The Great Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1852, was neither the first nor the last of Ireland’s famine experiences, but it was the most profound, and probably the most catastrophic event in our modern history.
The population had more than trebled in the century prior to the Famine’s commencement, from approximately 2.5m people in 1750 to about 8.5m in 1845.
Rapid population growth put enormous pressure on the country’s land and food resources, and reduced the impoverished peasantry, the bulk of the population, to a dangerous dependency on a single food source, potatoes.
In September 1845, the fungal disease phytophthora infestans, late blight, appeared in Ireland for the first time, and destroyed about one third of the country’s second or main crop of potatoes.
In the following year, blight returned and affected almost the entire potato harvest, a portentous occurrence that marked the commencement of the Great Famine in Cork City and county, no less than in the country generally.
The winter and spring of 1846-47 witnessed the utmost distress in Cork and elsewhere in Ireland. This was a period of extreme and debilitating food shortages, spiralling food prices, food stealing and food riots, and a grossly inadequate public works relief programme.
The resident population of Cork City was augmented by starving people from the county and further afield who swarmed into the city in search of assistance, “walking masses of filth, vermin and sickness”, as the Cork Constitution described them on April 24, 1847.
These rural refugees scattered famine-related diseases in every direction and swamped the city’s limited charitable and relief resources.
Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, commander of USS Jamestown, which had arrived in Cork Harbour from Boston on April 12, 1847, with some 800 tonnes of relief provisions for distribution, visited the city in the company of Fr Theobald Mathew, and was shocked by the scenes he witnessed in the side streets and back lanes.
I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me, he recorded, hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing.
Forbes noted that hundreds of “spectres” stood about a police-patrolled public soup kitchen, begging for a portion of poor-quality soup. The city streets were thronged with beggars, with starving and sick children and adults, and, Forbes added, the situation was worse in the countryside.
The starving and diseased peasantry who abandoned rural Ireland did so because the land — and their government — had failed them, and the testimony of humane visitors to the worst affected parts of Co Cork attested to their distress.
On December 21, 1846, William Harvey and Joshua Beale, members of the Society of Friends or Quakers, left Cork City to investigate conditions in West Cork.
They discovered that provisions were in short supply in Skibbereen poor law union and in the surrounding districts, and the food that was available was increasingly beyond the reach of the poor because of the disjunction between wages on the public works and the spiralling cost of food.
Six weeks after Harvey and Beale’s visit, a resident of Aughadown, between Ballydehob and Skibbereen, informed the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends that the locality was “one mass of famine, disease and death”, and that people were succumbing to a complication of diseases.
The correspondent added that the dead were wrapped in calico bags and conveyed to the churchyard in a reusable coffin, colloquially known as a “trap” or “sliding” coffin, which was fitted with a hinged bottom that swung open like a trapdoor when released.
A succession of Irish, British and American fact-finding visitors to West Cork noted the absence of children’s games, the abandonment of funerary customs, the defilement and dismemberment of unburied bodies by vermin and dogs, the ubiquity of coffins, and mass graves, in effect social abnormality, whole communities in disarray.
Their testimony was corroborated in newspaper reportage and commentary. In mid-December 1846, a special correspondent of the Cork Examiner reported that the most extraordinary feature of the prevailing distress in the Skibbereen district was “the total apathy and singular indifference” with which death was regarded.
He claimed that the better feelings and sympathies that formerly characterised the Irish people had disappeared, and their familiarity with death had rendered them indifferent to its ravages.
An editorial comment in the same newspaper added substance and texture to the reporter’s palpable sense of shock:
“A terrible apathy, like that which oppresses a plague-driven people, seems to hang over the poor of Skibbereen ... One scanty funeral is fast followed by another and that by another.
The dead are enclosed in rude boards, having neither the appearance nor shape of a coffin and are committed to their silent resting place in the night time, when no eye can rest curiously on the rude contrivance, or observe the absence of friends and mourners, and the want of all that ceremony so grateful to the pride and consolatory to the feelings of the Irish peasant.
The Examiner correspondent encountered “the same unaccountable and extraordinary apathy” in Bantry a few days later.
The general feeling among the people was that they were doomed, that they would be found dead in the fields or on the mountains without either the consolation of religion or the comfort of friends.
A similar miasma of fatalism hung over other parts of West Cork also. A report from Castletown Berehaven in mid-February 1847 noted the “anguish of mind” and “wretched depression” that afflicted the peasantry. The observer added that these feelings arose from a sense of inevitability, from a conviction among the people that they were “doomed to die”.
