Black ’47 and beyond: the Irish famine in history, economy and memory

The famine of the 1840s is the pivotal moment of Irish history. Before the famine eight million people lived on the island of Ireland, but five years later less than six million remained. It was one of the more devastating and long-lived famines anywhere on the planet. I’ve covered British prime minister Robert Peel’s initial response to the famine which was well-meaning but ran up against British vested interests. Now I turn to the work of Irish economic historian Cormac O’Grada and his Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (1999). It looks at historical and economic data from the famine era but also examines folklore to get a more impressionistic view of events. O’Grada also applies comparative studies looking at other similar major famines such as in Finland (1866-68), Soviet Union (1918-22), Ukraine (1932-33), Bengal (1943-44) and Biafra (1968-70) while he acknowledges that Mao’s Great Leap Forward famine of 1959-62 in China was “in a macabre league of its own”.

The Irish potato harvest failed in 1845 due to a blight called phytophthora infestans. Poor weather in 1846 worsened the blight and contributed to the failure of public works as a famine response. O’Grada rejects suggestions of a British “genocide”. He says policy failures were a result of a dogmatic political economy of “doctrinaire neglect” not murderous intent. Infectious diseases were the main cause of death not starvation – a reason why the death toll was high in crowded Dublin slums far from blighted potato fields. The famine mostly killed the poor while the relatively better-off had the safety valve of emigration.

Ireland’s economy in the 1840s was overly dependent on the potato with 0.8 million hectares under cultivation before the famine, a figure halved by the 1850s. The potato was highly prized as a garden crop and initially as a supplementary and seasonal food. Ireland’s acidic soil and damp climate was advantageous for cultivation. It was among the first countries to popularise the crop and spread its love to other parts of Europe. The blight also affected Scotland, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. But in the Scottish highlands the poor supplemented potatoes with oatmeal and fish and nowhere was the impact as severe as Ireland. Irish consumption was five kilos a day for adults in the bottom third of the population, compared to 800 grams in Holland. This was partially due to British corn laws making them cheaper than in Europe, but it was also a function of Irish poverty.

Almost two-thirds of Irish agricultural labourers had no land and the top quarter of farms held 60pc of the land, mostly better land. Many farmers rented marginal land many in joint tenancies, a continual source of friction. They were badly housed, illiterate, underemployed and too poor to move away. Emigration was an option for the less impoverished and population growth had slowed in the decade before the famine with rising labour demand in industrial Britain and America. Most of the very poor lived in the south and west and there was disproportionate famine impact west of a line from Waterford in the south-east to Ballyshannon in the north-west. Eastern counties were wealthier and had easier access to seafood and relief and employment in port towns.

Weather was a crucial factor. The 1845 harvest was only a quarter down on previous years but poor weather in 1846 caused the blight to inflict more damage than anywhere else in Europe. It delayed planting and stunted growth while heavy rain in the summer months of July and August caused fungi spores to wash into the bulbs and destroy the crop. Crop failures had happened before in 1822, 1831 and 1836 but never two years in a row. Public works was the government government response to prior failures but Ireland’s cold winter weather in 1846-47 and 1847-48 made that a miserable solution to workers with inadequate clothing, “rags hardly covering for decency” as one Wicklow observer noted. Reports of the initial deaths in late 1846 attracted shock and attention but as the bodies piled up in early 1847 they lost newsworthiness. Though yields recovered in 1847 the potato failed again in 1848 and conditions in the west in 1849 matched the worst of two years earlier. Bodies were left unburied and crime was rampant with many preferring transportation to the disease-ridden workhouses. Mortality remained high in some workhouses as late as 1851, five years into the crisis, – far longer than any other famine in world history.

This long drawn-out affair caused famine fatigue and contributed to negative caricatures of Irish irresponsibility and dishonesty in the British press, not helped by hundreds of thousands of unhealthy Irish arriving in Britain from 1847. The British felt Ireland was not taking enough responsibility for its own problems. In 1849 prime minister Lord John Russell refused a grant to Ireland of £100,000 saying the problem was exaggerated. The Times patronisingly admonished Ireland saying it needed moral stimulus to understand the difference “between giving alms in the presence of our children and inducing them to contribute out of their own pocket money”.

