The Great Famine
Shelly Couvrette

Lazy Beds, Achill Island, County Mayo
Lazy Beds, Achill Island, County Mayo
Photo by G. Chris Clark

I tend to think of history in terms of specific individuals who experienced specific events. Doing so makes those people and events more immediate; it burns them into the brain. In this case, I've been doing a lot of reading on Irish history, and I can't help but picture my own family within that framework.

It's funny, but in grade school and high school, I don't think we ever studied Ireland. Even in my college art history classes, the closest we got was The Book of Kells and sheela-na-gig figures. That is to say that, while I knew a bit about Irish history, most of it picked up on my own, I didn't know much. I knew even less about the potato famine. I think it was more remote to me, because I knew my relatives didn't come over during the famine. They were much later immigrants. (It's a common misconception, by the way, that Irish Americans assume their ancestors came over during the famine. The famine years were actually a very narrow period of time--about 1845-1850.)

The thing is--and this ought to have been obvious, but for some reason, it never occurred to me--my ancestors didn't come over during the famine, they lived through it. As I learned more about my ancestors, and as I began to put the names and dates into a historical context, I realized that my great-great-great grandfather was born during the height of the famine, in the worst hit county in Ireland, in the worst hit area of the county.

So the story goes...

Once upon a time, the English came to Ireland. They took away the land, giving it to English or Anglo-Irish nobles. Most of these landlords were absentee, and employed middlemen to manage their estates and collect rents from their Irish tenants, who lived on and farmed the less desirable tracts. For the tenants working the land, life leases were rare. They could be evicted for failure to pay their rents, or at the whim of their landlords. Very feudal, and we all know how well that works on a good day.

The choice parcels of land were kept by the landowners. Some were planted with wheat, oats, and barley, while others were kept for raising pigs and grazing cattle and sheep. During the famine years, instead of being used to feed the starving, the produce of those lands was shipped to England. Nor was the unused tillable land freed up for planting by the Irish. The landowners were afraid that if the Irish were allowed work the unused land, the additional harvests would bring down the prices of their own crops.

Seizing Potato Crop of an Evicted Tenant
Seizing Potato Crop of an Evicted Tenant
Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper
4 December 1886, page 244
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Compounding the problem was that Irish families traditionally divided and subdivided their land among their children. The result was that large, extended families were forced to scratch a living from a very small porportion of land. There, they might grow a few turnips, but the bulk of the arable land was planted in potatoes. With the subdivision of land and the shrinking ratio of land to population, farmers switched from growing hardier, vitamin rich potatoes to growing "lumper" potatoes, which were larger, but were less nutrient dense and not resistant to disease. When potato blight reached Ireland in the summer of 1845, it wiped out 2/3 of the potato crop. The potatoes rotted in the field, and the Irish had nothing to fall back on. The effect was devastating.

Even so, the famine wasn't a famine so much as theft. The English took away the land from its rightful owners, and then they took the food from the people who really needed it. Though there was a blight on the potato crops in Ireland (and across Europe, though not with such disastrous results), there was actually plenty of other food being produced there. Crops like wheat, barley, and oats were successfully grown by the English landlords, but they were shipped to England. Likewise, beef, lamb, and pork, as well as butter, eggs, and poultry. It was all out of reach for the Irish.

For those who had money--and few Irish did--they could purchase food in the shops. It was there, but most people hadn't a prayer of being able to afford it. For the majority of Irish--six out of eight million who subsisted on potato farming--there was precious little food. Anything a farmer did manage to harvest was claimed by the landlords or the Anglican church and shipped to England. And woe be to the farmer who tried to keep a little for himself and his family, because many of the landowners employed armed thugs to enforce the rent.

Not all landlords treated the Irish badly. Resident landlords tended to treat their tenants more humanely than their absentee counterparts, perhaps because it was harder for them to ignore suffering on their doorsteps. During the famine years, landlords purchased grain--usually "Indian meal"--out of their own pockets, to feed their tenants. Some landlords also reduced or covered entirely their tenants' rents, allowing them to stay on the land and keep what they harvested to feed their families. One even gave his tenants a gift of cash to aid them.

I never heard of a single tenant being evicted, either by himself or his agent; he sent over from London at an early stage of the famine, a sum of £1,000 for the poor on his estates, as a free gift, besides orders to his steward to give a milch cow to every widow on his property. (Fr. James Browne, about landlord and future MP George Henry Moore)

The Eviction
The Eviction
Publisher: J.T. Foley, New York, c1871
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

But those were the exceptions to the rule.