The Famine and its attendant diseases put the country’s relief and medical institutions under extreme pressure. The Skibbereen workhouse, which had been built to accommodate 800 inmates, contained 1,169 by the first week of January 1847, and 1,450
Fever and dysentery were rampant within the institution and 104 deaths were recorded in the first ten days of March. In a period of just over four months — November 1, 1846, to March 10, 1847 — 728 individuals died in the workhouse.
In the second week of February 1847, 49 inmates died in Fermoy workhouse, where dysentery was “raging violently”.
About the same time, there were 5,300 paupers in the Cork union workhouse, 1,000 more than the recommended number, and mortality was increasing alarmingly.
There were 91 deaths in the last week of January, 127 in the following week and 164 in the second week of February, one every hour, and disposing of the dead had become a major problem.
The situation continued to deteriorate, and 757 deaths were recorded in the Cork workhouse in the following month, March 1847.
These institutional deaths contributed to the Famine’s overall demographic impact of at least 1m deaths from starvation and disease. The population loss that Co Cork experienced could not have been anticipated when potato blight first appeared in early autumn 1845.
The county and the country generally emerged relatively unscathed from the initial season of potato failure, but the winter and spring of 1846-47, following the almost complete destruction of the 1846 crop, was a period of terrible distress, perhaps the worst of the entire Famine.
During these months, fever and dysentery raged epidemically, their malignity intensified by the effects of starvation, and these diseases cut a swathe through the immunocompromised population of West Cork and other badly affected areas.
The government’s response to the failure of the staple food of the poor was determined by the prevailing ideology of political economy, and was grossly inadequate.
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the people were confronted with a catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions and with morbidity and mortality on a scale never before
The poorest and most vulnerable were stripped of entitlement and choice. For the more advantaged, there was the option of flight, and some two million people emigrated from Ireland in the decade 1845-1855.
Death and emigration reduced the population of Co Cork from 854,118 to 649,903, or by almost 24%, between the census of 1841 and that of 1851, although the city’s population increased from 80,720 to 85,745 as a result of the influx of rural migrants.
The demographic impact was the most dramatic and enduring of the Famine’s seismic shocks, but there were others — political, social and economic — that were to rumble for the remainder of the 19th century and into the next.
Laurence Geary has lectured and written extensively on the Great Irish Famine. This article is an abridged version of one that features in Niamh O’Sullivan (ed.), Coming Home: Art & the Great Hunger (Hamden, CT: Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum/Quinnipiac University Press, 2018).
We must never forget to remember
On the pavement outside my great-grandparents’ home in Vienna is the line, in 12 languages, “what happens when we forget to remember?”
Eighty years ago, my family was robbed of their house and their country for being Jewish. Today, no-one in the European countries that perpetrated such mass atrocities can grow up without being reminded, “never again”. Not so with famine.
There are a hundred memorials to the victims of famine across the Irish Republic, some of them in the centres of towns, others in now-empty fields and valleys.
There are more in the places to which the famine ships sailed — Boston, New York, Sydney, Liverpool. But there are no such memorials in London.
Those who walk by the treasury and the foreign and Commonwealth office in Whitehall will not have to look at any reminder that it was in those elegant chambers that mass starvation was perpetrated on the peoples of Ireland and India.
Should we forget that famines are manmade, that starvation is something that one person does to another, we are in danger of repeating the act. This is the basic lesson learned from studying the famines of the last 150 years.
About 100m people have died in 58 great famines since 1870, and three quarters of them starved either directly or indirectly because of human action.
Sometimes starvation takes the form of deliberate genocidal action — for example the mass murder by hunger and thirst of the Herero people of south-west Africa in 1904, or the Nazi Hungerplan that aimed to starve to death 30m people on the eastern front of the Second World War.
More often, famines are brought about by recklessness: The political or military masters of the situation simply don’t care whether people live or die. They have other priorities — rationalising agriculture or defeating an insurgency for example.
Rarely in the modern world are famines the product of natural disaster such as drought. There are indeed calamities that cause crops to fail and cattle to die, but no modern society is so poor or incapacitated that these hazards automatically lead to deaths from hunger.
For more than 100 years, we have been wealthy and capable enough to stop crop blights, droughts or floods causing famine: and when this combination occurs, we can be sure that political decision has determined where and how the burdens of hardship and hunger fall.
For a generation since Bob Geldof’s LiveAid in 1985, we were effectively reducing famines and famine mortality around the world. In the 100 years prior, there was a regular drumbeat of mass death, with ten million or so perishing every decade.