Authorities faced massive challenges in determining what relief to apply and where. Local relief committees were tasked to raise funds, submit public works proposals, advise on the most deserving and distribute food to the needy. Unpaid committees, usually clergy, traders, landlords and agents, had local knowledge but were overburdened. The government also pushed cash-for-work schemes which employed up to 140,000 people. But by 1847 these schemes were replaced by soup kitchens and poor law unions using prison-like workhouses. The 130 workhouses spread across the island existed pre-famine for poor relief, but were stigmatised as a last resort due to prison-like uniforms, inadequate food, forced labour and confinement. As famine admissions rose they were overrun by typhus. By March 1947 the workhouses were full housing 700,000 people with 24,000 dying each week. A stingy British exchequer demanded too much of chronically underfunded local committees. Still, the small weekly wage was attractive for penniless families and they kept many people alive through the dark years.

Getting precise figures how many died is difficult due to no civil registration of birth and deaths. Protestant churches recorded burials and in places like Bandon, Co Cork records show a large increase in mortality in the famine years, though it was less prevalent in Dublin. The main estimates of aggregate death come from comparisons of the censuses of 1841 and 1851 and assumption on population growth to 1846. There is also the detailed 1851 mortality data compiled by Dublin surgeon and medical census commissioner William Wilde, though there was considerable under-reporting. His data shows who died of dysentery, diarrhoea, dropsy, fever and starvation from 1846-51 with figures of 407,083 deaths of which 54.9pc were men. Twice as many died in Munster and Connacht than Ulster and Leinster. The toll was highest still in the four poor western counties Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo. No county and no constituency was immune. In 1847 Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery reported a large spike in burials while the Waterford Mirror reported “fever and pestilence have been doing their worst here among the upper classes while famine and destitution are quickly thinning the numbers of the poor.”

Over one million people left Ireland for good between 1845 and 1850. Some would have left anyway, but most were responding to the famine. Harsh conditions aboard and the long crossing contribute to the legend of the “coffin ships” but O’Grada says this was a myth and most made it safely across the ocean. Mortality on the unregulated and cheaper Canadian route was higher than the American route, as this was the only option for poorer emigrants. The average mortality for the New York route of 2pc was no worse than pre-famine times. Indeed the record of German ships in 1847 was worse than British ones. Irish emigrants were not the very poorest and usually had modest means such as land, animals, savings or a dowry and there were also assisted passages from landlords anxious to lose unreliable tenants.. Though America was an improvement on Ireland, they remained on the lowest rung of American society long after they got there. In New York they did the city’s “rude and heavy work” and most took the advice to move farther inland. The Irish-born population of Britain also doubled to almost a million, mostly in the four port cities of London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. Long distance emigration continued for the next 100 years usually following in the path of already departed relatives.

Of those left behind, export manufacturers in the cities were least affected as they could still sell overseas. Survivors were also better off in a tighter labour market and traders also benefitted from rising demand in the 1850s. Landlords freed of non-viable tenants were buoyed by rising meat and dairy prices and saw rents improve and tax bills decline. Ireland’s economy recovered again before flattening out in the 1920s and beyond – the price paid for political sovereignty and economic illiteracy of 20th century conditions rather than post famine effect.

The famine remained an important element in Irish memory and provide rich data sets of details and anecdotes of vivid lived experience. “If I told you where people were buried, you would not go out at night,” one 85-year-old west Cork farmer told a collector. In Sligo an account said if someone died in the house, they were left there unless someone from the house could carry them to the graveyard and do the burial. Another story tells of someone holding up a potato and saying to it “well, thank God it was not you I buried today.” Tales like these help O’Grada’s argument scale and depth of the Great Famine was unique in European experience. He said its enduring impact was reflected in a continuing desire “to remember things we never knew”. Whether that remains true of wealthy 21st century Ireland is debatable. As Jerry Mulvihill wrote in the Irish Times this week, there has been a lack of visualisation of the Great Hunger. “The commissioning of art, the growing list of literature, the creation of monuments and memorials relating to the Great Hunger are, I feel, Ireland reclaiming and owning its past and very much conducive to healing,” Mulvihill said.

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