“An Gorta Mór” or the Great Famine of 1845-49 is probably the most intense episode in the 9,000 year old story of mankind in Ireland. Interestingly it is commonly referred to as “the Famine” even though Ireland had been serially struck by famines in the 17th and 18th centuries. One such famine , that of 1739-41, claimed the lives of 400,000 people out of a population of 2 million. By the 1840s, 3 million rural poor in Ireland were dependent on a monoculture diet of potatoes. The island’s population then was just over 8 million. Meat and cereal were produced in abundance but were mostly exported to Great Britain. In 1845 the potato was attacked by a fungus and the crop failed for six pestilential years. The authorities could have slowed down the export of food to alleviate the crisis. Instead they opted to continue the exportation. In a three month period at the end of 1845, 160,000 cattle, sheep and pigs were exported along with significant amounts of wheat, barley and oats. The result was catastrophic – 1 million died as a result of the famine and a further 2 million emigrated in the two decades after the disaster. The Great Famine was the biggest humanitarian crisis of 19th century European history. The eminent historian Joe Lee has described the famine as “the greatest single peacetime tragedy since the [14th century] Black Death”. Historical geographer Kevin Whelan has highlighted the geo-political context of the tragedy i.e. it occurred in the richest, most powerful country in the world then, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The cause of the famine is much disputed in Ireland today with some arguing that it was a natural disaster exacerbated by a monoculture diet. Others vigorously challenge the orthodoxy of this view and apportion blame to the administration with its shameless policy of profit before people. Moreover the latter group points out that the government interpreted the Famine as an act of God and saw no connection between its laissez-faire economic model and the unfolding crisis.
The Burren and the famine
County Clare was one of the counties most affected by the Famine. According to the census of 1841 the population of the county stood at 260,000 people. The 2011 census records just over 117,000 residents in Clare. There was severe population collapse in the county during the Famine and in the decades thereafter. The Burren region in North Clare witnessed huge suffering as the vast majority of its population was rural poor. The same 1841 census recorded that 85% of the houses in the Burren were fourth-class defined as “all mud cabins having only one room”. The Burren population was mostly concentrated in the valleys where up to 400 people per square mile lived. Only one person per square mile lived in the rocky uplands. Ironically pre-famine dwellings survive in greater numbers in the hills today as they tended to be built of the more durable material of stone.
Other physical evidence of the tragedy is the abandoned potato cultivation ridges known also as “lazy beds”. Potatoes were cultivated by laying them on the surface (bed) and covering them with earth from a trench on either side of the bed. The trenches served as excellent drainage. Moreover a number of Famine relief roads survive in the Burren. A public works scheme was launched across Ireland in March 1846. Starving people worked on public projects such as road-building. Their wages would then allow them to buy food. The scheme was a failure for a myriad of reasons. The relief roads in the region are monuments to the administration’s abject response to the crisis.
The poor in the Burren and the Aran Islands had a double blow in the 19th century as they experienced a fuel “famine” as well as a food famine. Both regions were devoid of turf whilst any wood available would have been mercilessly exploited. Desperate peasants resorted to drying cow pats and even woody stems of plants in order to survive. Fuel was needed for cooking so it was very much a survival resource. Thuiles were used to dry cow pats in the Burren hills. They are ingenious dry-stone constructions within which the pats were placed. The thuiles would permit the drying effects of the wind whilst excluding most of the rain. Many examples of this vernacular monument can still be found in the Burren uplands. The “lazy beds”, pre-famine dwellings, relief roads and thuiles make the Burren a fascinating Famine landscape. They serve as potent reminders of our greatest social calamity.
A famine conundrum – Why didn’t the Irish eat fish?
If I had a dime for every time I have been asked this question over the years, I would be a wealthy man! The vast majority of the population had no recourse to fish during the Famine for a myriad of reasons – the abject poverty ; the rocky, inhospitable nature of most of the coastline ; the unreliable weather and the smallness of the fishing craft. In some cases fishermen sold their equipment to buy food – a resounding vote of no confidence in the fish’s role in staving off the starvation.
© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger