The Great Famine

The Great Famine began this month, 171 years ago.


The blight that destroyed nearly half of the potato crop was first reported in Ireland in September 1845. Blight had previously spread to other countries (USA in 1843-1844 and Canada in 1844). It is thought that the blight was brought to Europe on trade ships and spread first to England and then into Ireland.

After the first crop failure, the prime minister Sir Robert Peel, predicting a disater for the Irish people, sought to repeal the Corn Laws. The laws were made to protect local English farmers’ livelihoods by banning the import of cheaper food stuffs. However, the English government not appreciating the crisis facing the Irish refused to repeal the law. Finally in 1846, Peel was sucessful, though to his cost as he lost the next election.

Peel also set up a Relief Commission where people were paid to work, building public works, but the pay was very low and food prices were still high. Some Irish had to pawn basics essentials like clothes to pay for food.

By 1846 there was a new English government that felt the situation in Ireland could be resolved through employment, so they reduced the sale of cheaper foods. Unfortunately people were too weakened by hunger to work and what little wages they did earn were rarely paid on time. The first deaths from starvation were reported in 1846.

By 1847 the famine was at its height. People were not only starving but diseases such as typhus had spread throughout the country. People were desperate and mass emigration ensued. An estimated 3 million people a day were being fed at soup kitchens but they were closed by the government in the Autumn of 1847, when it was expected that the next potato crop would be a success. Anyone requiring help was sent to the workhouse from then on.

This year also brought an act of great compassion from an unlikely source. The Ottoman (Turkish) Sultan Khaleefah Abdul-Majid I, donated £1,000 to help the Irish people. The story goes that he had originally wanted to send £10,000 but this was discouraged as Queen Victoria had only sent £2,000 and to send more would be a great embarrassment to her. The Sultan agreed but arranged for ships to bring food to Ireland secretly. It was reported that in May 1847, three Turkish ships laden with wheat and Indian corn, sailed up the river Boyne and docked at Drogheda port.

Even though the 1847 harvest was sucessful the effects of the famine lingered for years. The winter of 1848-9 was particularly harsh and was combined with an outbreak of Cholera. The disease was rampant in towns especially in Drogheda, the second largest port for emigrants to leaves from.

The famine lasted from 1845-1850. It is estimated that 1 million people died, many more emigrated. According to the 1841 census the population was over 8 million but by 1851 it was reduced to 6.5 million.

(Pic: Skibbereen by James Mahony, 1847)


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