Between 1845 and 1850, more than a million Irish people starved to death while massive quantities of food were being exported from their country. A half million were evicted from their homes during the potato blight, and a million and a half emigrated to America, Britain and Australia, often on-board rotting, overcrowded “coffin ships”. This is the story of how that immense tragedy came to pass.
The Political and Social Background
The Great Hunger
In the 1690s the Penal Laws, designed to repress the native Irish, were introduced. These laws targeted Irish education, religion, and property rights. They were designed to keep the people poor and powerless. They first ordered that no Catholic could have a gun, pistol, or sword. Over the next 30 years other Penal laws followed: Irish Catholics were forbidden to receive an education, enter a profession, vote, hold public office, practice their religion, attend Catholic worship, engage in trade or commerce, purchase land, lease land, receive a gift of land or inherit land from a Protestant, rent land worth more than thirty shillings a year, own a horse of greater value than five pounds, be the guardian to a child, educate their own children or send a child abroad to receive an education.
Edmund Burke, an Irish-born Protestant who became a British Member of Parliament (MP), described the Penal laws as “well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” The Lord Chancellor stated, “The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.” (See Page 8 for a more extensive list.)
The Act of Union, passed in 1800, abolished the independent Irish Parliament in Dublin, and brought Irish Administration under the direct control of the British Parliament. Only Irish Protestants were allowed to be British MPs. In 1829, after a long turbulent struggle, Irish Catholics achieved emancipation, and won the right to sit in the British Parliament. However, “The bulk of the population lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity.”
Penal Laws of the 17th Century
- The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise of his religion.
- He was forbidden to receive an education.
- He was forbidden to enter a profession.
- He was forbidden to hold public office.
- He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
- He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.
- He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.
- He was forbidden to purchase land.
- He was forbidden to lease land.
- He was forbidden to accept a mortgage on land in security for a loan.
- He was forbidden to vote.
- He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.
- He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.
- He was forbidden to buy land from a Protestant.
- He was forbidden to receive a gift of land from a Protestant.
- He was forbidden to inherit land from a Protestant.
- He was forbidden to inherit anything from a Protestant.
- He was forbidden to rent any land that was worth more than thirty shillings a year.
- He was forbidden to reap from his land any profit exceeding a third of the rent.
- He could not be guardian to a child.
- He could not, when dying, leave his infant children under Catholic guardianship.
- He could not attend Catholic worship.
- He was compelled by law to attend Protestant worship.
- He could not himself educate his child.
- He could not send his child to a Catholic teacher.
- He could not employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child.
- He could not send his child abroad to receive education.
At the top of the social pyramid was the Ascendancy class, the English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and had almost limitless power over their tenants. Some of their estates were huge. The Earl of Lucan, for example, owned over 60,000 acres. Many of these landlords lived in England and were called “absentees”. They used agents called “middlemen” to administer their property, and many of them had no interest in it except to spend the money the rents brought in.
FARMERS AND COTTERS
In Ireland there existed a very unbalanced social structure. Farmers rented the land they worked. Those who could afford to rent large farms would break up some of the land into smaller plots. These were leased to “cotters” or small farmers, under a system called “conacre.” Cotters had no security or tenure and rents were high. Very little cash was used in the economy. The cotter paid his rent by working for his landlord. He could rear a pig to sell for the small amount of cash he might need to buy clothes or other necessary goods.
There was also a large population of agricultural laborers who traveled around looking for work. They were very badly off because not many Irish farmers could afford to hire them. In the early 1800s, over two million people were without regular employment of any kind. Under the Irish Poor Law of 1838, workhouses were built in all parts of the country and financed by local taxpayers.
This unbalanced social system was held together only because the rural peasants had a cheap and plentiful source of food. The potato, introduced to Ireland around 1590, could grow in the poorest conditions, with very little labor. This was important because laborers had to give most of their time to the landlords they worked for, and had very little time for their own crops.
This system began to breakdown with the beginning of the potato crop failure during the 1840s. The actual cause of (potato crop) failure was the potato blight (phytophthora infestans). The spores of this blight were carried by wind, rain and insects and came to Ireland from Britain and the European continent. A fungus affected the potato plants, producing black spots and a white mould on the leaves, soon rotting the potato into a pulp.