In 1847 Gregory's Clause was passed, mandating that only those with a quarter acre or less of land would be eligible for public assistance. In order to obtain relief, tenants were required to surrender their land, leaving them homeless and entirely dependent on the workhouses or the goodwill of strangers.

Some tenants implored their landlords to take back their leases while allowing them to remain on the land. A few landlords were agreeable to this plan--the land was not productive, so what was the point of evicting the farmers?--but most were not.

Ned Burke, a widow's son (nine in family). The deceased applied to the relieving officer for relief: offered to give up his house and land. The middleman refused the possession. The unfortunate man then went to the agent of the head landlord (Lord Erne): the agent refused to interfere. The man's sufferings at last terminated after lingering on for a whole week nearly without a morsel of food.

Michael Conor, in the same village died from starvation. The deceased also offered his house and land to the landlord, but would get no relief without throwing down his house. After having made several efforts, in vain, between the middleman and the relieving officer, to obtain relief, the unfortunate wretch at last sunk under his sufferings and perished from hunger. (Reports from the parish of Ballintober, County Mayo, The Connaught Ranger 23 February 1848)

Those who refused to give up their homes were ineligible for what relief was available. For those who were eligible for relief, it often came too late.

Peggy Moran, found dead on the 20th by the ditch side. She applied three times for relief. The third time her name was put on; but she was a corpse when the relief was obtained. (Reports from the parish of Ballintober, County Mayo, The Connaught Ranger 23 February 1848)

Emigrants leaving Queenstown for New York
Emigrants leaving Queenstown for New York
Harper's Weekly, 26 September 1874, pages 796-797
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
The absolute worst of the landowners, the Third Earl of Lucan, had lands near Castlebar and Ballinrobe.

Lucan--like many landlords--felt that the only thing wrong with Ireland was the Irish, and that the Irish had to go, by fever ship or coffin, it made no difference to him. With the Irish tenants out of the way, Lucan would be able to repurpose the land--land that his tenants had lived on for generations and that rightfully belonged to them--and make it more profitable. Any tenants on his lands who couldn't pay their rents were forcibly evicted by crowbar brigades. Their homes were pulled down and burned, while the family stood and watched. Though other tenants were quick to share what they could with those in need, it was discouraged, and they were routinely forbidden from giving shelter to the evictees.

These newly homeless had nowhere to go, little to wear, and less to eat. They sometimes wandered the roads and fields, dropping dead where they stood of starvation and exposure, or they died, naked and huddled under rotting blankets. Some tried to erect makeshift shelters from materials scavenged from their burned and ruined homes, while others dug crude holes in the sides of ditches or bogs. The famine winters were some of the worst the country had seen, so anything to get out of the weather was an improvement.

What has the landlord-made law done? It has covered the face of this fine and fertile country with the levelled roofs and blackened walls of thousands and the tens of thousands of the cabins and cottages and farm houses on which the infamous Crowbar Brigade has executed its merciless commands. Where are they now? It has hunted neighbours, relatives, brethren, sisters, beloved children away from the land, of their birth and of their affections. (George Henry Moore, MP for County Mayo 1847-1857)

Often the homeless made their way to neighboring towns, in search of food and shelter. Townsfolk tried to help, but they couldn't shoulder the burden alone. They also feared the famine-fever that came with the refugees.

These poor creatures, the country poor, are now homeless and without lodgings; no one will take them in; they sleep out at night. The citizens are determined to get rid of them. They take up stray beggars and vagrants and confine them at night in the market place, and the next morning send them out in a cart five miles from the town and there they are left and a great part of them perish for they have no home to go to. (Father Matthew, St. Vincent de Paul)

After an eviction: a scene in Mayo
Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper
8 May 1886, page 180
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
At Faheens, inspectors from England described conditions as "extremely wretched." People--skeletons, more accurately--were living in swine huts with cattle and pigs, with open sewage covering the floor. They were subsisting solely on maize meal, and very little of that. The ones who hadn't yet died of starvation were dying of cholera or swine fever. Elsewhere, inspectors commented that they would frequently see 5-7 people--dead and alive--huddled together under one ragged, holey horse blanket. The living either didn't have the energy to roll out the corpses of those who had died in the night, or they were so far gone themselves that they were unaware that their blanket mates had died.

