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Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Irish Famine 1845 - 1850

To continue the Irish theme from last week's post on Irish genealogy, I thought that this week I'd write about the Irish Famine. I have a particular interest in this because my own Irish family came from Skibbereen in West Cork, one of the worst affected areas. I've visited the family History centre there and seen the exhibition on the famine, which is an incredibly moving experience, and I have visited the Abbeystrowry graveyard where there are 9,000 people buried in the famine grave pits. I was also lucky enough to be able to find the house on Bridge Street where my great grandfather was a shoemaker, he was born in 1844, the year before the famine started in 1845.

The Famine started in September 1845 when blight was first noted in Wexford and Waterford. By November half the potato crop was ruined. The British Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel, immediately recognizing that the circumstances in Ireland meant that this crop failure could cause famine, ordered corn and meal to be sent from the United States and a Relief Commission set up. Food aid had to be bought at market prices, a requirement which meant that the aid itself was less than fully effective since many poor Irish had no money at all and employment on Relief Works was not always immediately available.

The first deaths from hunger took place in the spring of 1846. The new Whig administration under Lord Russell, influenced by their laissez-faire belief that the market would provide the food needed, then halted government food and relief works leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food. Grain continued to be exported from the country. Private initiatives such as The Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) attempted to fill the gap caused by the end of government relief and eventually the government reinstated the relief works, although bureaucracy made food supplies slow to be released. Grain continued to be exported from the country. The blight almost totally destroyed the 1846 crop and the Famine worsened considerably. By December a third of a million destitute people were employed in public works such as road making.

1847's exceptionally hard winter made conditions even worse. A typhus epidemic killed tens of thousands, including wealthier people as the towns were now also affected. 1847's harvest was largely unaffected by blight but too few potatoes had been planted so the Famine continued unabated. The Soup Kitchens Act provided financial assistance to local authorities to help them feed Famine victims but this Act was withdrawn in September and relief was made the responsibility of local Poor Unions and of charitable organizations. This put impossible loads on local Poor Unions, particularly in the rural west and south. Emigration reached new heights and the infamous coffin-ships crossed the Atlantic in large numbers carrying people fleeing from the famine.

The blight returned in 1848 and outbreaks of cholera were reported. Evictions became common and Famine victims on outdoor relief peaked in July at almost 840,000 people. A doomed uprising against the government was led by William Smith O'Brien. The potato crop failed again in 1849 and famine was accompanied by cholera outbreaks.

In 1850 the potato crop was okay and the Famine mostly ended. By 1851 Census figures showed that the population of Ireland had fallen to 6,575,000 - a drop of 1,600,000 in ten years. The famine left in its wake perhaps up to a million dead and another million emigrated. The famine caused a sense of lasting bitterness by the Irish towards the British government, whom many blamed — then and now — for the starvation of so many people. The fall-out of the famine continued for decades afterwards and Ireland's population still has not recovered to pre-famine levels.