By the summer of 1847, over three million people were being fed by government soup kitchens and those organized by Quakers. Due to the death of so many people, mass graves were opened to bury the bodies.
The dominant economic theory and policy in mid-nineteenth century Britain was laissez-faire (meaning: ‘let be’). This policy held that it was not a government’s job to provide aid for its citizens, or to interfere with the free market of goods or trade.
PRIVATE RELIEF EFFORTS
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, first became involved with the Irish Famine in November, 1846, when some Dublin-based members formed a Central Relief Committee. The Quakers donated food (mostly American flour, rice, biscuits, and Indian meal), clothing, and bedding. They set up soup kitchens, purchased seed, and provided funds for local employment.
The British Relief Association was founded in 1847, and raised money in England, America and Australia. They benefited from a “Queen’s Letter” from Victoria appealing for money to relieve the distress in Ireland. The total raised was 171,533 Pounds. A second “Queen’s Letter” in October of 1847, reflected a hardening in British public opinion, as it raised hardly any additional funds. In total, the British Relief Association raised approximately 470,000 Pounds.
Donations for the Great Hunger came from distant and unexpected sources. Calcutta, India; Florence, Italy; Antigua, France, Jamaica, and Barbados. The Choctaw tribe in North America sent $710. Many major cities in America set up Relief Committees for Ireland, and Jewish synagogues in America and Britain contributed generously.
IRISH EXPORTS DURING THE GREAT HUNGER
While the Irish people were dying from starvation in 1845, over 406,488 bushels of corn were exported from Ireland to Britain. During that same year, 257,257 sheep were shipped to Britain as well. In 1846, 480,827 swine and 186,483 oxen were exported to Britain.
Cecil Woodham-Smith, considered the preeminent authority on An Gorta Mór, stated in his book (The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849): that “…no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries (England and Ireland) as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.”
He further stated: “Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a ‘money crop’ and not a ‘food crop’ and could not be interfered with.”
According to John Mitchel (Irish Presbyterian, political activist, solicitor and journalist) stated: “Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people,” yet a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was “sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo.”
One of the most remarkable facts about the Great Hunger period is that there was an average monthly export of food from Ireland worth 100,000 Pound Sterling, making Ireland a net exporter of food.
Dr. Christine Kinealy, from the University of Liverpool and the author of two scholarly texts on the Great Hunger: This Great Calamity and A Death-Dealing Famine, states that almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland: Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport.
During the first nine months of “Black ’47” the export of grain-derived alcohol from Ireland to England included the following: 874,170 gallons of porter; 278,658 gallons of Guinness; and 183,392 gallons of whiskey. The total amount of grain-derived alcohol exported from Ireland in just nine months of Black ’47 was 1,336,220 gallons!
The most shocking export figures of Dr. Kinealy’s research concerns butter. In the first nine months of 1847, 509,013 gallons of Butter were exported from Ireland to Bristol, while 313,668 gallons were shipped to Liverpool. That works out to be 822,681 gallons of butter exported to England from Ireland during nine months of the worst year of “The Great Hunger”.
If the other three months of exports were at all comparable, then we can safely assume that a million gallons of butter left Ireland while 400,000 Irish people starved to death!
Dr. Kinealy’s research proves beyond a reasonable doubt that there was sufficient food in Ireland to prevent mass starvation, and that the food was brought through the worst hunger-stricken areas on its way to England. British regiments guarded the ports and warehouses in Ireland to guarantee absentee landlords and commodity speculators their “free market” profits.
It is equally important to note that when Ireland experienced an earlier famine in 1782-83, ports were closed in order to keep home grown food for domestic consumption. Food prices were immediately reduced within Ireland. The merchants lobbied against such efforts, but their protests were over-ridden. Everyone recognized that the interests of the merchants and the distressed people were irreconcilable. In the Great Hunger, that recognition was disregarded.
During the worst months of the Great Hunger, in the winter of 1846-47, tens of thousands of tenants fell in arrears of rent and were evicted from their homes. A nationwide system of ousting the peasantry began to set in, with absentee landlords, and some resident landlords as well, more determined than ever to rid Ireland of its ‘surplus’ Irish. In 1850, over 104,000 people were evicted.