We first proceeded to Bridgetown, a portion of which is shown in the right hand distance of the sketch; and there I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them. To point to any particular house as a proof of this would be a waste of time, as all were in the same state; and, not a single house out of 500 could boast of being free from death and fever, though several could be pointed out with the dead lying close to the living for the space of three or four, even six days, without any effort being made to remove the bodies to a last resting place. (The Illustrated London News, 13 February 1847)

Waves of starving Irish sought refuge in the Union workhouses, but only after they'd given up their land. There, they could receive a small amount of food, and if they were lucky, a bed. The workhouses were not designed to handle the record numbers of inmates now seeking shelter there, and with the famine, entire families found themselves homeless. Beds filled up quickly, and inmates were forced to sleep crammed together on filthy, straw-strewn floors.

The workhouses were also raging with fever and disease, and for thousands of Irish, the workhouses were where they died. Blankets were scarce, and was clothing even scarcer. The living took dirty linens from those who had died of disease. That, and the cramped, dirty accommodations allowed diseases like cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery to spread unchecked.

A quarter of the deaths during the famine years occurred within the workhouse walls.

As bad as conditions were for those in the workhouses, it was worse for those who were unable to find a place. At the height of the famine, three million homeless were fed by soup kitchens each day. The soup usually consisted of a thin maize meal gruel, which helped to keep people alive, but did not save them from malnutrition. In some cases, doctors advised people not to eat the soup, because it was so thin and lacking in nutrition that it would do more harm than good. Even with the daily ration of soup, the homeless had no shelter from the elements. The famine winters were harsh, and large numbers of Irish died of exposure.

The workhouses were supported by local rates, and because such a large percentage of the population was destitute, many were unable to collect the rates necessary to operate. They either closed or were kept open by funneling funds from less poor districts.

From this correspondent we learn that, in addition to the other calamities, the unions have been visited by the cholera, and that no preparation whatever had been made to arrest the progress of so awful a scourge. Many weeks since, the writer informs us, the Central Board of Health had been applied to adopt some measures for meeting the justly apprehended contingency; but though hopes were held out to the inhabitants that the precautionary steps would be taken under the direction of the central authorities, nothing has yet been done, and the poor people are left to take care of themselves, as best they may, in a crowded and filthy town. (Ballina Chronicle Wednesday, 2 May 1849)

Abandoned Cottage, Annaghmore, County Armagh
Abandoned Cottage, Annaghmore, County Armagh
Photo by SiD
One of those who was responsible for the closing of the Castlebar workhouse was Lord Lucan. He was as concerned about the public assistance given to his former tenants as he was about evicting them from their land. Because of the massive numbers of people evicted from his lands, the Castlebar workhouse was overwhelmed and underfunded. It was Lucan's duty, as a landowner, to pay rates for the operation of the local workhouse. Because the rates in Castlebar were so high, Lucan had his estates transferred to another district, where there were fewer workhouse inmates, so that his rates would be lowered. In 1847 he closed the Castlebar workhouse completely, and left owing arrears in rates.

Some private groups, many religious, were active in providing aid in Ireland. An estimated £2 million was raised internationally for the Irish, with a small amount going to the Scottish Highlands, where the blight had also struck.

The Society of Friends played a vital roll in providing aid to the Irish. Their soup kitchens saved thousands from starvation. The Quakers were also instrumental in raising awareness of conditions in Ireland. They were masterful agents of PR. They were also good at raising money both within Ireland and without. When funds dried up as the famine dragged on, the Quakers continued to do what they could to aid the Irish, in the form of providing seed and tools for farming and fishing, as well as instruction in how to use them. Even after the famine, Quakers continued their aid efforts, building a model farm and teaching the Irish how to grow more diversified crops. With less reliance on the potato, it was hoped that even if the blight returned, its impact would be mitigated.

Those Quakers directly involved in relief work were not unscathed by the effects of the famine. Some died as the direct result of disease, while others suffered premature deaths from exhaustion and overwork.

The aid provided by the Society of Friends was unique both for its quantity and for the fact that it was given freely, with no strings attached. Unlike the Quakers, Protestant missionary groups active in Ireland during this time used the famine as a means to further their agendas. Some confined their proselytizing to bible readings, while others required that the Irish renounce their Catholic faith. Missionaries preached that the Irish brought the blight, the famine, and the famine fever, on themselves, as God's punishment for being Catholic.

It cannot be wondered if a starving people would be perverted in shoals, especially as they [the missionaries] go from cabin to cabin, and when they find the inmates naked and starved to death, they proffer food, money and raiment, on the express condition of becoming members of their conventicles. (Father William Flannelly of Ballinakill, County Galway, to Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, 6 April 1849)

Famine Cottage, County Galway
Famine Cottage, County Galway
Photo by Bhalash
It is estimated that in 1847, 100% of the population of County Mayo was receiving assistance. Ironically, that fall's harvest was good, but most folks had been forced off their land, or were too sick and exhausted to plant. There weren't enough potatoes planted, so the famine continued, and further assistance was required. It took another two years for the blight to lift entirely from Ireland, but in that time, people continued to die, sickened and weakened by years of hunger and malnutrition.

