The Warning of History
In the aftermath of the ‘Great Irish Famine’ no public monument was erected to mark its passing. But, within a ten mile radius of Dublin there were two prominent monuments constructed to mark ‘The Great Crisis’ or Famine of 1740-41. This crisis is important because, when it comes to a study of the ‘Great Famine’ that began in 1845, we can study what the government of the day had learned, if anything, from the terrible famine that had struck Ireland just over a century before. From various sources we know that the men who wrote and commented on the ‘Great Famine’ of the 1840s were very much aware of the earlier crisis. But, the existence of this famine, and that of some ten other major famines that occurred over the previous 500 years appear to have been truly overshadowed.
The word ‘Famine’ describes a lengthy period of collective hunger, which affected large parts of the country, and which was associated with, or succeeded by, a pronounced surge in the death rate. Taking a closer look at the Irish famines from the 13th to the 19th centuries, we can detect two features that unite the medieval and early modern crises, i.e. a highly uneven distribution pattern of such outbreaks over time, and a tendency for them to be associated with war.
There were several years of struggle, which were more or less severe between 1720 and 1740. The years 1725, 1726, 1727, and 1728 brought with them scenes of utter wretchedness that were never before witnessed in Ireland. It appears that war and unusual climactic instability seem to have been the common ingredients of the most crisis prone periods, but the coming of the ‘Bubonic Plague’ into the catalogue of disaster helped to worsen the difficulties experienced by the people of the island. Most life-threatening epidemics and pandemics that have affected the Irish people have been subsistence related. But, the incidence and virulence of plagues, as of small-pox and influenza, were unrelated to the state of the harvest or adequacy of the human diet. Nevertheless, in Ireland, as elsewhere, deadly coincidences seem to be a necessary ingredient for the truly horrifying famines that included extraneous factors, e.g war, plague or economic crash, being required to turn times of trial into trend changing catastrophes.
In the time of Cromwell in Ireland over 40% of the population was lost to the sword, plague and famine, but it was the plague of 1649-53 which accounted for over 66% of these losses. The prolonged lawless condition of the country and the movement of rat-infested armies served to prevent the enforcement of even the most rudimentary public health controls, and it was a combination of plague and famine induced dysentery which proved so fatal to the population.
The 1720s began with two bad harvests and ended with three that were worse. Compared to the 1650s, however, the country was more commercialised, the economy more diverse, the volume of foreign trade transformed, many towns greatly enlarged, and the country’s infrastructure improved. Grain failures and food shortages of the 1720s appear to have hit the modernised sectors of the economy quite disproportionately, e.g. Lowland Ulster and the Dublin Region.
Appalling weather, an international commercial depression, and the stresses of unbalanced growth gave rise to pauper and fever-stricken inflow of people into the cities. The fledgling Dublin press carried a litany of reports of famine epidemics, while the governemnt, for the first time, became involved in the organisation of grain imports.
The famine death-toll of the 1720s, bad as it was, would have been a great deal worse had it not been for the potato. Its cultivation as a garden crop had spread considerably since the 17th century. It had become the dominant winter food of the poorer households. It did not insulate the poor from the impact of bad grain harvests, since oatmeal, whether boiled or baked, remained the near universal summer food. Furthermore, the potato prices were highly sensitive to the movement of grain prices, and could be forced up when oat supplies were expected to run short. But, now the widespread consumption of the potato did provide a cushion against catastrophic famine in the wake of the many wet summers and bad grain harvests of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. This was the case until that fateful Christmas of 1739.
A pamphlet that was published in 1740 openly deplored the emigration of people, which was steadily increasing as the joint effect of bad harvests and want of tillage took hold. “We have had,” says the author, “twelve bad harvests with slight intermission.” But, to find a parallel for the dreadful famine which commenced in 1740, we need to go back to the close of the war with the Desmonds in the 1580s. Prior to 1740 the custom of placing potatoes in pits dug in the earth, was unknown in Ireland. When the stems were withered, the farmer put additional earth on the potatoes in the beds where they grew, and there they remained until, towards Christmas, they were dug out and stored.
Ireland experienced an intensely severe frost, which set in about the middle of December, 1739. The potatoes were still lying in this condition, and some had not even been given an additional covering. Witnesses of this event record that this frost penetrated nine inches into the earth that first night it made its appearance, although it had been preceded by a period of very severe weather. “In the beginning of November, 1739, the weather,” says the Irish historian O’Halloran, “was very cold, the wind blowing from the north east, and this was succeeded by the severest frost known in the memory of man, which entirely destroyed the potatoes, the chief support of the poor.” It has become known in Irish tradition as the “great frost,” and besides the destruction of the potato crop it produced other surprising effects. All the great rivers of the country were frozen over, the turnips were destroyed in most places, but the parsnips survived. The destruction of shrubs and trees was immense, the frost causing great havoc in killing birds of almost every kind. It even killed the shrimps of ‘Irishtown Strand’, near Dublin, so that there was no supply of them at market for many years from that famous shrimp ground. Then, towards the end of the frost, the wool fell off the sheep, and they died in great numbers.