Since then, the fatalities from famine have been a small fraction of that number.
There are many reasons for this triumph, ranging from the tremendous progress in reducing poverty and infectious diseases, through the expansion of democratic and accountable government, to the growing reach and professionalism of humanitarian agencies.
The single most important reason for the decline in mass starvation has been the end of totalitarianism, colonialism, and wars of extermination. Therefore, this century, for the first time in human history, we have been at the threshold of prohibiting famine for good.
But in the last year and a half, famine has crept back. This isn’t because of global warming or malfunctioning food markets, still less because of overpopulation. It is because we have not cared enough to stop the men who inflict starvation from doing so. We are forgetting to remember.
Today’s mass starvation has common features: War and a callous disregard for the value of human life. Hunger sieges in Syria herald the return of the soldier’s ultimatum, “surrender or starve”.
South Sudanese militia commanders burn the villages of their rivals, and block aid to the fleeing people. Extremist rebels and government forces in north-eastern Nigeria fight a war of scorched earth.
In Somalia, a combination of drought, high food prices, corruption and conflict led to a major food crisis.
This came on the heels of the devastation caused by Somalia’s 2011 famine, which was caused by the same mix of factors, with the deadly addition that the US government decided to withhold food aid for fear that it might fall into the hands of the militant Islamist
insurgent group Al-Shabaab.
The defining famine of our age is Yemen. A civil war fought in a poor country, dependent on food imports, always risked creating hunger.
But the tight food blockade mounted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, combined with their all-out assault on the country’s economic infrastructure as well as its hospitals and water supplies, have dragged an entire nation into famine.
Western countries’ priorities are revealed by their readiness to continue arming the perpetrators of famine crimes.
Is the tide of history turning against the humanitarians? The news is ominous, but today’s five famines and near-famines do not yet rank alongside the horrors of earlier eras. Our progress has stalled. It can yet be resumed, if we care enough to make our political leaders do the right thing.
As we commemorate the victims of the great English famine inflicted on the Irish 170 years ago, we should also evoke that memory to cry, “never again”.
When the citizens of nations vilify the perpetrators of starvation, and insist that the humanitarian imperative overrides realpolitik and profit, then we can at last effectively prohibit famine.
Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. His latest book is Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (Polity Press).
Simple mud hut a stark reminder of how the poorest lived and died
It’s a stark reminder of how the poorest lived — and died. A simple mud hut — an bothán — has been recreated near the Quad in UCC, as part of the National Famine Commemoration event taking place at the college.
“For me it is really important to try and portray just how bad the conditions were for these people and in a way death was a relief for them,” said Mike Murphy, head of cartography in UCC’s Geography Department, who has been working on projects relating to the Great Irish Famine for over 20 years.
While it is impossible to show or comprehend the level of deprivation endured during these dreadful times, we want people to be able to walk into this mud cabin and see it from the inside, to see and feel the actual atmosphere to some extent.
Built by the buildings and estates staff at UCC under the supervision of Paul Prendergast and Ross O’Donovan, the hut was constructed by Christian Helling, Barry Krndellen, and their team.
“People died in harrowing ways. For example, the mother [was often the last of the family to die] and she was sometimes found dead just inside the door of the bothán, with the bodies of her family around her,” said Mr Murphy.
“As mother, she would have struggled to preserve privacy by closing the door and allowing her family some dignity in their final moments.”
The bothán is a replica of a fourth-class house which was classified in the mid-1800 census as “the lowest or fourth class were comprised all mud cabins having only one room”.
The 1841 census records that Ireland had 1.3m houses, 492,000 were classified as being in the fourth class category. As many as 2m people were living in these conditions or worse in 1841. The majority of the misery associated with the Famine occurred in these mud cabins.
That sense of misery was captured by an article in the Cork Examiner of March 17, 1847:
“It being reported to the Constabulary of Watergrass-Hill, (Watergrasshill) on Wednesday last, that an unfortunate family of the name of Noonan, consisting of Noonan himself, a
labourer, his wife and child of 12 months old, living at Arnagihee, had died on that day of starvation.
“A few of the constabulary proceeded to the hut and found the unfortunate victims lying dead on the bare floor without even a sop of straw whereon to rest their wearied limbs whilst living.
The famished child even in death, was found clinging to the bosom of its unhappy mother; and no doubt, expired in its vain attempt to extract from that withered and dried up source the fluid that would have imparted vitality and nutriment.
