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Events leading up to

The Irish Famine.

1845-48

 

By 1801, the population of Ireland was about 5 million. Forty years later in 1841 the census revealed a population of 8,175,124. (See census page.) As the population grew, farms were subdivided and dwindled in size. Many farming families lived on potatoes and little else. In 1845, blight affected the potato crop in widely separated areas. The following year it appeared throughout the whole country. The potatoes rotted in the ground, throughout the country the air was filled with the stench of the rotting tubers, and many people faced starvation.

Charles Tteveleyan permanent Head of Treasury under Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, introduced relief schemes in the poorest areas to enable people to earn enough money to buy maize that the government imported from the United States. Maize is a grain which needs to be ground exceptionally finely to deliver its nutritional value, the Irish did not have the means to do this, the coarsely ground maize passing through their systems largely undigested. These measures proved to be totally inadequate, and the next government, under Lord John Russell, had to distribute food free of charge. But these relief measures were also inadequate. Hundreds of thousands died, along the roadsides or in their huts, where sometimes entire families lay unburied, their corpses gnawed upon by stray dogs and rats. In a hovel in County Mayo a old woman was found barely alive with parts of the arms and face eaten off by rats, she died shortly after.

During the winter of 1847-8 it is estimated that £17,000,000 worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, poultry and eggs were exported to England, much of this may have been transshipped to England's other overseas colonies. Also no relief from other countries was allowed into Ireland unless it were carried in an English ship, the Nation newspaper dubbed this "British Commercial Christianity" During this period tenants had no means with which to raise their rents which were due twice yearly on 'Gale Day' Many landlords, particularly the absentee ones had their tenants evicted and their houses demolished, leaving them with neither food nor shelter. Josephine Butler an Englishwoman living in Ireland at the time wrote.

"Sick and aged, little children, and woman with child were alike thrust forth into the snows of winter. And to prevent their return their cabins were leveled to the ground. The few remaining tenants were forbidden to receive the outcasts, the majority rendered penniless by the famine, wandering aimlessly about the roads or bogs till they found refuge in the workhouse or grave."

As a result of the Great Famine, the population of the country dropped from 81/4 million to 61/2 million. It is believed that a million people died of hunger and disease. And nearly a million more emigrated, most of them to the United States and Canada. They left Ireland with bitterness in their hearts, believing that Britain was the cause of all their suffering. The poignant drawing on the left depicts a deserted village in the west of Ireland, scenes like this were common in post famine Ireland.

Many books have been written about this period. One particularly well researched and written is 'Paddys Lament' by Thomas Gallagher, published by The Poolbeg Press Ltd. Dublin.The Silent People by Walter Macken is perhaps one of the best. Apparently Tteveleyan, after his retirement wrote his version of the famine.

The famine is remembered in the traditional music of Ireland one particularly poignant tune is Skibbereen a town in County Cork which was particularly hard hit by the famine, click to read the words and hear this haunting melody played on the Irish harp by Rosemary Marr a musician from County Down.

Irish artists have produced many images from the famine period, one particularly beautiful example displayed above is entitled Emigrant Ship in Dublin Bay Sunset, by Edward Hayes, click on the image for a larger view.

See also the famine of 1741 and Life on an Irish Farm) Ireland also suffered famine in 1315-16 partly as a result of the Bruce invasion and a famine which took hold in Europe at the same time.

In 2007 tests crops of potatoes genetically modified to resist blight are to be grown.

Go to History of Ireland home page.

The following figures give a breakdown of the number of citizens of foreign countries who reached America between 1820 - 1890

Germany
4,551,719
Ireland
3,501,683
England
2,460,034
British North American Possessions
1, 029,083
Norway and Sweden
943,330
Austria-Hungary
464,435
Italy
414,513
France
370,162
Russia and Poland
356,353
Scotland
329, 192
China
292,578
Switzerland
174,333
Denmark
146,237
Total emigrants to America 1820-90
15,641,688