The Irish Potato Famine 1846-1850
This article is a continuation from Food in Ireland 1600 – 1835
Prelude to Famine
While the potato had seemed like the answer to a growing population’s prayers when it first arrived in Ireland, by the early 1800′s warnings began to grow about over reliance on a single source of food. A significant proportion of the Irish population ate little other than potatoes, lived in close to total poverty and were rarely far from hunger.
Main image: Famine memorial in Dublin by euphro
A typical tenant farmer had barely half an acre on which to grow all the food for a family. Potatoes were the only viable option with such a small landholding. At least those with tenancies, small as they were, had the certainty of shelter and some food. Homelessness was common, many people lived in makeshift mud cabins or slept outdoors in ditches. Work was in short supply forcing labourers to travel the country in search of employment, surviving on what they could forage, get by way of charity or steal.
Life expectancy was short, just 40 years for men, and families were large, with many mouths to feed. The gap between living and dying, even in a good year, was perilously narrow.
In 1836 a report from the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Irish Poor concluded that more than 2.5 million Irish people, more than a quarter of the population, lived in such poverty as to need some kind of welfare scheme. Poor law unions were established to provide work houses where the most impoverished would be fed but these were wholly inadequate even before famine stuck and completely overwhelmed when it did.
The Potato Crop Fails
The disaster began in earnest in 1845 when the potato crop was destroyed by infestation with the fungal disease Phytophthora Infestans, better known as Potato Blight.
This devastating disease rotted the potatoes in the ground, rendering entire crops inedible and obliterating the primary food source for millions of people.
William Trench, a Co Cork land agent wrote:
“The leaves of the potatoes on many fields I passed were quite withered, and a strange stench, such as I had never smelt before, but which became a well-known feature in “the blight” for years after, filled the atmosphere adjoining each field of potatoes. The crop of all crops, on which they depended for food, had suddenly melted away”
There was effectively no potato crop in 1845 and 1846 and although there was little blight in 1847 there had been too few potatoes planted for the harvest to be of any use. Crops failed again in 1848.
There was now nothing for the poor to eat. Although many had enough land to grow crops other than potatoes, they were caught in an impossible bind – they had to sell these crops to pay rent or face eviction.
Widespread Eviction & Destitution
While some landlords allowed their tenants to retain grain crops for food and reduced their tenants’ rents or even waived them, others were remorseless.
This bailiff’s remark as quoted in the Freeman’s Journal in April 1846 was typical:
“What the devil do we care about you or your black potatoes? It was not us that made them black. You will get two days to pay the rent, and if you don’t you know the consequences.”
Other landlords could have done little even if they had wished to, as they too lost everything. Their tenants could neither pay rent nor work, thus the output of their land plummeted and their income dried up. Many were were forced to sell their land for what little money they could get and leave the country.
More than a quarter of a million labourers and tenant farmers were evicted between 1845 and 1854 and more than that number simply walked away from their homes, never to return, rather than face certain starvation. Thousands of evicted families roamed the country in search of food.
William Bennett, a member of the Society of Friends, visited Co Mayo in 1847 and sent a report of what he found:
“We entered a cabin. Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible from the smoke and rags that covered them, were three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly; their little limbs, on removing a portion of the filthy covering, perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stage of actual starvation.
We entered upwards of fifty of these tenements. The scene was invariably the same.”
More than 1 million people died of starvation or disease – to put that in context, an equivalent loss in the US today be almost 40 million people. More than 2 million others emigrated over a six year period, whole families, even whole villages, left en masse.
Those who could afford to leave were considered to be the lucky ones, though they may not have felt particularly fortunate – many of them travelled on dangerous and overcrowded ships on which considerable numbers died.
“Starving in the Midst of Plenty”
The famine was not really a famine at all.
Ireland, then as now, was a country capable of producing large quantities of food, and continued to do so throughout the famine years.
Only a single crop, the potato, failed. No other crops were affected and there were oats and barley being produced in Ireland throughout these years. But these were considered ‘cash crops’, produced for export and owned not by those who worked in the fields but by large landowners. Food exports continued virtually unabated even as people starved.
William Smith-O’Brien, a wealthy land owner from Dromoland Castle who was sympathetic to the plight of the poor, observed in 1846:
“The circumstances which appeared most aggravating was that the people were starving in the midst of plenty, and that every tide carried from the Irish ports corn sufficient for the maintenance of thousands of the Irish people.“
In Cork in 1846, a coastguard officer, Robert Mann, travelled the county and reported seeing innumerable starving and desperate people and then…:
“We were literally stopped by carts laden with grain, butter, bacon, etc. being taken to the vessels loading from the quay. It was a strange anomaly“
Official Famine Relief & Aid
Instead of retaining crops and other food which was already being produced in Ireland, cheaper Indian corn was imported in various efforts at relief.
This corn was regarded with suspicion by the Irish who looked on it as animal feed and had no idea how to prepare and cook it properly. Being accustomed to a diet of potatoes, they had great difficulty digesting this tough grain. Many who tried it suffered terrible pain – some even died – though eventually they learned how it should be prepared in order to be more digestible.
However official attempts to provide relief, in the form of imported corn or in any other form, were sporadic, short lived and inadequate for the numbers who were in need. Of the effective help that was provided during the famine little came from the government in London.
Although some efforts were made in 1945 by the English prime minister Robert Peel to both reduce exports of grain and increase imports of cheaper American corn, these were not continued by Lord John Russell, who succeeded him in 1846.
