The Great Famine

Throughout the early 1800s there had been few alternatives for a yong Irishman, especially those in the peasant class. As sung in The Rocks of Brawn, options included working the land, emigration or military service. Even with the animosity towards the British government, during the 19th and 20th century, thousands of Irishmen saw military service as a way to "bring glory to Ireland". But for most, a new life in Scotland, England, Australia and especially North America held out the more promising future.

As already discussed, in the decade from 1831 to 1841 over 350 people from neighboring Kilashandra parish had left for America. A similar number would have left from Scrabby. Many were writing back to family members in Ireland with positive reports, sometimes exaggerated, about life in America. Perhaps Patrick Dowd heard these reports and was enticed to go himself. It appears that he and his family left Ireland about 1845 for America. Peter Dowd may also have left Ireland about this time. Patrick would have written back, possibly sending money to Thomas encouraging him to follow. According to the parish books Michael, Ann, Mary and Thomas Dowd remained in Ireland between 1845 and 1848, throughout the period of the devastating Irish potato famine. [to include further research of ship lists and New York city records to establish Patrick and Peter Dowd's emigration and activity from 1845-1851]

As in the rest of Ireland, the Dowd's subsisted mainly on their potato crop. And as most, were ravaged by the potato famine. "This tragic dependence on the potato was due to dire economic circumstances, a rapidly growing population dependent on limited land resources".

The potato, ironically introduced in Ireland from America, had been a phenomenally successful crop in Ireland. The crop grew especially well in the poor Irish soil and proved to be the most efficient use of land to feed an Irish family. Before the potato, Irish families were smaller since crops of oats were not enough to sustain a whole family. The population explosion of Ireland in the early 1800s could not have occurred without the potato, as it provided enough food to sustain the increasingly larger families. Nutritious, easy to grow and plentiful, the potato was the perfect food for the Irish peasantry. The Irish became increasingly dependent on the potato.

"For about a century and a half, the potato has been the only food of the peasantry of Ireland. A very limited portion of land, a few days labor, and a small amount of manure will create a stock upon which a family may exist for twelve months ...... On the whole it is perhaps to be lamented that the use of "Ireland's root" has been so universal in this country and that the people have so well contented with it that they have no exertion to mix the potato with varied food."

Anna Maria Hall
Ireland : Its Scenery and Character. 1843

"Potato Dinner" Pictorial Times, Feb 28, 1846

Potato blight first struck in Ireland in 1845, but it arrived late in the season and most people harvested a reasonable crop. Because potato stocks could only be stored for six months anyway, the people were already used to struggling through the month of July, just before the new August harvest. But the blight meant fewer potatoes and would mean stretching this period of hunger over several more weeks. Tragically, the blight continued through the next harvest, wiping out the crops in 1846 and 1847. Over one million persons died in the ensuing famine.


POTATO DISEASE - Accounts received from different parts of Ireland show that the disease in the potato crop is extending far and wide, and causing great alarm amongst the peasantry. Letters from resident landlords feelingly describe the misery and consternation of the poor people around them, and earnestly urge the imperative necessity of speedy intervention on the part of the Government to ascertain the actual extent of the calamity, and provide wholesome food as a substitute for the deficient supply of potatoes. Mr. John Chester, of Kilscorne House, in Magshole, in the county of Louth, in a letter to the Dublin Evening Post, states that he has a field of twenty acres of potatoes, which, up to the 3rd instant, had been perfectly dry and sound, when they were attacked by the blight, and three-fourths of them are so diseased and rotten that pigs decline to eat them. This, he says, is the case all through the county of Louth. The Belfast News Letter has a still more lamentable account. It says, "We have abstained from occupying our space with the accounts of the prevalence of this calamity in various places, for this reason, that it may be here stated, once for all, that there is hardly a district in Ireland in which the potato crops at present are uninfected-- perhaps we might say, hardly a field."

The potato blight wasn't the sole cause of the crisis. Ireland was an agricultural country, and had sufficient other crops to feed its population. But by 1845 Ireland was a major supplier of grain and animal products to English markets. These expensive crops and animal products were out of reach of the average Irish peasant who subsisted almost entirely on the cheap potato. Historians argue that like other European governments dealing with potato blight, had the British government stopped exports of food out of Ireland, the famine would have been averted. Instead, food continued to be shipped out of Ireland to English markets and the Irish population was left with only their rotting potato crops.

Relief did begin early in the famine however with the introduction of cheap Indian corn from North America. The corn was stored in granaries where it was bought and then ground down by millers. There was enough supply of corn that the grain merchants competed with each other and the prices remained low. The British government proposed, as a response to the potato shortage in 1845, to lower tariffs on imports of corn to increase the supply into Ireland. They would also freeze exports of grain out of Ireland. This would ensure a sufficient supply of grain to feed the population at affordable prices.

However, English and Irish land owners protested. Despite the crisis looming over the Irish population, they hoped to keep the supply of corn low to increase the price of their own grain crops. The landowners were powerful enough to vote in a new government in London in 1846 that supported their views. In a decision of devastating consequences to Irish peasants, the English "Whig" government protected the interests of the English and Irish landowners by restricting the supply of corn and continuing grain exports out of Ireland. The prices for corn and grain shot up well beyond the means of most Irish.

Unable to earn more that 8d or 10d [$11.00] per day. Two scanty meals [was] all they could get per day, one half of the days wages or 4d [$5.00] for each meal...A penny loaf not quite 1½ lb. To a family of six or eight persons for their morning meal, and the share which the man could get [was] very inadequate to give him the strength and support for the days work.





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