Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for the UCC Express.
An Gorta Mór, Ireland’s Great Famine or The Great Hunger, as it is more commonly referred to today, ranks among the worst tragedies in the sweep of human history. Between 1845 and 1850, approximately 1.5 million Irish men, women and children died of starvation or related diseases. By 1855, more than two million more fled Ireland to avoid a similar fate. This decimation of her population makes Ireland’s Great Hunger both the worst chapter in the country’s history, and arguably, the single worst catastrophe in 19th century Europe. For more than 150 years, the catastrophe that depopulated Ireland has been referred to as the Irish Potato Famine, as if a crop, and not a nation’s people, were the victims. Rather than an act of nature, The Great Hunger was the result of centuries of institutionalised oppression and callous disregard for human life.
It is critical that the Great Hunger be remembered accurately. In the 150-plus years since the Great Hunger, this tragedy has been downplayed and frequently distorted by Anglo historians and sympathisers. Too often it has been described as a disaster caused by the bad luck of a naturally occurring potato blight. British authorities, then responsible for ruling all of Ireland, were quick to agree, and thus took no responsibility for this epic disaster that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Irish people. Thanks to recent historians, we now know that more than adequate supplies of food existed in Ireland. Food exports from Ireland actually increased during the famine years.
Jeremiah O’ Donovan Rossa description of the time is very apt; “People now allude to those years as the years of the ‘famine’ in Ireland. That kind of talk is nothing but trash. There was no famine in Ireland; there is no famine in any country that will produce in any one year as much food as will feed the people of that country during that year. In the year 1845 there were 9,000,000 people in Ireland; allowing that the potato crop failed, other crops grew well, and the grain and cattle grown in the country were sufficient to sustain three times 9,000,000 people. England and the agents of England in Ireland seized those supplies of food, and sent them out of the country, and then raised the cry that there was ‘famine in the land’.”
The potato crop in Ireland did indeed fail. It was overcome by a fungus named Phytophthora infestans. However, the people of Ireland did not starve because of this. Furthermore, the people of Ireland did not starve because of insufficient volumes of food being available. The people of Ireland starved to death because their government failed to supply them with any food to supplement the failure of the potato crop. They were allowed to starve because the food was an exceptionally valuable export commodity and its monetary value was worth more to men like Charles Trevelyan than its nutritional value to the lives of the tenant farmers in West Cork and the rest of Ireland.
Father Matthew of Cork wrote to Trevelyan in a bid to outline to him the gravity of the situation in Cork; “The number of deaths in the Cork workhouse, in the last week of January 1847, was 104. It increased to 128 in the first week in February, and in the second week of that month it reached to 164 or 396 in three weeks”.
The workhouses in Ireland were a last resort of a starving family. Food was provided here, however, conditions were appalling, they were notoriously overcrowded and disease was rampant. Knowing this, many families decided to roll the dice and in a final attempt so as not to enter a workhouse began eating grass. Many families in West Cork were found dead with green stained mouths. Trevelyan was not concerned and continued to export goods from Ireland to Europe but mostly England. At the end of 1845, exports of potatoes from Ireland increased, especially to England, Belgium and Holland, all of which had experienced the potato blight. The export of livestock to Britain also increased during the Famine. In total over three million live animals were exported between 1846-50. In 1847, 9,992 calves were exported from Ireland to Britain, which represented a thirty-three percent increase on exports on the previous year. Some of these cattle were then re-exported to Europe. Overall, during the Famine years, food exports to Europe from Britain increased. Irish food exports, however, went much further afield than Britain or even Europe. In the summer of 1847, a New York newspaper noted that imports of grain from Ireland were even larger than usual. A wide variety of other foodstuffs left Ireland apart from livestock, vegetables and pulses (peas, beans and onions), dairy products, fish (salmon, oysters and herrings) and rabbits. In February 1847, 377 boxes of ‘fish and eggs’ and 383 boxes of fish were imported into Bristol alone. The butter export trade was particularly buoyant. In the first week of 1847, for example, 4,455 firkins of butter (a firkin equals nine gallons) were exported from Ireland to Liverpool. In the following week, this had risen to 4,691 firkins. Large quantities of butter were exported from Cork to all parts of Britain. For example, in the first nine months of 1847, 56,557 firkins of butter were exported to Bristol and 34,852 firkins to Liverpool. During the same period, 3,435 poultry were exported to Liverpool and 2,375 to Bristol.
In 1847, Nicholas Cummins was the magistrate of Cork. He visited Skibbereen in West Cork and his account of meeting famine stricken families on this occasion is particularly harrowing; “I entered some of the hovels, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, wore ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, [suffering] either from famine or from fever. Their demonic yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain.”
Many of these families are buried in a mass grave at Carr’s Hill in Cork. An estimated 30,000 people are buried at the Carr’s Hill site. It was opened as a cemetery when other graveyards in the city could take no more burials. The history of the Carr’s Hill site makes for grim reading. In 1846, the Guardians of the Cork Workhouse advertised for a burial ground. The pressure was mounting to find a new graveyard as the Famine death toll mounted. In the first nine months of 1847, 10,000 people were buried in St Joseph’s Cemetery. George Carr tendered for a workhouse graveyard and was successful. The Carr’s Hill site continued to be used for the next 100 years to bury paupers. In 1920, it came under the control of the Cork District Board later the Southern Health Board and was still in use in the 1940s. In 1950, an illuminated cross was erected to remember the Famine victims and the paupers buried there. However, the lights were turned off in 1979 due to its proximity to Cork Airport.
Cork County Councillor Diarmaid Ó Cadhla is currently fundraising to erect a monument at the Carr’s Hill site. There are also information evenings taking place in Cork, as well as commemorative walks to raise awareness of the topic in Cork City and County. Anyone wishing for more information on these events or to contribute to this very worthy cause can contact Diarmaid on 021-2428310.