In 1841 the recorded population of Ireland was 8,175,124. However, it is almost certain that, owing to geographical difficulties and the unwillingness of the people to be registered, the census of 1841 gave a total percentage smaller than the actual population. Officers engaged in relief work put the population as much as 25 per cent higher. By 1851, after the Great Hunger, the population had dropped to 6,552,385. The census commissioners calculated that, at the normal rate of increase, the total population should have been 9,018,799. Thus the loss of at least 2.5 million persons had taken place.
Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British Treasury Secretary in charge, was the civil servant most involved in Irish famine relief. He firmly believed in the economic principles of laissez-faire, or noninterference by the government. Trevelyan opposed expenditure and raising taxes, advocating self-sufficiency. He was convinced of Malthus’ theory that any attempt to raise the standard of living of the poorest section of the population above subsistence level would only result in increased population which would make matters worse.
In October, 1846, Trevelyan wrote that the overpopulation of Ireland “being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.”
Two years later after perhaps a million people had died, he wrote, “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” In 1848 Trevelyan was knighted for his services in Ireland.
THE TIMES OF LONDON
The lead story in the August 30th, 1847 edition of the English newspaper, the Times stated, “In no other country have the people been so liberally and unthriftily helped by the nation they denounced and defied.”
In another edition, The Times of London stated: “They are going. They are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the streets of Manhattan…Law has ridden through, it has been taught with bayonets, and interpreted with ruin. Townships leveled to the ground, straggling columns of exiles, workhouses multiplied, and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant there the institutions of this more civilized land.”
“WHAT WE REALLY WANT”
In 1848 Sir Charles Wood, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote to an Irish landlord: “I am not at all appalled by your tenantry going. That seems to be a necessary part of the process…We must not complain of what we really want to obtain.”
In 1849 Edward Twisleton, the Irish poor Law Commissioner, resigned his post to protest the lack of aid from Britain.
The Earl of Clarendon, acting as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, told British Prime Minister Lord John Russel the same day, that “He (Twisleton) thinks that the destitution here [in Ireland] is so horrible, and the indifference of the House of Commons is so manifest, that he is an unfit agent for a policy that must be one of extermination.”
Initially, the greatest relief to the starving came through the Poor Law (1838), which aimed to provide accommodation for the absolutely destitute in workhouses. There were 130 of them in Ireland in 1845.
However, the conditions for entry were so strict that people would only go to them as a last resort.
- Families were torn apart, as women and men lived in different parts of the workhouse, and children were kept separately from adults.
- Inmates were forbidden to leave, and the food provided consisted of two meals a day, of oatmeal, potatoes and buttermilk.
- There were strict rules against bad language, alcohol, laziness, malingering and disobedience, and meals had to be eaten in silence.
- Able bodied adults had to work at such jobs as knitting (for women) and breaking stones (for men).
- Children were given industrial training of some sort.
Between 1845 and 1855, nearly two million people had emigrated from Ireland to America and Australia, and another 750,000 to Britain. The Poor Law Extension Act, which made landlords responsible for the maintenance of their own poor, induced some to clear their estates by paying for emigration of the poorer tenants. Although some landlords did so out of humanitarian motives, there were undoubtedly benefits to them, especially those who wanted to consolidate their land holdings or change from the cultivation of land to beef and dairy farming.
Emigration soared from 75,000 in 1845 to 250,000 in 1851. Thousands of emigrants died onboard ‘coffin ships’ during the Atlantic crossing. These were little more than rotting hulks. There were 17,465 documented deaths in 1847 alone. Thousands more died at disembarkation centers.
It was reported that many of the surviving emigrants from these ships were ghastly, yellow-looking specters, unshaven and hollow-cheeked. At times, the dead had to be dragged out with boat hooks, since even their own relatives refused to touch them.
CENSUS COMMISSIONERS AFTER THE GREAT HUNGER
After mass starvation, death, eviction, and large scale emigration, the British Census Commissioners proclaimed in 1851 that Ireland benefited from the Famine:
“In conclusion, we feel it will be gratifying to your Excellency to find that although the population has been diminished in so remarkable a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851, and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country.”