This Arctic weather lasted, almost without remission, about eight or nine weeks, keeping the interiors of most houses below freezing. The potato crop was destroyed, and with the mills being frozen up no corn could be ground. The effect on the population was general and immediate. Furthermore, this freak weather was followed by an extraordinary set of freak seasons, starting with a cold and rainless spring. A cool dry summer was followed by the coldest autumn in 200 years, and then by a snowy winter. There was drought, but little heat in the summer of 1741, and normal rainfall patterns only returned nearly two years later.
Such a bizarre sequence of climactic conditions was hard enough on a poor agricultural reliant society, but it was the overnight disaster of 27th December 1739 that lit the fuse, which precipitated the crisis. All but the potatoes about to be consumed were still in the ground where they had grown, or were stored in shallow pits. So severe was the frost that nearly all the tubers were frozen and thereby made inedible. Thus the first great potato centred crisis in Irish history followed, which was made all the worse by the knock-on effects of the strange weather, i.e. hypothermia, and a collapse in standards of personal hygiene, a huge mortality of cattle, sheep, and horses, and a sharp recession in economic activity in towns. And, as if all this was not enough, the outbreak of war in 1740 between Britain and Spain put a great damper on overseas trade, and the demand for Irish beef and butter. Much of the seed corn was consumed in the early months of the potato scarcity, and so the cereal and potato acreage sown and harvested in 1740 was greatly down on that of normal years. Moreover, because it was a continent wide crisis the usual sources of emergency grain to top up Irish supplies, southern and easten England, and the southern Baltic were not able to make up the deficit on this occasion.
By the middle of January the destitution among the people was so great, that subscriptions to relieve the suffering were put in motion in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Clonmel, Wexford, and other places. Some landlords distributed money and food to their starving tenants, but, the number of such cases on record appears to have been very small. There was no general combined effort to meet the calamity, the Government took no positive action whatsoever, except that the Lord Lieutenant of the day gave to the starving citizens of Dublin £150 in two donations, and forbade, by proclamation, the exportation of grain, meal, bread, etc., except to England, “apprehending,” says his Excellency, “that the exportation of corn will be bad for the kingdom during this extreme season.”
After the first round of deaths from the cold and starvation, tens of thousands were reduced to begging, to wandering along the highways, and to collecting the classic foods of famine, docks, cresses, nettles, seaweed, and the blood drawn from live cattle. The combination of indigestible and unsustaining food, of dangerously unhygienic living conditions gave rise, in the later months of 1740, to a series of overlapping epidemics, i.e typhus, relapsing fever and dysentery, known at that time as the ‘Bloody Flux.’
The Irish government of the 1740s was far less able to intervene than their successors in the time of Peel and Russell. The 18th century public services had been far smaller, and apart from the revenue service and the army, the authority of the State was entirely mediated through the gentry, the Established Church clergy, and municipal corporations. The Irish government by the 1840s was bigger, more centralised, and had far more efficient eyes throughout the country. With a national police, an army commissariat, and a board of Works, Dublin Castle had an entirely different range of options if confronted by emergencies. Most important of these options was that, from 1839, the country was endowed with a national ‘Poor Law’ system, financed by local taxation but run with an almost military degree of standardisation in the early years. In the 1740s there had been neither national nor a comprehensive local system of provision. A non-statutory ‘Poor Law’, whereby the old and infirm received regular alms, operated under the auspices of the Church of Ireland vestries in the larger towns, and in the rural parishes where a fifth or more of the inhabitants were members of the Established Church. But this was of little relevance in an emergency, and the Catholic Church lacked a coherent organisational structure.
To add to the miseries of the people there was a great drought through the winter and spring. One witness, from the West of the country, commented on the 15th of April, saying, “There has not been one day’s rain in Connaught these two months.” As a result, the price of provisions continued to rise. Wheat, quoted towards the end of January in the Dublin market at £2 1s. 6d. the quarter, reached £2 15s. 6d. in April, £3 14s. in June, and £3 16s. 6d. in August. Rising prices now brouht about food riots, usually directed against the houses and storehouses of middlemen accused of hoarding grain, in Dublin and Cork. About the end of May there was a very formidable bread riot in Dublin. Several hundred persons banded themselves together, and, proceeding to the bakers’ shops and meal stores, took the bread and meal into the streets, and sold them to the poor at low prices. Some gave the proceeds to the owners, but others did not. They were evidently not common thieves, and at least a portion of them seem to have been even respectable. But, they were punished with very severely, several having been whipped, and one transported for seven years. Some days after the riot the Lord Mayor issued a proclamation giving permission to “foreign bakers and others” to bake bread in Dublin. At the same time, he also sent to all the church-wardens of the city to furnish him with information of any persons who had concealed corn on their premises. He denounced “forestallers,” who met in the suburbs the people coming in with provisions, in order to buy them up before they reached the market, thus in a great measure justifying the rioters who were whipped and transported. The bakers began to bake household bread, which for some time they had ceased to do, and the prices fell. Nevertheless, in 1740 and 1741, there were repeated disturbances from Sligo to Cork, with fatalities on at least one occasion.
