The Great Irish Famine

Interior of a small farmer's cottage

The Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1850 evokes in many people a sense of sorrow, anger and of bewilderment. It lives on in the folk memory of the families that remained in Ireland and perhaps even more so in that of the descendants of those whose ancestors fled the famine.The Great Irish Famine was not the first famine in Ireland. Famines had occurred regularly over the previous centuries. The poorer members of the Irish population, largely agricultural labourers family’s, were well used to near starvation conditions while waiting for the potato crop to be harvested, most years. The arrival of the blight on the potato crop of 1845 was different. Firstly it was widespread and secondly it continued to affect the supply of potatoes for several years in a row. It was this factor that made the Great Irish Famine so devastating. During previous famines the crop failures that had occurred lasted for one growing season or at the most two consecutive seasons. While hardship was endured and deaths occurred either form starvation or from diseases, such as cholera or typhus, that followed food production was restored in the following seasons.

OConnellBeggarsThe famine of 1740/1, in Ireland, was severe and, it is argued, almost as devastating in terms of the numbers that died relative to the total population as the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s however it is difficult to locate accurate data on that period.
The potato was the staple diet of the agricultural labourer, the cottier and the small farmer, numbering several million. It provided all the nourishment that a person needed to remain healthy and strong. It was economical in that one acre of potatoes would feed a family of six to eight individuals, and sometimes more, each year. It would grow on poor soil and required very little tending.

riotsThe value of the potato as an all-round source of nourishment was borne out by reports from British Army recruiters who reported that those recruits from Ireland, in the 1830s, were healthier and taller than those from  other parts of the British Isles. Many of those recruits would have been sons of the labouring class, dependent almost entirely on the potato for nourishment. Recent scientific studies support this view.
Once the blight devastated a large proportion of the potato crop of 1845 the the problem of obtaining food was not one of the unavailability of food but one of the lack of resources to buy it. Ireland was, at this time, exporting grain, bacon, beef, butter and other food commodities to foreign markets. However the labourer, cottier and small farmer were mainly subsistence farmers with very little or no savings from year to year to enable them to buy in a year’s supply of food and pay the landlord his rent. Those that had the money during the first year were destitute by the second year of the famine. Taking previous experience into account many felt that this food shortage, like many before, was a temporary one and that normality, bad as it was, would be restored by the next season. This itself contributed to a lack of foresight on the part of those in Ireland and in government. The British Government, under Prime Minister Robert Peel, did purchase a supply of corn to act as a brake on price rises in the grain market.

Relief for Ireland

Relief Ships

The failure of the 1846 potato crop was a severe blow. Meagre resources, of the poorer families, numbering several millions, were exhausted. The workhouse system put in place by the British government, under the supervision of George Nicholls, was never meant to cope with large scale distress but to take the burden of care of the infirm and those who were not able to care for themselves off the shoulders of the poor, in normal times. It was conceived as a very temporary measure for short periods of time for families in distress. It was never meant to support a nation in distress.
The public works system, road building and so forth, was seen in the same light. It presupposed that the labourers would be reasonably healthy. As the Great Irish Famine progressed the numbers seeking work increased, the health and strength of the potential labourers declined through lack of food while wages could not be paid because piece work was not being completed. The price of food increased and the money earned bought less bringing about a vicious circle of declining health, lack of nourishment, lack of funds to purchase nourishment, illness and death.

Interior of a small farmer's cottageIn 1846 Sir John Russell was the new British Prime Minister and he did not see that the purchasing of food to act as a brake on commercial prices was a  concern of the government. In this he was following a long established precedent that government did not interfere in commercial activities. Food supply was seen as a normal commercial activity therefore the government did not interfere. It may appear cruel and heartless but it was the common view of many politicians and businessmen, of the day, as well as that of many of the leading economists. A further problem the government had was that it lacked a professional civil service in Ireland. The police force was able to supply accurate data, when asked, but the work of dealing with the disaster was in the hands of well meaning amateurs in each area. Like all such situations some were excellent, many of good ability and some entirely inadequate.
Both the workhouses and the relief work was payed for by the local taxes. Even when the government extended money for local relief work it was seen as a loan to the local rate (a local tax) payers to be repaid with interest. All of this created an air of confusion and reluctance that contributed to making the great Irish Famine a devastating disaster. Relief was provided by voluntary bodies and large sums of money were collected for famine relief in Ireland around the world. The Quakers were to the forefront in providing soup kitchens that kept many alive in those times of distress. The Quaker soup kitchens became the model on which the government based its response when it finally came to realise that the famine was not going to abate without assistance.   Even when the Russell government did return to the American market to purchase grain they found that the price had risen and that supplies were not plentiful. This occurred because the potato crops in many European countries was also being devastated at this time however their governments were active earlier in purchasing American supplies thus causing the rise in prices and a shortage of supply.

