The Famine Period

The Great Famine, the Last Blow

Olden times Olden Times. This website brings us through pivotal periods of our Gaelic life in Ireland. We centre on the Great Famine, which brought our civilisation finally to an end. Early on, our ancestors – Celts and related races – had, as they migrated, gradually refined ideas for a civilised society and set them down in folklore and in law. They went west to the Hills of Conamara and east to the Tarim Basin, where Cherchen Man died around 1000 BC. His ginger beard and DNA attest to his Celtic origins.

Gaelic folklore reaches far to the East. The story of the Feast of Briciu tells of the Bachlach – who had gone through Europe, Africa and Asia in search of Honour (and lessons to bring home). Now long settled in Éire, it was said of us: “the natives keep at home to a fault… almost to the parish where their ancestors lived” v.132 . Belowi, a picture of where the workings of Gaelic life once thrived – now standing long destroyed by force of arms and cultural influences.

1798-rebellionThe 1798 Rebellion was put down by colonial forces.  They were free to treat unarmed civilians as enemy combatants, confirming the people’s despair.  They fought, often only with farm implements, against rifles and cannon.  By times their wives and children stood with them.  Nothing like such widespread and bloody slaughter has been wrought anywhere in Europe since – with indiscriminate mass killing and horrific torture.

“It’s better to die with a pike [a farm implement] in my hand than be shot like a dog at my work or see my children faint for want of food before my eyes.” (A tenant of the Duke of Leinster – June 1798.)

The statue below, of a farmer with his pike, was erected, with inscriptions in Gaelic script (the first national script in Europe after the fall of Rome)i:

Inscríâinn:  Tóg÷a i gcuine na sai°diúirí cróga, Gaeäil agus Franscai°, do fuairs ag troid ar son Saoirsea³ta na hireann, an 8 lá de ‡í eaäon an ¥óair, 1798.    R.I.P.             Go saoraiä Dia Éire

 Inscription:  Brought to mind the brave soldiers, Gaelic and French, who died fighting for the freedom of Ireland, on the 8th day of September, 1798.  R.I.P.   May God free Ireland

The Battle of Ballinamuck, on the 8th of September, marked the defeat of the main force of the French incursion during the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.

Social Structure dismembered. Below, the lot of a family around 1800.  Land-owners, under Gaelic Brehon Laws, become ‘peasants’ or ‘tenants-at-will’ under the Occupiers’ lawsi.


Famine Accounts.  In County Mayo it was estimated that nine-tenths of the population depended on potatoes.  Any other crops or farm animals a smallholder had, went as rent to English Landlords.  Blight first struck the potatoes in 1845.  Most of the crop was destroyed in 1846.  ‘Black 47′ saw the advent of deadly fevers such as typhus, which spread rapidly through the weakened population ii.

In March 1847, a large body of starving people seeking assistance gathered in Louisburgh.  They were ordered to apply at Delphi Lodge, 10 miles away.  When they got there, the next day, the Officials were at lunch and could not be disturbed.  Assistance was in any event refused.  It rained and snowed that day and there was piercing wind.  Many died ii.

Around Louisburgh, in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, coffinless ‘burials’ were carried out, many bodies not even interred.  Corpses had a handful of straw for a shroud.  Those dead and those nearly dead were put lying side by side, on the one bed, during the early months of 1847.  Inquests recorded ‘death by starvation’ until it was best thought that inquests be done away withvi,233.

irish famine

Recipient of the last food in the house.

Along the coast of Portacloy (Co Mayo), are dangerous precipices plunging to the sea.  It is told that two women descended the cliffs in search of sea-gulls’ eggs and sloke (sea moss – ‘sleabhcadh’ means ‘wilting’, and ‘ag sleabhcadh leis an ocras’ means ‘limp from hunger’ – not saying much for the food in question).  They went where only the goat and or eagle would venture.  Weak with hunger, they rested, so that the tide came in and swept them away.  Another time, two men, also in search of eggs, fell from a fearful height and were dreadfully mangled on the rocks below.  One died instantly.  The other lingered for some days and then must perish iii.

To the west of this, in the Barony of Erris, had lived some 28,000 people in 1846.  Continuing extreme poverty had reduced them, some years later, to a state of hopelessness. The population, since the Famine began, had reduced to 20,000, half of whom were reported to be on the extreme borders of starvation — crawling about the streets in a state of almost nudity — lying under the windows of those thought to have a little food.  And all the time, all being assured of deathiv.

The Government had deposited some tons of Indian meal, in a shop in Erris, to be sold or given out. 151 soldiers were marching around this shop, with bayonets erect, to guard the meal.  They looked warlike, contrasted with the haggard, meager, squalid skeletons, grouped in starving multitudes about them.  If the whole 10,000 of the starving in the Barony had been disposed to rise up, en masse, they could not have broken open a shop door.  They were so weak from hungeriv.

