Irish Famines, Charlestown in Co. Mayo

From 1700 onwards some five per cent of Irish Land was in Catholic hands, notwithstanding the fact, that Catholics accounted for some seventy-five per cent of a population which had expanded greatly through the eighteenth century, a population which, as the century came to a close, was nearing five million people.

For members of the incumbent Protestant aristocracy in eighteenth century Ireland, this period was a lucrative one. Landlords became wealthy, erecting large and grand residences on their biggest estates, while their tenant farmers strove to pay compulsory rents and tithes (one tenth of income or produce) to a Church to which very few of them owed allegiance.

In years that brought crop failure, many of these farmers, all over Ireland, simply perished, because they just did not have anything to fall back on. In particular, the years 1727 to 1730, were marked by a harsh famine, which brought devastation to people everywhere.

The prevailing economic conditions, engineered by London, discouraged tillage, essentially to protect English producers. The dreadful consequence of this protection, in the middle years of the eighteenth century, was that Ireland was compelled to import more grain than it exported.

In 1740 the country was in the grip of a great freeze. It was followed by a terrible drought, then floods and blizzards that disrupted a meagre Autumn harvest. A second long freeze set in, followed by another drought. All the while, temperatures rarely stirred above zero for months on end. The ordeal of 1740/1741 became known as 'Bliain An Air' (The year of the Slaughter) in folk memory. Artic Ireland lost at least 400,000 of it’s population to starvation or disease during the two years of the crisis.

Between 12.5% and 16% of the population of Ireland, died from famine-related causes, with children and the old being badly hit. The famine of 1740/1741 was at least as severe as the Great Famine itself.

When the European potato crop failed in 1844, Britain ordered regiments to Ireland. When blight hit the 1845 English potato crop, it’s food removal regiments were already in Ireland, ready to start.

The Times editorial of 30th September 1845, warned: In England the two main meals of a working man’s day now consist of potatoes. England’s potato dependence was excessive, the Country was grossly overpopulated, relative to it’s food supply, and faced famine unless it could import vast amounts of alternative food.

The 1841 census of Ireland, as corrected by a partial recount, revealed a population of 10,897,449. At a 1.63% rate of annual population increase, until 1846, the population for that year would have been 11,815,011. By the 1851 census the population was only 6,552,385. It is generally accepted that one million people emigrated during the Famine. Therefore several million had starved and are buried in mass graves all over Ireland.

In 1845, a famine year in Ireland, 26,015,256 bushels of corn and 257,257 sheep were exported from Ireland to England. In 1846, another famine year, 480,827 swine and 186,483 oxen were exported to the same Country. In 'Black 47', 9,992 calves were exported, an increase of 33% over the previous year. In the twelve months following the second failure of the potato crop, 4,000 horses and ponies were also exported.

The export of bacon and ham increased. In total, over three million live animals were exported from Ireland, between 1846 and 1850.

In 1847, almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the Ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. The food was shipped, under guard, from the most famine-striken parts of the country, Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport. A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including: peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed. One million gallons of butter left Ireland in that year.

British regiments guarded the ports and warehouses to guarantee absentee landlords and commodity speculators their 'free market' profit.

In Belmullet, County Mayo, the mission of 151 soldiers of the 49th Regiment, in addition to escorting livestock and crops to the port for export, was to guard a few tons of stored meal; it’s population falling from 237 to 105 between 1841 and 1851.

Belmullet also lost it’s source of fish in January 1849, when Britain’s coastguard arrested it’s fleet of enterprising fishermen ten miles out at sea, in the act of offloading flour from a passing ship. They were sentenced to prison and their currachs were confiscated.

When Ireland experienced an earlier famine in 1782/83, (prior to the Act of Union) ports were closed in order to keep home-grown food for domestic consumption.

One has to ask the question: Was the Irish famine a natural disaster or were the Irish people systematically starved, under the cover of a natural disaster.

© Cathal Henry 2010