A Simple History of The Great Irish Famine 1845-1850
(images by Donald Teskey)
The Great Irish Famine is the biggest event in Irish history- a tragedy which changed Ireland and her people forever.
Ireland at the time of the Famine
In Ireland in the 1800’s people were poor. Many were tenants and lived and worked on land that was not their own. Their homes were small cottages and cabins which were often overcrowded and dirty. They had only small plots of land beside their houses to grow their own food. The potato was grown everywhere, as it yielded the most. Their food was largely potatoes and milk, but this was enough to keep them going.
The Potato Crop Fails
In the summer of 1845 after a long wet spell, when the people went to dig their potatoes, they could not believe it – the potatoes had got a disease and were rotting in the ground. No matter what they did, the potatoes turned to sludge and slime. This disease spread all over the country to every part of Ireland.
The people prayed to God to save them. Famine had come. They were desperate. They searched for food and sold everything they had. Most went hungry.
The other crops in the fields belonged to the landlords. Most of these crops would be sold and exported to other countries.
The poor had no money to buy food. They were starving so the government had to import boatloads of Indian corn meal (yellow meal) to feed them. But this was not enough. As the famine spread large public works schemes had been set up. People worked at building roads, clearing land and so on. The work was hard for those that were already undernourished and week, but it was the only way of earning some money to buy food.
Workhouses for the poor were over- crowded with those who had nowhere to go and nothing to eat. Life was rigid and strict.
Some of the landlords did all they could to help their tenants, while others just ignored the situation. Worst of all were the landlords who evicted the poor tenants who could not pay rent and pulled down their simple cabins.
The potato crop fails again
By the end of the summer of 1846 it was clear that the potato crop had failed again. The people had nothing. They roamed the country. The work schemes were totally crowded and people rioted outside the workhouses, trying to get in.
With the starvation now came disease – famine fever, typhus, dysentery. These spread among the already weakened people.
Death and Disease
Ireland had become a land of living ghosts. Parishes could not keep up with the amount of deaths and had to open mass graves. Soup kitchens were set up to feed the hungry, but still death and disease spread throughout the country. The cycle kept on.
During 1847 and the following years, approximately one million men, women and children set sail for Liverpool and North America and Canada. Many died on long rough sea-voyages and those that survived had to work very hard to make a new life in a strange land.
For those at home the winter of 1847-1848 was one of the worst ever. This was followed by the potato blight in the autumn of 1848 and again in 1849. People died on the roads, in the streets, in the cottages and fields. All in all, about one million died. In a small country like Ireland it was a huge proportion if the population.
Ireland and her people
Those that emigrated to America and Canada brought with them their strength and their courage and hope.
Those that were left behind struggled to survive and worked to build a country where such disaster could never happen again.
Remembering the Famine
Irish people are now scattered around the globe…The tragedy of The Great Irish Famine but a memory, yet it has become almost part of our DNA, shaping the people we have become.
Irish people may be strong and resilient and love life but yet most carry inside them a keen sense of justice and awareness of the need to speak up for those that are less fortunate and still in need of help.
Here are photos of some famous Famine related art and places of interest in Ireland.