Meanwhile, throughout the country there arose numerous gangs of robbers, most of them undoubtedly having sprung into existence through sheer starvation. Some, probably taking advantage of the Famine, pursued with more profit and boldness a course of life to which they had been previously addicted. It was fears of rioting and gangs of robbers that lay behind the gradual extension of the State into preventative and emergency procedures when they were confronted with failure of the harvest and the possibility of a re-run of 1740. These measures had a strongly urban bias and were designed to moderate fluctuations in grain prices, implying quite wrongly of course that all subsistence problems were tied to the outcome of the grain harvests.
The Famine continued through the year 1741 and even deepened in severity, provisions still keeping at starvation prices. The Duke of Devonshire met the Parliament on the 6th of October, and in the course of his address said: “The sickness which hath proved so mortal in several parts of the kingdom, and is thought to have been principally owing to the scarcity of wholesome food, must very sensibly affect His Majesty, who hath a most tender concern for all his subjects, and cannot but engage your serious attention to consider of proper measures to prevent the like calamity for the future, and to this desirable end the increase of tillage, which would at the same time usefully employ the industrious poor, may greatly contribute.” In answer to this portion of the speech, they promised to “prepare such laws as, by encouraging tillage, and employing the industrious poor, may be the means for the future to prevent the like calamity.” A Committee was appointed to inquire into “the late great scarcity,” and some matters connected with tillage. They met many times, now and then reporting to the House that they had made some progress, until at last the heads of a bill were presented, which were ordered to be sent to England. Nothing, however, appears to have resulted from this proceeding.
The land had been thrown into grazing to an alarming extent for years, so that the acreage for producing grain and other such food was very limited. The people fell into listless despair from what they had endured in 1740, and did not cultivate the ground that was still left for tillage. The Catholics, meanwhile, were paralyzed and rendered unfit for industrious pursuits, by an active renewal of the worst penal statutes. The prospect of a war with Spain, which was actually declared in October, 1739, was made the pretext for this new persecution.
Such was the state of Ireland in 1741, when bloody flux and malignant fever came to finish what the Famine had left undone. These scourges, unlike the Famine, fell upon the rich as well as on the poor. The prisoners died in thousands in the jails, especially poor debtors, who had been long incarcerated.
On 8th July, the following report from Galway city was published, saying, “The fever so rages here that the physicians say it is more like a plague than a fever, and refuse to visit patients for any fee whatever.” The learned and kind-hearted Dr. Berkeley, Protestant Bishop of Cloyne, under date 21st May, 1741, writes to a a friend in Dublin:—“The distresses of the sick and poor are endless. The havoc of mankind in the counties of Cork, Limerick, and some adjacent places, hath been incredible. The nation probably will not recover this loss in a century.”
The famine of 1741 did not deter farmers from the culture of the potato. On the contrary, it increased rapidly after that period, and we now find it, for the first time, recognised as a rotation crop. They preferred to turn their attention to improve its quality and productiveness, and to take measures for its protection from frost, rather than to abandon its cultivation. And, indeed, it was as much a matter of necessity as choice that they did so. The potato, on a given area, supplied about four times as much food as any other crop; and, from the limited breadth of land then available for tillage, the population would be in continual danger of falling short of food, unless the potato were cultivated to a large extent. The agricultural literature of the country from 1741 until the arrival of the celebrated traveller, Arthur Young, in Ireland, consisted chiefly of fierce attacks upon graziers, for their continual demand for the breaking up of grass lands into tillage, for the plans for the establishment of public granaries to sustain the people in years of bad harvests, and for the results of experiments undertaken to improve the culture of the potato. When Arthur Young came to Ireland in 1776, he brought his account of the country down to 1779. Thirty-six years had elapsed since the great Famine, only one generation, and he found the famous ‘root of Virginia’ a greater favourite than ever.
In comparing the two great famines raises the question of memory and public history. Nobody saw in the 1741 the huge scandal because the weather was so obviously to blame for the calamity. While the generosity of some landlords was brought into question, nobody placed any fault upon the government for what had happened. When the second great famine broke, it did so on a much altered society. For all the demonstrable problems of the poor, Ireland had far greater administrative and economic resources than had been the case a century before. The literate public were a great deal more numerous and better informed as to social conditions at home and abroad. But compared to the gentry dominated world of the 1740s, the political nation of the 1840s was riven by divisions political, religious and generational over the country’s future. All could agree that it was an outrage that Ireland, a metropolitan province of the richest kingdom in the world, should be brought to its knees by famine in an era of comparative peace and relative plenty.