The famine years were bad. But it's impossible to know just how bad, in terms of deaths, because not all the deaths were counted. Too often, people dropped dead in fields or ditches, and their bodies were left to decompose, or be eaten by rats or dogs, or they were in shallow graves by a friend or neighbor. Those deaths will forever be unrecorded.

As people wandered in search of food and shelter, they often died far from home and those who knew them. Inevitably, some of those bodies were impossible to identify.

DEATH FROM STARVATION- The body of a man whose name is unknown, was found on the road side at Renesberack, on Thursday last, and was supposed to have been murdered; but upon investigation at the inquest, held the following day by Charles Atkinson, Esq., at Glencastle, it was found that the unfortunate man died from starvation. A verdict was returned accordingly. (Ballina Chronicle Wednesday, 23 May 1849)

Sometimes, those officials in charge of reporting deaths were afflicted with the very diseases they were charged with monitoring.

From several districts of Ireland, where the late epidemic committed fearful ravages, no reports have been received. In many cases we regret to say that this has been caused by the lamentable mortality amongst our professional brethren. (The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science).

Church Ruins, Aughamore, County Mayo
Church Ruins, Aughamore, County Mayo
Photo by ladyb
And then there were those officials who were motivated to misrepresent the numbers of deaths. In some of the workhouses, deaths from diseases, like cholera, were drastically under reported, lest the full extent of the horror become known.

We have said that the Rev. Mr. Anderson's statement has been fully confirmed by the letter subsequently received from the scene of suffering. Indeed it is more than confirmed, for whereas the number of starvation deaths mentioned by the Rector amounts only to eighty-seven for the week, it is set down by the second witness of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SEVEN! But the discrepancy can be easily accounted for without in the slightest degree impeaching the veracity of either party. The fact is that in order to screen the Commissioners, and keep the public in the dark as to the real extent of the mortality, many of the workhouse officers through the South and West make it common practice to falsify the returns.

Another trick was to bury multiple bodies in one coffin, counting them as a single death. This allowed officials to return lower death numbers.

By a letter received from a highly respectable and trustworthy gentleman in Ballinrobe, we learn that affairs in that locality are wearing a frightful aspect. He says that if some prompt measures are not adopted, starvation, coupled with cholera, will cut off seven-eighths of the people. "It is not an unusual thing," observes our correspondent, "for three human beings to be huddled into one coffin together, and thrown into a hole, not more than three feet deep." He describes the town, and indeed, the neighbourhood altogether, as being in a most filthy state, heaps of loathsome stuff are to be seen in all directions. (Ballina Chronicle Wednesday, 16 May 1849)

Coffins were expensive, and there was little money for such luxuries. In some areas, priests were forced to bury the dead in nothing but a simple cloth or the clothes on their backs.

The effects of the famine were felt even after the last of the blight had disappeared. The Irish were sick in body and spirit, malnourished and demoralized by years of privation. Many had no possessions and no homes to return to, so they lingered in the workhouses. The west coast had suffered the worst from the famine, and so it was one of the last areas to recover.

Women carrying peat, Dooagh, Achill Island Native woman of Keel At the spinning wheel, Achill Island

Left: Women carrying peat, Dooagh, Achill Island
Center: Native woman of Keel, a struggling villge of Achill Island, West coast of Ireland
Right: At the spinning wheel, Achill Island
Copyright by William H. Rau, 1903
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Great Famine is sometimes called The Irish Holocaust, and I don't think that's incorrect. The English succeeded in getting rid of the Irish, though for the landowners, the famine ultimately brought their downfall. In the west, the population dropped by 20-30%, partly to death and partly to emigration. Estimates are that during the famine years, a million died--an eighth of the population--while another 1.5 million emigrated overseas. Most of the emigrants sailed to the US on the infamous coffin ships. Many fled to England, where conditions for the Irish were not much better. And while people soon stopped dying from the effects of disease and malnutrition, they continued to emigrate in droves. The total tally of famine-related emigrations is around 3 million. In the end, half the population of Ireland had either died or fled. Half. The enormity of the numbers is mind boggling.

The effects of the famine continued long after the end of the potato blight. Even 150 years later, the economic depression had not lifted entirely. During that time people continued to emigrate to Australia, Canada, and the US. In County Mayo, the downward population trend held steady well into the 1990s, with 28% fewer people living there in 1991 than in 1841. That trend is only now beginning to reverse.

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