The Story of the Great Famine by Pat Liddy
Ireland is probably the only country in the world with less population today than it had 175 years ago. In 1845, thanks to advances in medical science, the population had risen to around 8.5 million on the whole island. Then in the late 1840s, the disastrous Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, struck down the more vulnerable, deprived sectors of Irish society and within a few years resulted in well over a million deaths followed by vast numbers leaving mostly rural Ireland for the distant shores of America, Canada, South America and Australia – around 40 million Americans today claim Irish descent. Many more left for England, the county then seen as the oppressors of the emigrants’ native country.
The numbers on the island of Ireland sunk to about four million by the 1950s. Since then, thanks to net immigration and a higher than European-average birthrate, the population is now close to 7 million and still rising. However, if we compare ourselves to England we still have a lot of ground to make up! In 1845 the population of our neighbour was about 16 million (double Ireland’s) but is now around 56 million (8 times that of Ireland!). So what then was this awful famine that had such a profound and devastating effect on our demographics?
Following its eventual conquest of the whole of Ireland, a process which began in the late 12th century, England dispossessed the majority of the native Irish from their own landholdings. By the 18th century the Irish peasantry, especially in the west and south of the country, were reduced to the status of impoverished tenant farmers, wandering craftsmen or unemployed beggars. Large families, whose able-bodied male members worked as little better than slaves on the vast estates of the rich gentry, lived in atrocious conditions in mud cabins or tiny thatched cottages on the periphery of the great properties. They were given a tiny acreage to grow what crops might sustain them and the staple food of choice was the potato. Originally imported from Peru in the 16th century the potato is one of the richest sources of vitamins, fibre, minerals and carbohydrates. But this very dependency on mostly a single crop was what led to the downfall of this very fragile society.
In 1845, a plant disease called potato blight spread from South America and then North America and across the Atlantic to Europe. It spread rapidly destroying both leaves and the edible tubers of the growing and stored potatoes and wiped out people’s main sustenance within weeks. To make matters worse the blight reappeared with ferocious intensity over the next six years. People died in their hundreds of thousands from hunger and resultant illnesses such as typhus and cholera. All this happened when there was ample food in the county such as meat and cereals but unless you had the money to buy the alternative sources of nourishment you literally starved! It took several years for the authorities and the various charities to come to grips with the situation. In the meantime, many of the poor tenant farmers and their stricken families were evicted from their hovels to often die on the side of the road or to be forcibly sent to the notorious Poor Houses which were virtual death sentences for the inmates anyway.
The only alternative was to emigrate and the floodgates opened to the Americas and further afield. The money for their fares came from relatives already living abroad or people clubbing together to provide enough cash for the young generation to find new lives. Indeed, landlords cynically paid the fares to get rid of unwanted peasants when new laws made the former responsible for their tenants. Often the ships carrying these unfortunates to North America were grossly overcrowded thus causing many deaths on the voyages. These ships quickly became known as ‘coffin ships’.
You can visit three places in Dublin, all close to each other, which will bring home the horror of the Famine and then the resilience and unquenchable spirit of the Irish who made good of their initial misfortunes in their new and not always welcoming lands. The first is the impressive but gruesome Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay just before the Sean O’Casey Bridge (pictured above). There is an explanatory plaque nearby. Then visit the replica famine ship, the Jeannie Johnston, and take a tour on board to see what it might have been like to travel for at least six weeks under sail across a seemingly unending ocean with your life hanging on a thread. On its 14 voyages to the New World not one soul was ever lost, an exceptional record – www.jeaniejohnston.ie. Finally, cross the road to EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in the wonderful CHQ building, an outstanding example of 1820s warehouse architecture. This is a fantastic, interactive exhibition displaying the desperate times of famine and how the Irish, against all the odds, have since made such outstanding contributions to society, arts, politics, science, business and sport all over the world (www.epicchq.com).