An Gorta Mór Through Pictures
British & Anglo American Racism
— Before, During, and After the Great Hunger —
— Before, During, and After the Great Hunger —
Racism is an ancient scourge, and the two groups in conflict need not be of different colors or religions.
When one powerful group begins to see another people as apes, pigs, beasts, or as an inferior race of subhumans, a disaster is in the making. Any study of racist stereotyping should consider what the dominant group stands to gain. Racism usually begins with economics.
Massacres, the slave trade, and the theft of vast tracts of other people’s land, have all been justified by claims of religious, cultural and racial superiority. Such myths often hide the harsh reality of exploitation and colonization.
Anti-Irish prejudice is a very old theme in English culture. The written record begins with Gerald of Wales, whose family was deeply involved in the Norman invasion of Ireland.
In his 12th century History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald wrote contemptuously of the people, portraying them as inferior to the Normans in every respect:
“They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the habits of pastoral living.”
He condemned their customs, dress, and “flowing hair and beards” as examples of their “barbarity”.
He also vilified the religious practices and marriage customs of the people:
“This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. Of all peoples it is the least instructed in the rudiments of the faith. They do not yet pay tithes or first fruits or contract marriages. They do not avoid incest.”
Religion was often used to justify attacks on the Irish. In 1574, a colonial expedition to Ulster led by the Earl of Essex slaughtered the entire population of Rathlin Island, some 600 people. Edward Barkley, a member of the expedition, gave a graphic description of how Essex’s men had driven the Irish from the plains into the woods, where they would freeze or die of hunger at the onset of winter.
He concluded: “How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice to God.”
When the Irish resisted colonization, they were met with total war on soldiers and noncombatants alike. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the military governor and half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, stated:
“I slew all those from time to time that did belong to, feed, accompany or maintain any outlaws or traitors; and after my first summoning of a castle or fort, if they would not presently yield it, I would not take it afterwards of their gift, but won it perforce – how many lives soever it cost; putting man, woman and child to the sword.”
Thomas Churchyard, a pamphleteer who accompanied Gilbert to Munster, justified the killing of non-combatants on the grounds that they provided food for the rebels: “so that killing of them by the sword was the way to kill the men of war by famine.”
In the 1860s, the debate among scientists about the relationship of humans to animals prompted British racists to make frequent comparisons between Irish people, Black people and apes. The Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley wrote to his wife from Ireland in 1860:
“I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country…to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
An Gorta Mór Through Pictures
Mass Eviction During The Great Hunger
Eviction: Group 1
Eviction: Group 2
Eviction: Group 3
Eviction: Group 4
Eviction: Group 5
Eviction: Group 6
Mass Evictions During The Great Hunger
Mass evictions or “clearances” will forever be associated with the Irish Famine.
It has been estimated that, excluding peaceable surrenders, over a quarter of a million people were evicted between 1849 and 1854. The total number of people who had to leave their holdings in the period is likely to be around half a million and 200,000 small holdings were obliterated.
Under a law imposed in 1847, called the “Gregory Clause”, no tenant holding more than a quarter acre of land was eligible for public assistance. To become eligible, the tenant had to surrender his holding to his landlord. Some tenants sent their children to the workhouse as orphans so they could keep their land and still have their children fed.
Other tenants surrendered their land, but tried to remain living in the house; however, landlords would not tolerate it. In many thousands of cases estate-clearing landlords and agents used physical force or heavy-handed pressure to bring about the destruction of cabins which they sought.
Many others who sought entrance to the workhouses were required to return to their homes and uproot or level them. Others had their houses burned while they were away in the workhouse.
When tenants were formally evicted, it was usually the practice of the landlord’s bailiffs – his specially hired ‘crowbar brigade’ – to level or burn the affected dwellings there and then, as soon as the tenants effects had been removed, in the presence of a large party of soldiers or police who were likely to quell any thought of serious resistance.