A potato dinner - famine

A potato dinner – famine

Why did the government just not keep the Irish food at home and supply food? Several factors were at play here.
Firstly the concept that a government did not interfere with commercial activities of supply and demand, as mentioned earlier, was a widely held belief amongst politicians and businessmen. Too interfere with this would have been almost inconceivable and politically inadvisable perhaps.
Secondly many of the Irish estates (large properties mainly consisting of several thousand acres of land rented out to farmers) were in serious debt or had large commitments agains their rents. To stop the collection of rents might have caused severe difficulty not only for the lifestyle of many landlords, but equally many banks and lenders might have found themselves in as great a difficulty.
Thirdly without income the local rates might have been unpaid  and what appeared to be a meagre support system might have collapsed.
The government was dependent on the local rate payer to carry out local relief work in the absence of a professional civil service.

Farmer taking potatoes to the market

Farmer taking potatoes to the market

As the Great Irish Famine evolved the different levels of Irish society were affected in differing ways. The landlords, owners of landed estates, found themselves financially damaged by non payment of rents and the demand for rates to pay for relief.
The large farmer had reserves of money and food to withstand the lack of potatoes and could, with careful management, survive. He also had options. He could buy food. He could emigrate with his entire family and set himself up in another country in farming or business. He also had the option of supporting the emigration of some of his family. His choices may have been difficult but he had choices.
The small farmer had fewer options. His reserves of cash would have been low and his choice of emigration had to be made sooner otherwise his options would cease to exist. The agricultural labouring and cottier classes had few if any options. The had very few resources and mostly none that could last more than one season of disaster. It was these classes that bore the serious cost of the famine in terms of death and disease. Those that emigrated, especially those that could reach America, were people of some means and foresight. Though they might not have looked on it as such at the time they could count themselves luckier than many.

Abbeyleix and Laois (Queen’s county) Ireland.

Food supplies under military escort

Food supplies under military escort

Queen’s county (modern day Laois) did suffer a large population drop during the famine years. No definitive research has been done on the nature of this and while many people died in Queen’s county the economic structure of the county before the famine might indicate that many inhabitants in Queen’s county had more options than people living in other areas. Non agricultural employment was available in the county giving labourers a more constant source of income that agriculture did. The average agricultural labourer, in pre famine Ireland, might not be employed for at most six months of the year whereas the industrial employee had better prospects. The more constant the employment the greater the ability of the labourer to acquire a reserve of cash that he could save in local savings banks. This provided him and his family with options in time of famine. While large numbers of small farms did exist there is evidence that commercial agriculture rather than subsistence farming was taking hold in the county. This may have been brought about by a combination of the need for landed estates to have productive tenants who could pay rent on a regular basis, using then modern farming methods and the existence of Loan Fund Societies in the county which provided loans towards the improvement of business and farming. The Queen’s county Societies are notable that none of them failed during the Great Irish Famine.
All of this may have given the inhabitants more options than inhabitants of more western counties and lead to greater emigration.

A farmer family defending their home

A farmer family defending their home

The Abbeyleix area was part of the de Vesci estate, of some 24,000 acres at its greatest extent. The landlord, John the 2nd Viscount de Vesci was a landlord who took a keen interest in the welfare of his tenants and of the area in general. Through astute planning and foresight he had ensured that Abbeyleix was equipped with a Savings bank, a Loan Fund Society, a hospital, a workhouse and the presence of educated men who could organise in a meaningful way. His personal involvement in the promotion of education nationally and locally was impressive. His family’s involvement with the promotion of local business, the provision of good housing and in caring for the less fortunate are also impressive. Before the famine and before the introduction of a Poor-law system to Ireland in 1838 the de Vesci family provided for the poor. In 1835, for instance, the family are recorded as buying clothes for as many as one hundred families on the estate. It may seem incredulous today but nakedness was not unusual in rural Ireland of the time and to possess nothing but rags to wear quite common amongst the poor agricultural labouring classes.

The de Vesci family’s response to the famine was rapid and practical. They reduced the rents of their tenants, ensured the proper administration of the workhouse and are credited with the provision of food to the needy. Life may have been hard as a result of the Great Irish Famine in the Abbeyleix area but due to the outlook of the de Vesci family all that could be done was done.

The Great Irish Famine changed Ireland and its people no matter where they lived. It also asked many questions about what a nation is. Many of these questions have yet to be answered.