In today’s modern world, 70 million people claim Irish ancestry. In Canada alone, over 4.5 million claim to be of Irish descent. These are astounding figures when compared to the Ireland’s current population of approximately 6 million. Given that the Great Famine plays a central role in the story of many family’s who emigrated from Ireland, we wanted to explore this important chapter in Irish history and of our shared family history. Over the coming months, before our own journey to Ireland, we will exploring Ireland’s Great Famine and the resulting mass emigration to the New World.
This is the first of our Great Famine series, we hope these articles will provide a better understanding of the lives of your ancestors and will inform your future heritage travel in Ireland.
Ireland’s Great Famine
Ireland’s Great Famine was a dark chapter in Ireland’s history. Between 1845 and 1852 starvation and disease stalked the land causing untold suffering and death. The Famine was triggered by successive failures of the potato crop caused by a fungal disease known as the potato blight. Though the blight impacted potato harvests throughout Europe, Ireland was particularly vulnerable due to its heavy reliance on the crop. While over a million people died, an estimated 1.5 million people fled, choosing the perils of emigration over the bleak uncertainties of their homeland.
Nineteenth century Ireland was an impoverished country. Since the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, Ireland had been the object of conquering forces from England bent on colonisation and subjugation. The next 600 years brought a series of bloody conflicts in which Ireland’s lands were repeatedly confiscated and redistributed. For England’s ruling class, Ireland was seen as a source of revenue and little regard was given to the Irish peasant. With the 1801 Act of Union, Ireland formally joined the United Kingdom; political control was transferred to Westminster and Ireland’s Parliament was dissolved. Although the Union was expected to improve Ireland’s economic situation and raise it out of abject poverty, it only served to further bring Ireland under England’s authority.
In the nineteenth century, the majority of Ireland’s population lived hand-to-mouth. Commenting on the destitution of his country of birth, the Duke of Wellington once exclaimed: “There never was… a country in which poverty exists to the extent it exists in Ireland.” Though Ireland boasted a handful of industries such as weaving, linen manufacturing and fishing, the country had never been fully industrialized. Its agricultural economy was predominantly represented by small-hold and tenant farmers, who typically sold their grain for revenue and relied on the potato for subsistence.
The potato came to Europe from the New World and though the exact date of its appearance in Ireland is unknown, its introduction occurred in the late 16th or early 17th centuries. Far less labour intensive than grains, the potato soon became a staple of the Irish diet. Needing nothing more than a spade to turn the soil, a peasant farmer could feed a family of six on a single acre of land.
In the decades between 1779 and 1841, Ireland’s population rose by a staggering 172%; one of the factors behind the increase was the reliance on the potato. In 1841, the population surpassed 8,000,000, making Ireland one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. When the blight appeared in Ireland, one third of the population was dependent on the potato and the outcome was disastrous.
The potato blight, officially known as Phytophthora Infestan, infects both the foliage (turning it black) and the tuber (causing it to rot). In 1842, an outbreak of blight was first recorded along the Atlantic Coast of North America. Discovered on the Isle of Wight in 1845, it appeared in Ireland shortly afterwards, destroying one third of Ireland’s potato crop. With the ability to reproduce at lightning speed, the blight turned healthy crops black overnight.
Without the potato crop, food had to be bought at the expense of paying the rent, resulting in thousands of evictions by unscrupulous landlords. Evictions often produced tragic scenes in which families were forcefully expelled from their cottages, and made to watch while their home was demolished to prevent their return. With neighbours forbidden to offer shelter, the dispossessed were forced to take to the roads, finding refuge in ditches or “scalps” (burrows dug into the earth covered with sticks and turf).
“A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we’ll stand, And arraign ye as our murderers, the spoilers of our land.”
Jane ‘Speranza’ Wilde, The Famine Year, 1847
In 1846, as people looked to the next harvest for relief, the blight returned causing more widespread devastation. Desperate for food, people sold their possessions, their blankets, and the clothing off their backs; they scavenged the countryside eating nettles, grass, leaves and even tree bark. The displaced flocked to towns and cities for aid, sleeping in ditches and doorways. Cork alone, had 5,000 beggars and one priest reported that they died at a rate of 100 a week. Workhouses, always reviled for their inhumane conditions, were completely overwhelmed. Men committed crimes seeking a jailhouse meal or transportation out of Ireland. Even children desired transportation; one boy told the court that if he had chains on his legs, at least he would be fed.
The government responded with a number of inadequate public work schemes. However, designed to help without encouraging dependency, they did little to ease the crisis. In 1847, make-work schemes were replaced with the establishment of soup kitchens that were inundated with crowds and could not keep up with the demand.
As the Famine continued, the weak and malnourished were afflicted by a number of diseases such as dysentery, measles, consumption and scurvy. It was the Famine Fever, however, that was the greatest killer. Identified today as two separate diseases (Typhus and Relapsing Fever), fever spread rapidly amidst the overcrowded conditions caused by the displaced masses. Hospitals were overrun; the ailing lay unattended in the street and entire families died in their beds. The dead were hastily buried in mass graves often without religious rites or the presence of family or friends.
1847 (infamously known as Black ’47), was considered to be the worst year of the famine. Fleeing the ravages of the previous years, the destitute had little choice but to emigrate. In that year alone, a quarter of a million people sailed to North America. For the Irish, with their deep connection to their homeland, emigration was seen as a desperate last resort, yet, an estimated 2.5 million people left between 1845-1855.
Sadly, for those who fled, salvation was not assured. Thousands died at sea, succumbing to disease and the deprivations of the ships that conveyed them. Countless more died within days of making landfall, languishing in the quarantine stations of the New World and never fulfilling their dreams of a better life.
The next article in this series will examine the perilous journey to the New World will be published the week of Nov. 20th.
Strokestown Park is a unique visitor attraction in Strokestown. Co Roscommon in the West of Ireland comprised of several attractions, including the Irish National Famine Museum. The Museum is designed to commemorate the history of the Irish Famine, while aligning it to contemporary famine in todays’ modern world.
Visit Strokestown Park year round, however opening times vary with the season.
Directions: Strokestown is 144km (90 miles) from Dublin, 23 km (14 miles) from Longford on the N5. Strokestown is on Bus Éireann Route 22 service between Dublin and Ballina.
For more information, please visit: www.strokestownpark.ie
An authentic reproduction of a 1840’s Emigrant Vessel, the Dunbrody Visitor Centre also houses world-class themed exhibits, and the Irish America Hall of Fame. The Dunbrody is an essential stop on any tour of Ireland.
Visit: The Dunbrody Famine Ship year round, 7 days a week from 9am to 6pm.
Directions: The Dunbrody Famine Ship is moored at the quayside in the town of New Ross, in County Wexford. It is located approximately 2.5 hours from Dublin via the M9.
For more information, please visit: https://www.dunbrody.com