British Government and Evictions
When there was widespread criticism in the newspaper over the evictions, Lord Broughman made a speech on March 23rd, 1846 in the House of Lords. He said:
“Undoubtedly it is the landlord’s right to do as he pleases, and if he abstained he conferred a favor and was doing an act of kindness. If, on the other hand, he choose to stand on his right, the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they had no power to oppose or resist…property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested in cultivation of the land if it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord’s undoubted and most sacred right to deal with his property as he wished.”
Even when tenants were evicted in the dead of winter and died of exposure, the British Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, “rejected the notion that house-destroying landlords were open to any criminal proceedings on the part of the government.”
British Parliament passed a law reducing the notice given to people before they were evicted to 48 hours. The law also made it a misdemeanor to demolish a dwelling while the tenants were inside. As a grand gesture of goodwill, the law prohibited evictions on Christmas day and Good Friday.
The Irish Poor Law made landlords responsible for relief of the poor on the smallest properties – those valued at 4 Pounds or less. This gave landlords a strong incentive to rid themselves of tenants who were in that category and unable to pay rent. They did this by evicting the tenants or by paying for the tenants to emigrate on the “coffin ships”.
Mortality Rate During The Great Hunger
“The exact number of people who died during the Famine years (1845-51) is not known. In the first year of distress, no one was believed to have died from want; however, by the end of 1846, this had changed dramatically. In April 1847, an editorial in an Irish newspaper asked:
“What has become of all the vast quantity of food which has been thrown into Ireland? Where are the effects which it might have been expected to produce? How are the millions of pounds of money voted and subscribed been used that the march of famine, instead of being saved, has apparently been quickened.”
By this stage, it was obvious that the various relief measures employed since the appearance of the second blight had failed. The most telling manifestation was the great increase in mortality in the winter of 1846-7.
In 1851, the Census Commissioners attempted to produce a table of mortality for each year since 1841, the date of the previous census. Their calculations were based on a combination of deaths recorded in institutions and recollections of individuals (civil registration of deaths was not introduced into Ireland until 1864). The statistics provided were flawed and probably under-estimated the level of mortality, particularly for the earlier years of the Famine: personal recollections are notoriously unreliable and such methods did not take into account whole families who disappeared either as a consequence of emigration or death. In the most distressed areas, therefore, the data is the most incomplete and the information was sometimes based on indirect evidence.
The table shown on the next page, which was compiled by the Census Commissioners, does offer some insights into the fluctuations in mortality in these years. Because the rates of mortality were computed at the county level, with the exception of the larger towns, the disparities within each county cannot be measured and thus it is difficult to identify pockets of particularly severe distress. Local reports and increased numbers of local studies revealed a complex picture of local diversity, exposing pools of distress and excess mortality in parts of the midlands, whereas areas in the west of Ireland were little affected. Furthermore, excess mortality was evident even in some of the wealthiest parts of the country.
Irish Mortality Rate: 1842-1850
The number of deaths during the Famine has variously been calculated as lying between half a million and one and a half million fatalities. The correct number probably lies in between. It is more generally accepted that in the region of one million people died during these years. Excess mortality as a result of the Famine, however, did not end in 1851. In addition to deaths, the Famine also contributed to a decrease in the birthrate, by contributing to a decline in the rate of marriage and in the level of fertility and fecundity. The number of deaths in Ireland in 1847 was double the number in the previous year. This increase in mortality affected all parts of Ireland. The high rates of mortality were not prolonged and some areas in Ulster and the east coast showed signs of recovery in 1848, which was maintained despite the reappearance of blight in the same year. By this time, the local economies were recovering from tile temporary industrial dislocation apparent in 1847. In parts of the west, however, mortality remained high and reached a second peak in 1849, a cholera epidemic providing the final, fatal blow to an already vulnerable people.
Mortality was particularly severe in the first three months of 1847, peaking in March and then starting a slow decline after April. This peak coincided with public works being used as the main vehicle for relief and is a clear testament to the failure of this system. The continuing high mortality of April and May 1847 coincides with the period during which public works were being wound down, even though their replacement was not always available. After May, the level of mortality began to decrease significantly, although it remained higher than its pre-Famine levels. This reduction is generally associated with the opening of soup kitchens in the summer of 1847 and the relatively generous provision of relief.