Around Belmullet were many unroofed cabins, silent and dreary.  Starving tenants had been ‘cleared’, to relieve landlords of financial impost.  Evicted people had so gone wandering, shelterless, to die.  Some had been buried alive during the eviction process, under the ruins of their cabins, as they were demolished.  Others were found already starved to death, outside of where they had lived, and in a putrid state – the mud and stones of their cabins having been tumbled upon them.  Their relatives had no money for coffinsiv.

The people had once been happy and cheerful in their cabins.  When food first ran out, and whilst still alive, they had, from morning to night, wandered in search of a turnip or they might go to the sea, for sea-weed to boil.  It must come to pass that corpses would be found at their cabin doors.  Often an ass would pass by, carrying a corpse, bound with some old remnant of a blanket or sheet.  Flung across its back would so be a father or mother, wife, husband or child, being taken to the grave.  When there were the corpses of two little childer, they were put into a couple of baskets, thus balanced upon the sides of the assiv.  The melancholy hearse would proceed on, without a friend to follow it, but the one who was guiding the beast.  These burials tell more of the paralysing effects of famine than anything else can do.  The Irish, in all ages, were known for their attention to the interment of the dead.


Castlebar from Knockthomas (Wynne Collection)

A man, from Castlebar, exhausted from hunger had come through a long illness.  Almost naked, he sat with a child in his arms, who sucked the father’s fingers as if they were the mother’s breast.  In a corner, on what answered for a bed, lay three childer.  They had lost their hair from famine.  With no covering except a worn sheet, they tried to sleep away their gnawing hunger.  The half-dead creatures said the mother was out begging, with two little ones, who could still walk.  The family of eight, in two days, had not eaten enough for oneiii.

The fate of people in West Cork, must needs briefly be told.  It too was particularly hard hit.  In the area around Ballydehob fever, consequent on starvation, was reported to be spreading widely, so that soon half the population would be dead.  In a cluster of 67 cabins, not three of them were free of disease.  In the townland, there would be no need for the Landlord to conduct extermination or forced migration [eviction], to thin the dense ‘swarm of poor peoplev,172.

Schull 1847

Schull 1847

It was reported, in Schull that, in the cabin of a poor nailer (nail-maker), his wife had lain dead for some time.  Two childer were on a miserable bed, with a covering over them, but destitute of clothes.  One of them was so weak, from want of food, that with difficulty he raised himself to show his emaciated limbs.  Elsewhere a labourer, his wife and two childer sat around a small fire.  A younger child lay dead in a cradle, much emaciated from the insufficiency of maternal nourishment, the poor woman herself in greatest want. They could not buy a coffin, as was usually the case vi,232.

Harringtons hutAll over the country, one can still see the ridges in which the last potato crop died from the Blight (an Dubh) and ruined botháin – the miserable cabins in which the poor had lived – in the horrible subjugation of everything they knew.  40% of dwellings in 1841 were one-roomed earthen cabins.  Windows and chimneys, signs of wealth, were taxed.  A typical cabin or bothán near Schullv,330:

The Church of Ireland Rector of Schull, Dr Robert Traill, against all pressures, applied himself fully for the welfare of the people, Protestant and Catholic v,79.  He died of Famine Fever in 1847.  A rare picture of him and his wife is given below.  Dr Traill features in the Chinese videos ‘Sān  –  SÌ  –  Wǔ’ on the Homepage and below (references are made to Schull and Skibbereen).


It was reported in Skibbereen, in February 1847, that a reusable coffin was constructed to convey bodies to the churchyard.  The remains were wrapped up in calico bags.  The coffin first brought the remains of a poor creature to the grave.  With her income cut off, she had been evicted from the only shelter she had – a miserable mud hut.  She had thus perished the previous night, in a quarry, where she had sought peace, to die.  She was found with some flax around her, lying dead vi,233.

SkibbereenThe aged, the infirm, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the starving – all dying creatures – were every hour flocking into the town.  Bodies were buried coffinless or not at allv,178.   Fever, dysentery and starvation were everywhere.  Girls of 9 or 10 resembled decrepit old women, their faces wrinkled, their bodies bent and distorted with pain, their eyes looking like those of a corpse v,188.

Irish was the language which the common people usually used, several of them being unacquainted with any other.  The decline in the use of Irish was accelerated by the fact that it was ‘the common people’ rather than ‘the better off’ of farmers or others who had suffered most in the Famine v,312.

