Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Great Hunger

The peasants of Ireland had come to live almost entirely on the potato, which had been first introduced into the country by Walter Raleigh. In better times, they could afford to keep the farm produce, but this had to be shipped off to England to pay the master, when times were bad.

People who lived on the cheaper variety of the potato were not very thriving specimens of humanity. The regular harvest crowd of Irishmen crossing to England in the month of August were pitiably undersized, and in their odd, ragged garments, often fastened together by wisps of straw, they gave the prosperous English farmers an impression that all the Irish nation were inferior to themselves. Most of these harvesters came from the western counties, where the land was dry and barren. Potatoes did not often last out till the end of the year, and with wages as low as 4d. a day, anything else was too dear for the scanty meals of a labourer. Famine was known to the Irish peasant only too well before the first rumours spread in 1845, that a blight had fallen on the potato-crop of Ireland.

The same blight fell on other countries—on Holland and Hungary, on Belgium and Canada—but the danger was most serious to Ireland because the poorest class there depended entirely on the root, which had been destroyed. After a famine there was

always the risk of fever, which would spread to all classes, and therefore caused more terror to the country as a whole. The Government were slow to notice the first omens of disaster, and did not adopt the suggestions which O'Connell made for the benefit of his nation. He thought brewing and distilling should be stopped in order that all the grain could be used as food, that no tax should be imposed on corn brought into Irish ports, and that every grain of corn in Ireland should be kept there. He wanted land-owners to pay

tax so that there might be a fund for the peasantry when dire want came upon them.

Government did not approve of O'Connell's measures, and it is possible that they would have been fruitless. Yet the harvest of 1846 was particularly abundant, and it seemed foolish to send away the farm produce to England while there was hunger to be satisfied at home.

Famine came to the peasant, like some evil spirit, tempting him to crimes that he would have loathed in seasons of prosperity. Men saw their children crying for food and went out insanely to burn and plunder, too often to take life. In country neighbourhoods the wealthy lived in a state of panic, and the humble labourer can hardly be said to have lived at all. They were used to such extreme poverty that bread was accounted a luxury to be bought only on such festivals as Christmas and Easter. Many cottars with large families were able to have a new coat only once in five years, and their wives wore cloaks and gowns even longer since their work was less exposed to the weather. A cabin bedstead could be purchased for five shillings, but there were few homes where some members did not lie all night on the ground. The cabins had often damp floors and leaky roofs that made such economies very dangerous to health. Wages were uncertain and farmers could hire men in plenty to work for them without any other wages than their usual meals of potatoes every day.

The summer of 1846 was very warm and wet. In one night a general blight fell on the potato-crop all through the land. As cattle, corn, and butter were still sent away to raise money to pay the rent, many deaths from starvation followed both in the North and the South.

Switzerland and Germany, in a like case, opened public granaries for the people, and there was certainly enough food in Ireland to feed the whole country, but English officials thought to meet the distress by finding work for labourers. They decided to extend the highways of Ireland. Millions of money were squandered on making new roads, where they were no manner of use, and good roads were torn up in order to be made again. New lines were planned where traffic never passed, and strange highways, known as Famine Roads, can still be seen in Ireland, lying in the middle of bogs or on the edge of precipices. The men employed soon grew too feeble for their tasks. Disease came after want and carried off 2 00,0.00 people.

Other efforts were made to help the country, but all was too late. Gold was given lavishly by other countries, and stores of Indian corn were sent to Ireland to be served out to the people, while their own corn was still exported. The state of the nation became more pitiable from day to day. In 1847 a young Englishman, travelling through Ireland, describes the town of Westport:

"The town of Westport was in itself a strange and fearful sight, like what we read of in beleaguered cities, streets crowded with gaunt wanderers, sauntering to and fro, with hopeless air and hunger-stricken look

a mob of starved, almost naked women around the poor-house, clamouring for soup tickets, and our inn, the headquarters of the road-engineers and pay-clerks, beset by a crowd of beggars for work."

The same traveller describes another district: "As we went along our wonder was not that the people died, but that they lived, and I have no doubt whatever that in any other country the mortality would have been far greater: that many lives have been prolonged, perhaps, by the long apprenticeship to want, in which the Irish peasant has been trained, and by that lovely, touching charity, which prompts him to share his scanty meal with his starving neighbour."

Fishermen had to pledge their nets and tackle to buy food, while workmen often tramped so far to get employment that they fell over their tools in sheer exhaustion as they worked.

After the famine, other terrors came upon the Irish peasant. Thousands were driven from their cabins because they could not pay their rents. In despair, great numbers left the country, hoping for better fortune across the sea, but disease and death still pursued them as they embarked on crowded and unseaworthy vessels, and many were drowned before they reached American shores.

The years of hunger brought to an end that long struggle of the Irish against their national poverty. The weak seemed to decline into idle acceptance of inherited misfortune and scarcely made any attempt to do their best with what they had. The promising refused to be satisfied with their own barren land. They set off to the United States, where they could nearly always earn higher wages, and a new homeland was thus created in a foreign country. By and by the vast continent of America knew another Ireland formed by the emigrants who succeeded in town-life far more often than on farms. The decreasing population of the old Ireland saw their prosperity with wonder, but did not try to emulate it. They continued to follow the ancient callings of the pastures. Long stretches of land separated one cabin from another, so that the tenant-farmer lived in isolation that had no good effect on his labour.

Between 1847 and 1851, the census showed that the population of Ireland had been reduced by no less than two million souls. In the following years, the tide of emigration flowed with steady and all too fatal impulse towards the United States.