THE IRISH FAMINE OF 1846-1851
I am sitting at my computer thinking about what to write this time. My research, in the last few months, has seemed aimless and disjointed and going off in all directions as I encounter one frustration after another. So, I asked myself who or what had been preoccupying me most, during that time. I realise that my thoughts keep coming back to Ireland and the Famine of 1846 – 1851.
There is a reason for this. My biggest breakthrough this year was discovering that there is very strong evidence to suggest that my great-great grandmother was an Irish Famine Orphan. However, not having proved this to my full satisfaction I have continued looking for clues and evidence. In doing so I have come to recognise the complexity and tragedy of that era in Ireland’s history.
The Irish Famine, also known as The Great Hunger, came about because the potato, which was one of the main staples of the Irish diet, developed a fungal disease in 1845. This disease was Phytophthora infestans and was known as potato blight. This led to the potato crop failing in some years and giving very poor yields in other years. The result was poverty, starvation and disease in great numbers of the population. The suffering during this time was truly terrible particularly in the poorest agricultural areas. The population in those parts of Ireland was largely made up of peasant farmers who had small plots of land and large families to provide for, or who were landless labourers relying on income from farm work. Many people died from starvation but a greater proportion of the famine related deaths were from disease. Starvation weakened the body and so the weakened population was not able to withstand diseases such as cholera, typhus, dysentery and scurvy. It is estimated that the population of Ireland declined dramatically by 20 to 25 per cent during those years.
However, the decline was not only due to death from starvation and disease. During this time, some families or members of families were able to emigrate. These were people who were affected by the food shortages but who had the means to raise the money for their passage to another country. Many left their homes to look for a better life in Canada, America, New Zealand and, as we all know, Australia. Apart from my “famine orphan”, I have other Irish ancestors who came to Australia in the early 1850’s and I realise now that because they came from humble farming backgrounds they would have almost certainly experienced all the horrors and deprivations of that time. It makes me very sad to think of the hardships they suffered but I am also very proud of them and proud to be part of that heritage. They all lived long successful lives here in Australia.
I have also learned that there were areas of Ireland that were largely unaffected. These were the industrial regions where people remained in employment and so had the means to buy other available food.
It is ironic, though, and tragic to know that during this time while people starved Ireland was exporting wheat, barley, oats, flax and butter. A significant proportion of Irish land was being farmed commercially to produce goods for export. I have read that in some cases goods were being shipped, under guard, from ports in famine stricken areas.
In my search for information I have found a number of very interesting and helpful Irish history books, some with a chapter or two devoted to the famine and some entirely about the famine.
This is a list of a few of them:
“Black ’47 and Beyond. The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory” by Cormac
“Irish Women in Colonial History” edited by Trevor McClaughlin
“Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia” by Trevor McClaughlin
“Dark Rosaleen. A Famine Novel” by Michael Nicholson
“Irish History for Dummies” by Mike Cronin
Of course, the internet and google are a wonderful and seemingly endless source of information and a jumping off point for further and more detailed research. For example, I googled “County Cavan and the Irish Famine” because that is where two of my ancestors came from. I was rewarded with a wealth of information about County Cavan during the famine and its aftermath as well as the years leading up to that event. There is so much information out there that I began to feel that I could do a research thesis on the topic. Of course, I won’t. I am saving all my information for my family history when I finally write it.
In these past few months I have realised that even if you hit a brick wall and become frustrated in your search for hard core facts about a specific ancestor you can still move forward. You can use your time wisely and fruitfully by researching events and eras in history which would have influenced your ancestor’s life.