“The constabulary, with most becoming humanity, made a public collection, with the amount of which they purchased coffins, and had the wretched victims immediately interred.
“In this locality, we are assured, absolute famine stalks abroad with fearful pace, as also in the localities of Gragg (Graigue) and Glenville; and if some steps be not immediately taken to meet the dreadful wants of the famishing population, the districts must ere long be tenanted alone by the dead.”
Between 1845 and 1851 the population of Ireland decreased by approximately 2m down to around 6m people — it is estimated that a million died during the Famine and another million emigrated.
Newspapers played a hugely important role in informing the greater population about the plight of famine sufferers in mid-1800 Ireland.
For example, in March 1847 Fr McCarthy, parish priest for Watergrasshill, wrote a letter to the Cork Examiner pleading with the bishop to provide relief for his suffering parishioners.
Fr McCarthy ‘s letter states: “On Tuesday, a man brought to my door a corpse of a Girl, about ten years old on his back, craving for food”.
The priest’s utter desperation and grief is obvious. It remains unknown if this letter resulted in any relief for the people of Watergrasshill.
Famine seems to be in decline but hunger and malnutrition still affect 815m people
Famines are extreme events where people’s access to food is denied. The world had until recently almost abolished famines. What the world is not even close to doing is abolishing hunger and malnutrition.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), about 815m people in the world currently go hungry, in the sense of experiencing significant deficiencies in calorie intake; this number has increased recently.
A much larger number, about one-third of the global population, experience malnutrition: 2bn people have deficiencies in key micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A; a similar number of people worldwide are overweight or obese.
In 2015, the United Nations approved the sustainable development goals — 17 ambitious goals to address key challenges and move towards sustainable, equitable global development.
Ireland played a significant role in negotiating the sustainable development goals, co chairing with Kenya the process that brought them to final agreement. A key principle of the goals is to “leave no-one behind”.
Some countries are already doing so. Take Ethiopia, a country which unfortunately became associated with famine in recent times as Ireland was in the more distant past.
The politically-induced famine of 1984-85 in Ethiopia resulted in about 600,000 deaths and received huge media attention.
Less well known has been the constant chronic food insecurity amongst many millions of households in Ethiopia struggling to produce enough food under poverty conditions of small landholdings, irregular rainfall, limited infrastructure and technology, and poor access to markets.
Tackling these deficiencies is the focus of long-term development efforts in addition to the humanitarian work required to deal with specific food crises.
Ethiopia has made considerable strides in the last two decades to overcome these deficits, mobilising internal resources as well as resources from external donor agencies including Irish Aid.
Rapid economic growth and substantial public investment in agriculture, social services and infrastructure have resulted in rural poverty falling from 48% in 2000 to 26% in 2011; the real value of agricultural output increased by an average of about 9% per annum over that period and contributed to the reduction in poverty.
A huge investment in social protection, the Productive Safety Net Programme, was introduced in 2005 and provides jobs, security and cash or food payments to up to eight million people in vulnerable rural households.
Ethiopia has also developed a rural jobs strategy with a major focus on enterprise and job creation for rural unemployed youth: A major challenge in a country where about 1m rural jobs need to be created every year to meet demand.
Many developing countries have not made the kind of progress seen in Ethiopia in recent years, however.
Protracted conflicts have exacerbated food insecurity in many countries, including Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Chad, northern Nigeria and Afghanistan: in 2017 about 124m people in 51 countries faced crisis levels of food insecurity and both acute and chronic under-nutrition, where women and children are particularly affected.
Resolving such conflicts is a difficult, necessary, but still not sufficient, requirement for dealing with food insecurity.
Long-term climate change, bringing more frequent extreme weather events such as droughts which impact on agricultural production, is also contributing to food insecurity.
There are no magic bullets to achieve zero hunger for all, but there are many actions that can and need to be taken. A key requirement is investment on a large scale.
It has been estimated that investing €1 in good nutrition can give a return of €16 due to improved life expectancy and productivity. Similarly investing €1 in preventing
and mitigating natural disasters has been estimated to save €7 in humanitarian relief costs.
Although there are many calls on global resources, investing in improving nutrition and livelihoods among today’s rural poor makes economic sense as well as being the right thing to do to ensure that no-one does get left behind.
Development of drought-tolerant crop varieties, use of precision agriculture, conservation agriculture and drop irrigation are examples of technological developments which save land and water use while potentially increasing output.
The authors of the 2017 Global Nutrition Report point to a range of actions which could simultaneously deliver a range of benefits in the sustainable development goals.
