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The famine in Cork
The Great Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1852, was neither the first nor the last of Ireland's famine experiences, but it was the most profound, and probably the most catastrophic event in modern Irish history.
The Irish population had more than trebled in the century prior to the Famine’s commencement, from approximately 2.5 million people in 1750 to about 8.5 million in 1845. Rapid population growth put enormous pressure on the country’s land and food resources, and reduced the impoverished peasantry, the bulk of the population, to a dangerous dependency on a single food source, potatoes.
In September 1845, the fungal disease phytophthora infestans, late blight, appeared in Ireland for the first time, and destroyed about one-third of the country’s second or main crop of potatoes. In the following year, blight returned and affected almost the entire potato harvest, a portentous occurrence that marked the commencement of the Great Famine in Cork city and county, no less than in the country generally.
Perceptions and Realities: Cork City
The winter and spring of 1846-47 witnessed the utmost distress in Cork and elsewhere in Ireland. This was a period of extreme and debilitating food shortages, spiralling food prices, food stealing and food riots, and a grossly inadequate public works relief programme. The resident population of Cork city was augmented by starving people from the county and further afield who swarmed into the city in search of assistance, ‘walking masses of filth, vermin and sickness’, as the Cork Constitution described them on 24 April 1847. These rural refugees scattered famine-related diseases in every direction and swamped the city’s limited charitable and relief resources.
Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, commander of USS Jamestown, which had arrived in Cork harbour from Boston on 12 April 1847 with some 800 tons of relief provisions for distribution in Cork, visited the city in the company of Fr Theobald Mathew, and was shocked by the scenes he witnessed in Cork’s side streets and back lanes. ‘I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me’, he recorded, ‘hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing.’ Forbes noted that hundreds of ‘spectres’ stood about a police-patrolled public soup kitchen, begging for a portion of poor-quality soup. The city streets were thronged with beggars, with starving and sick children and adults, and, Forbes added, the situation was worse in the countryside.
Perceptions and Realities: West Cork
The starving and diseased peasantry who abandoned rural Ireland did so because the land – and their government – had failed them, and the testimony of humane visitors to the worst affected parts of County Cork attested to their distress. On 21 December 1846, William Harvey and Joshua Beale, members of the Society of Friends or Quakers, left Cork city to investigate conditions in west Cork. They discovered that provisions were in short supply in Skibbereen poor law union and in the surrounding districts, and the food that was available was increasingly beyond the reach of the poor because of the disjunction between wages on the public works and the spiralling cost of food.
Six weeks after Harvey and Beale’s visit, a resident of Aughadown, between Ballydehob and Skibbereen, informed the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends that the locality was ‘one mass of famine, disease and death’, and that people were succumbing to a complication of diseases. The correspondent added that the dead were wrapped in calico bags and conveyed to the church-yard in a reusable coffin, colloquially known as a ‘trap’ or ‘sliding’ coffin, which was fitted with a hinged bottom that swung open like a trapdoor when released. A succession of Irish, British and American fact-finding visitors to west Cork noted the absence of children’s games, the abandonment of funerary customs, the defilement and dismemberment of unburied bodies by vermin and dogs, the ubiquity of coffins, and mass graves, in effect social abnormality, whole communities in disarray.
Their testimony was corroborated in newspaper reportage and commentary. In mid-December 1846, a special correspondent of the Cork Examiner reported that the most extraordinary feature of the prevailing distress in the Skibbereen district was 'the total apathy and singular indifference' with which death was regarded. He claimed that the better feelings and sympathies that formerly characterised the Irish people had disappeared, and their familiarity with death had rendered them indifferent to its ravages. An editorial comment in the same newspaper added substance and texture to the reporter's palpable sense of shock:
A terrible apathy, like that which oppresses a plague-driven people, seems to hang over the poor of Skibbereen ... One scanty funeral is fast followed by another and that by another. The dead are enclosed in rude boards, having neither the appearance nor shape of a coffin and are committed to their silent resting place in the night time, when no eye can rest curiously on the rude contrivance, or observe the absence of friends and mourners, and the want of all that ceremony so grateful to the pride and consolatory to the feelings of the Irish peasant.
The Examiner correspondent encountered 'the same unaccountable and extraordinary apathy' in Bantry a few days later. The general feeling among the people was that they were 'doomed', that they would be found dead in the fields or on the mountains without either the consolation of religion or the comfort of friends. A similar miasma of fatalism hung over other parts of west Cork also. A report from Castletown Berehaven in mid-February 1847 noted the 'anguish of mind' and 'wretched depression' that afflicted the peasantry. The observer added that these feelings arose from a sense of inevitability, from a conviction among the people that they were 'doomed to die'.
The Famine and its attendant diseases put the country’s relief and medical institutions under extreme pressure. The Skibbereen workhouse, which had been built to accommodate 800 inmates, contained 1,169 by the first week of January 1847, and 1,450 by mid-March. Fever and dysentery were rampant within the institution and 104 deaths were recorded in the first ten days of March. In a period of just over four months, 1 November 1846 to 10 March 1847, 728 individuals died in the workhouse.
In the second week of February 1847, forty-nine inmates died in Fermoy workhouse, where dysentery was ‘raging violently’. About the same time, there were 5,300 paupers in the Cork union workhouse, 1,000 more than the recommended number, and mortality was increasing alarmingly. There were 91 deaths in the last week of January, 127 in the following week and 164 in the second week of February, one every hour, and disposing of the dead had become a major problem. The situation continued to deteriorate, and 757 deaths were recorded in the Cork workhouse in the following month, March 1847.
These institutional deaths contributed to the Famine’s overall demographic impact of at least 1 million deaths from starvation and disease. The population loss that County Cork experienced could not have been anticipated when potato blight first appeared in early autumn 1845. The county and the country generally emerged relatively unscathed from the initial season of potato failure, but the winter and spring of 1846-47, following the almost complete destruction of the 1846 crop, was a period of terrible distress, perhaps the worst of the entire Famine. During these months, fever and dysentery raged epidemically, their malignity intensified by the effects of starvation, and these diseases cut a swathe through the immunocompromised population of west Cork and other badly affected areas. The government’s response to the failure of the staple food of the poor was determined by the prevailing ideology of political economy, and was grossly inadequate.
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the Irish people were confronted with a catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions and with morbidity and mortality on a scale never before experienced. The poorest and most vulnerable were stripped of entitlement and choice. For the more advantaged, there was the option of flight, and some 2 million people emigrated from Ireland in the decade 1845-1855. Death and emigration reduced the population of County Cork from 854,118 to 649,903, or by almost 24 percent, between the census of 1841 and that of 1851, although the city’s population increased from 80,720 to 85,745 as a result of the influx of rural migrants. The demographic impact was the most dramatic and enduring of the Famine’s seismic shocks, but there were others – political, social and economic – that were to rumble for the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the next.
School of History
University College Cork
Dr Laurence Geary has lectured and written extensively on the Great Irish Famine. This article is an abridged version of one that features in Niamh O’Sullivan (ed.), Coming Home: Art & the Great Hunger (Hamden, CT: Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum/Quinnipiac University Press, 2018). The Coming Home exhibition continues at The Coach House, Dublin Castle until 30 June 2018, and transfers to Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen, 20 July-13 October 2018.
See the full programme of events for the National Commemoration of the Famine in Cork here
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