Russell was an enthusiastic supporter of the prevailing economic doctrine, that of ‘laissez-faire‘ – the belief that government must not interfere in the economy. Charles Trevelyn, who was secretary of the Treasury in England and had responsibility for famine relief, had an even less sympathetic attitude to the starving Irish:
“The only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on Government is to bring the food depots to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop only makes this more necessary“.
There were some government relief efforts: workhouses were given additional resources, though nothing approaching what they needed.
Work schemes were established, designed to give employment to the poor and thus enable them to buy food. The work schemes in particular were singularly unsuccessful for the most part - payments made were small, food prices rising rapidly (when any was available), and those who most needed help were far too weak from lack of food to avail of any work.
Some started work but died before the week was over and they could collect their pay.
Charitable Organisations & Famine Aid
In spite of the inaction of their government there were some efforts by private charities and religious organisations in England to send help or provide food.
Famine Relief Committees where also set up throughout America, raising large amounts of money and sending food on ‘relief ships’ which made the return journey with passengers on board, allowing people who could not otherwise afford the passage to America to emigrate.
The Society of Friends
The people who provided the most effective help to the Irish were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, from America who provided food, mostly American flour, rice, biscuits and Indian meal.
They also provided funds to assist farmers to replant their fields and to support fishermen in coastal towns, measures which not only provided additional food but helped many people to get back on their feet as things improved after the famine. In all they gave approximately £200,000 for relief in Ireland, the equivalent of more than £30 million in today’s terms.
Their efforts were widely supported in America:
“The railroads carried, free of charge, all packages marked ‘Ireland’. Public carriers undertook the gratuitous delivery of any package intended for the relief of the destitute Irish. Ships of war approached our shores, eagerly seeking not to destroy life but to preserve it, their guns being taken out in order to afford more room for stowage.”
The Quakers efforts are well remembered and they are held still in high regard in Ireland, although their numbers are few. It is not uncommon to hear someone remark of them ‘They fed us during the famine’.
The most successful relief measure of all was soup kitchens, which were originally set up by the Quakers and later also funded by various charitable organisations in England and America. However even they were too few to meet the incessant and ever increasing demand.
Of one Cork soup kitchen, the London Illustrated News reported:
“The average number supplied every day at this establishment for the past week has been 1300 and many hundreds more apply, whom it is impossible at present to accommodate.”
Some of the Protestant charities running soup kitchens demanded that people convert from Catholicism before receiving help. For many of the Irish, clinging to their faith when all else seemed lost, this was a dreadful proposition. The conection between saving lives and proselytising led to much bitterness and was denounced by many Anglicans. Those who did convert, probably without much conviction, were derided and referred to as ‘soupers’.
The term persisted long after the famine and for generations whole families would be known in a locality as ‘soupers’. It is still occasionally used to describe a person who ‘sells out’ on their beliefs and is considered a gross insult.
The Choctaw Donation
A well remembered donation to famine relief was that made by the Choctaw tribe of American Indians who in 1847 sent a donation of $710, the equivalent of more than $100,000 today. They had a special affinity with the hungry and those who had lost their homes, since it was only 16 years since their tribe had been made homeless and walked the “Trail of Tears” from Oklahoma to Mississippi, along which many of them died.
This extraordinary gift from a people who were themselves impoverished has never been forgotten. In 1997, the 150th anniversary of that generous gesture, a group of Irish people walked alongside members of the Chokraw Nation along the 500 mile Trail of Tears in reverse, back to the Choctaw homeland. In so doing they raised together over $100,000 which was donated to Famine relief in Somalia.
In spite of the various relief efforts, the numbers of dead and the numbers leaving continued to rise throughout 1847 (a year which is still referred to as ‘black ’47′) and in subsequent years up to 1856.
People living in the cities of Dublin, Cork and Belfast and in the larger towns were less dependant than the rural population on the potato and had been relatively unaffected by events prior to 1847. But as the famine wore on towns became crowded with those fleeing the countryside and in search of food. They gathered in tenement areas but without money or work they found little refuge or escape and were ill equipped for life in a town.
They brought with them diseases, mainly Typhus, Dysentery and Cholera, which few, in their weakened state, could withstand. Disease rather than hunger now became the primary killer, and disease took its toll in urban as well as rural areas. Even the wealthy were vulnerable to infection and many people died without ever knowing lack of food.
The Famine Comes to an End
By 1852 the famine had largely come to an end other than in a few isolated areas. This was not due to any massive relief effort – it was partly because the potato crop recovered but mainly it was because a huge proportion of the population had by then either died or left.
During the years of the famine, between 1841 and 1851 the Irish population fell from over 8 million to about 6.5 million, and with mass emigration continuing in the subsequent decades it was down to 4.5 million by the turn of the century.
This rapid and dramatic loss of population is still taking its toll right up to the present time and Ireland is certainly the only country in Europe and possibly the only one in the world with a smaller population today than it had in 1840. It set in train a pattern of emigration that persists to this day and is the reason why there are vastly more people of Irish decent living outside Ireland that in it.
Not everyone viewed the loss of so many lives as a calamity, as the preface to the Irish Census of 1851 makes clear:
“…we feel it will be gratifying to your Excellency to find that the population has been diminished in so remarkable a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851, and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country. “
Disaster or advancement, a less populous Ireland was again in a position to feed itself.