John Mitchel, editor of the United Irishman, was sentenced, in 1848, to 14-years transportation to a penal colony.  He had advocated resistance to continuing heavy exactions of landlords and shipments of harvests to England (despite the Famine raging in Ireland).  He wrote that “the whole British Press, which never strikes so viciously at an enemy as when he is down, and in chains, sent after me, on my dark voyage, one continuous shriek of execration and triumph, which came to my ear, even in my Bermuda prison”vii,236.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was born in 1831 in Rosscarbery, Co. Cork, to an Irish-speaking family.  Their ancestors had been (dispossessed) Gaelic chieftains from Rossmore, so O’Donovan took on the name Rossa.  His family was hit hard by the famine.  His experience coincided with what John Mitchel wrote – that the Famine was genocide and that professed British liberalism was ‘humbug’.  In 1856 he established the Phoenix National and Literary Society ‘for the liberation of Ireland by force of arms’.  He addressed the Phoenix Society, in 1858, in Skibbreeen, to encourage regeneration “so as to prevent a recurrence of the national disasters of ‘46 and ‘47, when England allowed our people to starve and blasphemously charged God Almighty with the crime, while the routine of her misgovernment compelled the cereal produce to be exportedvii,234.

Rossa was accused of plotting an insurrection, in 1865, and sentenced to penal servitude for life.  At his trial, he had been accused of ‘inciting the lower classes to believe they might expect a redistribution of property’.  He suffered inhumane treatment in prison, fed on bread and water for 28 days at a time.  His hands were cuffed behind him every morning, so he had to get down on all fours like a dog, to eat. After giving an understanding that he would not return to Ireland, O’Donovan Rossa was released: he left for the United States.

An Ghaedhilge agus an Bochtanas.  Once known and respected throughout Europe and beyond, our Gaelic Civilisation was seen as an obstacle to absolute colonial power.  Outlawed and hounded without mercy, our noble way of life went to sleep under the depredations of the Famine.  The World around Gaeldom became acculturated, seeing Gaelic ways as inferior.  Adubhairt an bhean ar Oileán Cléire:  “Aon áit a bhfuil an Ghaedhilge ann, tá bochtannas ann.”

Irish-speaking districts were those in the West of Ireland least penetrated by English and by commerce and transport.  Because of low social rank and geographic distribution, the Gaelic population was decimated by Famine deaths.  In the 40 years after the Famine, the number of monoglot Irish speakers, in the Galway Barony of Tiaquin, for example, went from 5,100 to under 300viiiSuch a huge population of paupers, living and dying in poorhouses, was rightly seen as the final degradation of the Gael vi,329.

The Famine not only did away with the usual enthusiasm for music and socialising: for a long time people hardly recognised one another any more.  Emigration to America began: a thinly populated land resulted: ‘daoine aosta i mbun stoic ag aoireacht  i ndrúcht’ (‘old folk tending livestock in dewy fields)’.   Some famine songs did emerge, however, and expressed fearfulness with what ‘muinntir Shasana’ (the English) might yet do to a shattered people or with ‘lucht an Bhéarla’(English speakers), who had turned their back on Gaelic cultural identity, forgotten it and  assumed some form of provincial English identityix,222.

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, 1st Baronet, was a British civil servant and colonial administrator, who had worked with the colonial government in Calcutta.  As Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, back in England, he was responsible for the Government’s response to the Famine.  His possessed an almost genocidal anti-Irish racial sentiment, bound up with unthinking religiosity.  He would meticulously reason his way to opinions already formed.  In spite of millions starving to death in Ireland, he could still, in 1848, refer to the Famine as ‘local distress’.

With conviction, absent rational understanding, Trevelyan said there was only one way in which ‘the relief of the destitute has ever been, or will ever be, conducted consistently with the general welfare, and that is by making it a local charge’.   How well that approach would bring comfort to Famine-stricken countries in 2022.

i) Irlands ERBE, Peter Zöller, Gill & Macmillan, 2001
iii) The Famine in Mayo 1845 – 1850, Mayo County Library Publication
iv) Annals of the Famine in Ireland, Asenath Nicholson,
v) Famine in West Cork, Patrick Hickey, Mercier Press, 2002
vi) The great Famine, R.Dudley Edwards – T. Desmond Williams, Editors.  The Lilliput Press MCMXCIV (1994)
vii) The great Irish Potato Famine, James S. Donnelly Jr, Professor Cormac Ó Gráda, Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2002
viii)  Monivea and its People – the Story so far, FÁS, 1994
ix) Black ’47 and beyond, Cormac Ó Gráda, Princeton University Press, 1999

Die große Hungersnot in Irland

La Grande Famine en Irlande

Великий голод в Ирландии