to come on deck were ghastly yellow looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked, and, without exception, the worst looking passengers I have ever seen; not more than six or eight were really healthy and able to exert themselves. [British Parliamentary Papers, Colonies—Canada, vol. 17, 385; repr. in Arthur Gribben (ed), The Great Famine and the Irish diaspora in America (Amherst MA 1999) 142]

Nineteen more died while the ship lay at anchor, and ninety died in the quarantine sheds.

On 26 May 1847 there were 30 vessels with 1000 emigrants waiting at Grosse Île; on 31 May 1847 there were 40 vessels waiting, stretched in a line two miles long down the St Lawrence river; there were 1100 cases of fever in the sheds and tents of Grosse Île, short of bedding, sanitation and carers, and just as many ill in ships waiting to disembark; and another 45,000 emigrants were believed to be on the way.

Some 2000 of the former tenants of Lord Palmerston, serving Foreign Secretary in Lord John Russell’s Government, were no better off: many were aged, destitute and almost naked, or helpless widows with young children. They had been misled by false promises of clothing and of between £2 and £5 a family on arrival in Canada. A shipload of them that had come in early winter, on 2 November 1847, to St John, New Brunswick, were so miserable that the City Council protested vigorously against such behaviour by a member of Her Majesty’s Government. The protests of Mr Adam Ferrie, member of the Legislative Council of Canada, and of the Council of St John, were met with an arrogant and misleading answer from Palmerston’s agent. That agent had been denounced by Ferrie as a

‘worthless and unprincipled hireling, in whose bosom every principle of humanity and every germ of mercy had become totally extinct’.

Emigration to the United States in a US ship was more expensive, the US Passenger Acts were stricter (and further tightened in spring 1847), and US ships were better crewed. In all, the experience of the emigrants was less grim. In the Atlantic states there were high charges for the admission of paupers and the infirm. Many Irish migrants evaded the rules by landing illegally or by landing in Canada and walking over the border into the US. New York city was the principal point of entry, and the Irish spread out from there into New York state and the neighbouring states. However, many remained as slum dwellers and low-level labourers, seamstresses, and domestics in close communities in New York city. Three-quarters of the famine immigrants settled in the US, mostly in the big cities. A large Irish-American community came into existence, continuously fed by large-scale immigration from Ireland. Some were highly successful but most were semi-skilled, unskilled labourers, industrial workers, and domestic servants living in strongly Irish neighbourhoods. Because most were impoverished, without capital, education, skills or professions, their rise was slow. In time, they came to dominate the urban politics of New York, Boston and other large cities. Protestant Yankee bigotry kept the iron in their souls.

Because of the Famine, many Irish-Americans bore a deep hatred of English government in Ireland and they supported every subsequent Irish nationalist movement—cultural, political, and military. Irish-Americans funded the Fenians, Home Rule, the Land League, Connradh na Gaeilge, Sinn Féin, the Irish War of Independence, and other activities. In the post-Famine understanding of things, the British Government and the Irish landlords were alone held responsible for the Famine. In the words of Kerby Miller,

‘As a result, Catholic Ireland and Irish America emerged from the Famine’s terrible crucible more vehemently and unanimously opposed to Protestant England and its Irish representatives than ever before’.

Other Social, Economic, and Cultural Changes

Dramatic changes in Irish population brought about by the Famine and consequent emigration repositioned Ireland in the scale of European countries: from being a medium-sized one, in terms of population, it became a small one, and getting smaller. As Cormac Ó Gráda writes:

One the eve of the famine, Ireland comfortably outpeopled the whole of Scandinavia, and also contained more people than Benelux. By 1914 both Scandinavia and Benelux would contain more than three times as many people as Ireland. Portugal and Scotland, with fewer people than Ireland in 1845, would contain more in 1914. The population of England and Wales, less than double that of Ireland in 1845, was eight times as high in 1914. [Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and beyond: the great Irish Famine in history, economy, and memory (Princeton NJ 1998) 29–30]

The Famine brought about major social, economic, and cultural changes in Ireland. The larger farmers grew more prosperous but landlords’ incomes fell. Landlords began to take a closer interest in balancing their rent books than they had done before, and estate management improved. They moved against middlemen who had paid a fixed rent on long leases, and who were largely responsible for the sub-division of land before the Famine. Middlemen and sub-tenants were removed from the land system.

Some landlords were bankrupted by the Famine. In consequence, the Government passed the Encumbered Estates Act in 1848 so that bankrupt landlords (about 10% of them) could sell some or all of their entailed and debt-ridden estates on the open market. This created a market in land; and £20,000,000 worth of land was sold, mostly to new speculator landlords who were no improvement on their predecessors.

The Famine greatly speeded up the transition from the labour intensive tillage to more profitable livestock farming. One farm in four disappeared between 1845 and 1851, mostly holdings less than 15 acres. The average size of a farm increased: by 1851 about 51% of farms were more than 15 acres, and holdings under 5 acres fell from 24% in 1845 to 15% in 1851. Many historians accept that this was a good thing, but not all.

The Famine hastened the decline of the Irish language. The areas where Irish was strongest suffered most from famine and emigration. That the proselytising Protestant clergy gave up using Irish in their missions by 1854 is a strong indicator of the the rapid decline of the language. The strong farmers were turning to English which they saw as the language of progress and of the future, the passport to positions in the British Empire for their sons and daughters. The Catholic Church was hostile to traditional religious beliefs, ‘patterns’, and rites at holy wells, enshrined in Irish prayers and devotions to the Irish saints. These had no place in the ultramontane vision of Archbishop Paul Cullen and his likes. The Catholic Church was also hostile to a salty anti-clericalism in Irish songs and folk culture. The Irish-speaking evangelical missionaries, armed with the Irish Protestant translation of the Bible, had provoked the ardent hostility of the Catholic clergy, to Irish as well as to their missions. Increasingly, the Irish Catholic Church saw itself as a church with a mission to promote Catholicism throughout the English-speaking world, and in so doing it turned its back on the Gaelic world. Priests preached in English to wholly Irish-speaking congregations and Catholic education for Irish speakers was provided wholly in English.

Ireland was becoming the land of the ‘bold tenant farmer’. Increasingly, he had a dominating influence on the style and attitudes of the countryside (and therefore on the social, political and religious life of the nation as a whole). His careful opinions, cautious politics, orthodox religious beliefs (purged of any troublesome deviant notions), mercenary marriage settlements, unbendingly conservative outlook, and that most dynamic of all desires—the desire to better himself—gave post-Famine Irish society its distinctive traits.


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Donnchadh Ó Corráin

23 January 2006