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The Forgotten Famine of 1741



Mention famine in Ireland and people immediately think of the 1845-47 famine, in fact there were many periods when the people of Ireland suffered severe famine conditions, some precipitated by natural disasters and other the result of warfare and invasion as in 1318 with the Bruce invasion.

There appears to have been famine conditions occurring spasmodically in the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1718 Bishop William Nicolson upon arriving in Derry wrote he found 'dismal marks of hunger and want' on the faces of the people in his diocese, a few years later one of his horses was killed in an accident, he states 'Some fifty people fell on the carcass, hacking off pieces with choppers and axes to take home for their families' he also wrote 'We seem to be brought to the brink of a famine, God defend us from the pestilence.'

Again in 1726-7 food was in short supply the next year things had not improved, in fact there was a severe famine in 1728-9. In the winter of 1739 nature conspired to exacerbate the situation with a severe frost which lasted for seven weeks. Potatoes in store and in clamps in the fields were destroyed; water-powered corn mills were totally frozen, and cattle died in the fields. The river Foyle was frozen and an ox was roasted on the ice. Seeds for planting were in short supply and further bad weather led to a devastating famine in 1741 which culminated in the loss of, it is estimated some 300,000 lives.

A contemporary writer put it thus 'Want and misery in every face; the rich unable, almost, as they were willing, to relieve the poor; the roads spread with dead and dying bodies; mankind the colour of the docks and nettles which they fed on; two or three, sometimes more, in a car going to the grave for want of bearers to carry them, and many buried only in the fields and ditches where they perished.'

The Irish called this bliadhain an áir, year of the slaughter.