The impact of mortality was most severe among the lowest economic and social groups within Ireland-those who, lacking their own capital resources, depended on external assistance for relief. The most vulnerable individuals within this group were children under five, old people and pregnant and lactating women. Overall, however, women tended to he more resilient than men to the effects of the Famine.
The Effects of The Great Hunger
In the four provinces of Ireland the smallest loss of population was in Leinster at 15.5 %, then Ulster at 16 %, Connaught at 28.6 % (the greatest loss), and Munster at 23.5 %. In some respect, death and clearance improved the Irish landscape; between 1841 and 1851, nearly 360,000 mud huts disappeared, the greatest decrease occurring in Ulster. Small holdings under five acres were nearly halved, and holdings over fifteen acres doubled.
Between 1848 and 1864, thirteen million pounds was sent home by emigrants in America to bring relatives out. Since no adequate measures of reconstruction were undertaken following the Great Hunger, a steady drain of the best and most enterprising minds left Ireland, to enrich other countries.
The famine left hatred behind. Between Ireland and England the memory of what was done and endured has lain like a sword. Other famines followed, as other famines had gone before, but it is the terrible years of the Great Hunger which are remembered, and only just beginning to be forgiven.
Time brought retribution. By the outbreak of the second world war, Ireland was independent, and she would not fight on England’s side. Liberty and England did not appear to the Irish to be synonymous, and Eire remained neutral. Many thousands of Irishmen from Eire volunteered, but the famous regiments of southern Ireland had ceased to exist, and the “inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers” was no longer at England’s service.
There was also a more direct payment. Along the west coast of Ireland, in Mayo especially, on remote Clare Island, and in the dunes above the Six Mile Strand are a number of graves of petty officers and able seamen of the British Navy and Merchant Service, representatives of many hundreds who were drowned off the coast of Ireland, because the Irish harbors were not open to British ships. From these innocents, in all probability ignorant of the past, who had never heard of failures of the potato, evictions, fever and starvation, was exacted part of the price for the famine.
The Case For Genocide In Ireland: A Summary
- British Laws enacted over centuries, deprived the Irish of their land, language, trade, education, vote and religion.
- British racism against the Irish people has been manifest for centuries, and has been used to dehumanize, debase, criminalize and enslave the Irish. British racism also extended to Africans, Indians, Egyptians and other conquered peoples.
- The British government upheld the absolute right of landlords to evict Irish families during a terrible famine even in the dead of winter. Further, the Poor Law was encouraged landlords to engage in eviction in order not to be bankrupted by poor rates for their tenants.
- The British allowed massive amounts of food to be exported from Ireland during the Famine and justified it under the doctrine of laissez-faire, or non-interference. However, British interference in Irish trade has been prolonged and continuous, before, during, and after the Famine.
- The British authorities were well aware that the Poor Law made landlords more likely to make a one-time payment for “coffin ship” passage for their tenants rather that continue to pay taxes for their upkeep in workhouses. Canadian officials repeatedly sent reports informing British officials of the massive mortality rates on these ships.
Dealing With The Dead
The problem of finding materials for coffins or transporting the corpses and digging graves for over a million dead, was made worse by the dire poverty and physical exhaustion caused by hunger and disease.
The people had neither the material nor the strength to make coffins nor dig graves. When a person died they got a plank and tied the feet of the corpse to one end of it and the head to the other end, and the hands together. Then two men took hold of it at each end and carried it to a bog nearby where the water was deep and threw it in.
One woman from the Teelin district of County Donegal, on the death of her little son and not having the wherewithal to get a coffin, put the child in his cradle. She then strapped the cradle on her back and carried it five miles to the nearest graveyard and buried it.
When an excavation of a Victorian workhouse in Kilkenny took place in 2011, the remains of 970 people were discovered in a mass burial ground. This discovery has helped to shed new light on the way they lived their lives as well as how they died. The majority of the remains found were infants and children (540). The most startling discovery was that there were so many children among the dead, particularly aged 2 through 6. This shows that a lot of children died during the Great Hunger.
Examination of the bones showed that the greatest scourge was a lock of vitamin C which was triggered by the loss of the potato crop. More than half of those buried at the site showed bone damage caused by scurvy.