For example, promoting diversification of food production can provide multiple benefits, from contributing to healthier and more diverse diets and producing crops more beneficial to the environment, to supporting women’s empowerment through promotion of food-based enterprises while ensuring that time burdens are reduced.
While improved food security requires increases in the right kind of agricultural production, improved nutrition requires actions across many sectors, including introduction of policies that promote good nutrition: This is a requirement in developed countries, faced with the growing problem of over-nutrition, as much as it is in countries which still suffer from the
problems of under-nutrition.
Ireland has played, and can continue to play, a significant role in addressing the challenges of hunger and malnutrition.
The memory of famine lingers on in Ireland and has contributed to the positive role played by Irish citizens, the Irish Government and Irish development organisations in responding to contemporary food crises.
As important as it is to respond to the food crises which regularly hit the news headlines, we also need to be aware of the greater extent of chronic hunger and malnutrition which exists, less well noticed, but which is also an affront to our claims to be a just world.
Now, as a new policy is being developed, it is important that the Government continues to show international leadership in committing substantial resources, in collaboration with a range of stakeholders, to addressing the major global challenges of hunger and malnutrition and to ensuring that there is a positive move towards achieving the sustainable development goals goal of zero hunger for all.
The famine online project was born out of the Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine, which was published by Cork University Press 2012, edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy.
The project is a major collaboration between Geography Department, UCC and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
Deborah Lawler from DCHG and Charley Roche from the Department of Geography, UCC have been working tirelessly to bring this project to completion.
It will become an invaluable source of public history for current and future generations as it allows people to compare 1841 and 1851 census data for rural areas and towns for their locality, according to Mike Murphy.
The online resource gives access to users about how the famine affected the area where they live. With over 20 different categories including population, family and housing, occupation and education, for each civil parish (rural areas in mid-1800 Ireland) and Town in Ireland at the time.
Users can examine the changes that happened over the 10-year (famine) period 1841-1851. This is the culmination of almost a quarter of a century of work for those mentioned above.
The Great Irish Famine Online will be launched by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, it goes live on May 12 and will mark the commemoration at UCC.
A formal state National Famine Commemoration ceremony will take place at University College Cork on May 12, 2018.
President Michael D Higgins will lay a wreath on behalf of the people of Ireland remembering those who perished during the Great Famine.
Wreaths will also be laid by Ambassadors to Ireland, the Lord Mayor of Cork, the Mayor of County Cork, the president of UCC and the president of CIT in remembrance of all those who suffered or perished during the Famine.
President Higgins will also unveil a commemorative plaque which will be mounted in St Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork, a burial ground which includes a number of famine plots.
To commemorate UCC’s role in hosting this event, an Arbutus Unedo or Strawberry Tree will be planted by President Higgins. The tree will be sited in the President’s Garden, UCC, a formal garden which contains historic plants dating from the foundation of Queen’s College Cork.
The community programme will include performances by the Vanbrugh String Quartet, Niall Valelly, Mary Mitchell-Ingoldsby, Bríd McGowan, Karan Casey and the Cork Penny Dinners/High Hopes Choir with the UCC Choir and UCC Choral Society.
Composer Sean O’Doherty has composed two new works, Fr McCarthy’s Lament 1847 and Professor Boole’s Farewell.
The ceremony will be open to the public and persons wishing to attend should arrive at UCC before 1.15pm. The formal state commemoration commences at 2pm and will conclude at 3.30pm.
The Famine Commemoration Week 2018 an examination of the role of the local cemetery in the days after the July 1847 evictions in the town of Charleville, Co. Cork The Charleville Heritage Society.
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An Gorta Mór by Pat Gunn, Council Chamber, County Hall, Carrigrohane, Cork.
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Famine Walk of the town. Meeting place: the Courthouse, North St., Skibberreen and
finishing at the Heritage Centre at 8pm.
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Unveiling of commemorative plaques in Famine related sites including the Soup Kitchen and Fischer House (used as a hospice during the Famine). Admission free.
Please meet at Barry’s Lane. Refreshments will be provided after the tour.
Wreath laying ceremonies the ‘Famine’ Mass Graves in St Joseph’s (Ballyphehane) and All Saints (Carr’s Hill) Cemeteries.
Bus leaving County hall at 11.30 returning at 14.00 Saturday 19th May, 3.00pm. Walking tour of famine sites in Kinsale.
A tour of Kinsale’s famine related sites including workhouse, famine graveyard, Desmond Castle, and the location where grain was landed to relieve famine victims. Admission free.
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