Surviving 1846-'47 (the Potato Famine)


Beggars and Peasants assembled for Indian corn meal, July 1847
People who had limited resources used them to survive the winter of '46-47. For those who had none, the British government operated relief schemes beginning in 1846 which helped many survive.A relief committee was organized in the barony of Tullyhunco, which included Scrabby and Kileshandra parish. The committee was headed by Reverend J.C. Martin (possibly a relative of Ann Martin), rector of the Church of Ireland in Killeshandra. In April 1846 Rev Martin requested information from Dublin regarding the provision and distribution of Indian corn and by June corn meal was being passed out to the destitute in Scrabby and neighboring parishes.

But the concept of free relief rations was unthinkable to the Victorian principled British government. Even in such a crisis it was deemed necessary, rather than to give food away, to set up a public works program that would provide jobs and wages to the needy. Cavan was one of the first counties in Ulster Province to enact the works program, building walls, breaking stones and laying roads. Between the fall of 1846 and February of 1847, 25,000 (about one in five adults in the county), were employed in a works project. As early as June 1846 Rev. Martin began a work scheme in Tullyhunco, employing the destitute to break stones.

Conditions worsened however. On August 13, 1846 Rev. Martin reported the probable loss of more than four fifths of that seasons potato crop. He recommended the adoption of extraordinary relief measures noting that the previous "generous provision" of Indian meal had "largely overcome the peasantry's natural prejudice against any new foodstuff". But within days Rev. Martin was informed that the government was overwhelmed and all relief measures in Tullyhunco and the rest of Ireland were suspended. Rev Martin responded with a letter stating his regret for the decision in light of the general deterioration of the potato crop in his region.

With the suspension of government relief measure the responsibility for feeding the poor was thrown on the Poor Law Unions, local bodies that were funded by local property taxation. However, representatives from the Poor Law Unions across Ireland complained generally that collecting rates was difficult and funds were insufficient to provide support.

The situation got desperate enough in several parts of Ireland that rioting for food began. The following account comes from the Times of London in January 1847:

RIOTS IN DUBLIN Before 8 o'clock this morning a mob consisting of between 40 and 50 persons, many of them boys, commenced an attack upon the bakers' shops in the neighborhood of summer hill, Britain Street and Abbey Street. Owing to the early hour and the unexpectedness of the outbreak, they were enabled to carry on their depredations without let or hindrance. The rioters had the appearance of country people, and came from the northern outlets of the city. When they had reached Abbey Street two policemen interfered, and endeavoured to disperse the crowd, but without any effect, several men exclaiming that they had been without food for 24 hours, and that bread they should have. They then marched in "close order" toward Mary's Abbey, where they are great numbers of provision and cookshops, but I have not heard to what farther extent they continued their attacks.

Food riots in Dungarvan
from the Pictorial Times Newspaper (Oct 10, 1846)

On March 5, 1847 Alexander Somerville (1811-1885), a British journalist wrote the following account of his visit in County Longford, just to the south of Scrabby parish.

Seven men were in a field which measured three acres, and which had just been sown with oats. They were employed in breaking the clods of earth, in clearing the furrows for letting off top water, and in otherwise finishing the sowing of the oats. It was about four in the afternoon when I saw them. They appeared to me to work very indifferently; the whole seven were doing less than one man's work. I watched them for some time, while they did not see me, consequently they could not be enacting a part before a stranger. I was soon convinced that the men were, some of them, leaning on their implements of work, and others staggering among the clods, from sheer weakness and hunger. I concluded this to be the case from the frequency of such signs.

One of the men, after I had watched them some time, crawled through a gap in the hedge, came out upon the road on his hands and knees, and then tried to rise, and got up bit by bit as a feeble old man might be supposed to do. He succeeded in getting upon his feet at last, and moved slowly away, with tottering steps, towards the village, in a miserable hovel of which was his home. I thought I would speak to the feeble old man, and followed and came up with him.

He was not an old man. He was under forty years of age; was tall and sinewy, and had all the appearances of what would have been a strong man if there had been flesh on his body. But he bowed down, his cheeks were sunken, and his skin sallow-coloured, as if death were already with him. His eyes glared upon me fearfully; and his skinny skeleton hands clutched the handle of the shovel upon which he supported himself while he stood to speak to me, as it were the last grasp of life.

It is the hunger, your honour; nothing but the hunger,' he said in a feeble voice: 'I stayed at the work til I could stay no longer. I am fainting now with the hunger. I must go home and lie down. There is six children and my wife and myself. We had nothing all yesterday, (which was Sunday,) and this morning we had only a handful of yellow meal among us all, made into a stirabout, before I came out to work-- nothing more and nothing since. Sure this hunger will be the death of all of us. God have mercy upon me and my poor family.' I saw the poor man and his poor family, and truly might he say, 'God have mercy!' They were skeletons all of them, with skin on the bones and life within the skin. A mother skeleton and baby skeleton; a tall boy skeleton, who had no work to do; who could do nothing but eat, and had nothing to eat. Four female children skeletons, and the tall father skeleton, not able to work to get food for them, and not able to get enough of food when he did work for them.

Their only food was what his wages of 10 d. per day would procure of 'yellow meal' -- the meal of the Indian corn. The price of that was 3s. per stone of 16 lb. This gave for the eight persons 26 lb. 10 oz. of meal for seven days; being about seven ounces and a half per day for each person. No self-control could make such persons distribute such a starvation of food over seven days equally. Their natural cravings made them eat it up at once, or in one, or three days at most, leaving the other days blank, making the pangs of hunger still worse. But in the calculation I am supposing all the wages go for meal. I believe none of it was expended on anything else, not even salt, save fuel: fuel in this village must all be purchased by such people; they are not allowed to go to the bogs to cut it for themselves. Nor is this the season to go to the bogs, if they were allowed. The fuel required to keep the household fire merely burning, hardly sufficient to give warmth to eight persons around it, to say nothing of half-naked persons, would cost at least sixpence a day. Wherefore, no fuel was used by this family, nor by other working families, but what was required to boil the meal into a stirabout.





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