The dead were buried in a series of deep pits, each pit containing between 6 and 27 bodies. All were interred in coffins and stacked on top of each other on the pits.
To be buried in a coffin was very important in 19th century Ireland. That is why the inability to find materials for coffins during the Great Hunger made this tragedy that more devastating for the people.
The Overall Impact of The Great Hunger
The overall impact of the Famine included:
- The decline of the Irish language and customs (in 1835, the number of native Irish speakers was estimated at four million — in 1851, only 2 million spoke Irish as their first language)
- The devastation of the landless laborer class and small tenant farmer.
- A treeless landscape in many parts of Ireland.
- The shells of homes and “mud” cabins that were rendered uninhabitable.
- A massive decrease in farms of 15 acres and less. The 1841 census showed that 45% of land holdings were less than five acres. In 1851 this was 15%.
- Irish emigrants scattered around the globe.
Today there are over 5 million people in Ireland, while it is estimated there are upwards of 70 million people of Irish descent throughout the world.
“We must not forget such a dreadful event.“
— Tony Blair, British Prime Minister
In a statement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the eve of the 150th Famine commemoration in 1997, he said, “The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and of Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event. Britain in particular has benefited immeasurably from the skills and talents of Irish people, not only in areas such as music, the arts and the caring professions, but across the whole spectrum of our political, economic and social life.“
The famine is still a highly sensitive issue in Ireland and has left a bitter legacy in Anglo-Irish relations. As wealthy farmers and landowners profited, their tenants starved to death and London was widely accused of doing too little too late by way of relief. Ireland lost a quarter of its eight million population in six years. In addition to those who perished in Ireland, a million fled abroad to North America, Australia and New Zealand. Thousands died in horrific conditions on the Famine Ships.
Poetry and Songs of The Great Hunger
POEM 1: “FIELDS OF ATHENRY” (By Pete St. John)
By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling
“Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyan’s corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison snip lies waiting in the bay.”
Low lie the fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly
Our love was on the wing
We had dreams and songs to sing
It’s so lonely round the fields of Athenry.
By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young man calling
“Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free
Against the famine and the crown,
I rebelled they cut me down.
Now you must raise our child with dignity.”
By a lonely harbor wall, we watched the last star fall
As the prison ship sailed out against the sky
For she lived to hope and pray for her love in Botany Bay
It’s so lonely round the fields of Athenry.
POEM 2: “THE PRATIES GROW SO SMALL” (Anonymous)
O, the praties they grow small
over here, over here.
O, the praties they grow small,
and they grow from spring to fall,
and we eat them skins and all,
over here, over here.
O, I wish that we were geese,
night and morn, night and morn,
O, I wish that we were geese,
For they fly and take their ease,
And they live and die in peace,
over here, over here.
O, we’re trampled in the dust,
over here, over here,
O, we’re trampled in the dust,
But the Lord in whom we trust,
will give us crumb for crust,
over here, over here.
POEM 3: “THE BOREEN SIDE” (By James Tighe)
A stripling, the last of his race,
lies dead In a nook by the Boreen side;
The rivulet runs by his board and his bed,
Where he ate the green cresses and died.
The Lord of the plains where that stream wanders on, –
Oh! he loved not the Celtic race —
By a law of the land cast out fellow man,
And he feeds the fat ox in his place.
The hamlet he leveled, and issued commands,
Preventing all human relief,
And out by the ditches, the serfs of his lands,
Soon perished of hunger and grief.
He knew they should die — as he ate and he drank
of the nourishing food and wine;
He heard of the death cries of the famish’d and lank
And fed were his dogs and his swine.
That Lord is a Christian! and prays the prayer,
‘Our Father’ — the Father of all —
And he reads in the Book of wonderful care,
That marks when a sparrow may fall.
And there lies that youth on his damp cold bed,
And the cattle have stall and straw;
No kindred assemble to wail the lone dead –
They perished by landlord law.
He lies by the path where his forefathers trod –
The race of the generous deeds,
That sheltered the Poor for the honor of God,
And fed them with bread — not weeds.
Unshrouded he lies by the trackless path,
And he died as his kindred died –
And vengeance Divine points the red bolt of wrath,
For that death by the Boreen side.
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