If you are lucky enough to have created and tended a vegetable patch during lockdown, you may be getting ready to harvest your potato crop of earlies round about now. The Irish, in particular, have an affinity for the potato which, in the 1840s, lead to a very dark time in Irish history; The Great Famine.
UCD Archives houses a letter from John Molloy who lived in Castle Fogarty, Thurles, Co. Tipperary during the time of the Famine. On 15 July 1847, John wrote to his friend and fellow Castle Fogarty local James Lenigan, then living in Umberslade Hall, Birmingham. John’s letter described how, accompanied by Joseph Moore Labarte, a barrister and British Government Inspector, they had toured through the Tipperary countryside that day. On his return home, John was ‘to find large specimens of the fatal disease from two different parts of the country, one from Cormackstown and the other from Drumeenaghlugh’. Unfortunately, on closer inspection of these specimens and his own potato crop, John discovered spots of the dreaded potato blight, phytophthora infestans. John also enclosed a sample of the potato blight on five leaves for his friend to examine. Having already had endured two years of potato blight and famine in Ireland, John predicted the worst was yet to come.
There are more harrowing accounts of the effects the Famine had on Ireland and particularly rural parts of the country. Daniel O’Connell, born in 1775, was a barrister and politician from Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry. He became known as ‘The Liberator’ because he fought for Irish Catholic emancipation, achieving it in 1829, and for the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union. O’Connell was also a landowner in the west of Ireland, with land in Derrynane and around the barony of Iveragh, Co. Kerry. During the Famine, O’Connell was in Dublin, but he was in constant contact with his estate managers and son, Maurice, who informed him of the people’s suffering. While in London at the beginning of 1846, O’Connell wrote to Maurice in Derrynane discussing estate matters with him. He also asked about their ‘sloop’ which had sailed to Cork.
‘What do you think if the ‘sloop’ be still in Cork, of getting a ton or two of maize. If the people did not like it, it would save potatoes and meal from being consumed in the kennel especially when mixed with some bran, which you could get from Cahirciveen (sic) Mill. The dogs must not be fed to the detriment of the poor, and we must, at all events secure our own tenants from destitution. You will of course, let them know, that any money they necessarily lay out for provisions; will be allowed as part of their rent.’
Later that same year, O’Connell received a harrowing letter from one N. McEvoy, Parochial House, Kill. McEvoy gave the following description of the situation for the poor people in his parish:
‘There can now no longer exist a doubt that the potatoe disease will commit incomparably more extensive and destructive ravages throughout every part of Ireland on the incoming crop than those we have had the pain to witness – blessed be the will of God – during the past most trying season. Should prompt & extensive measures to avert the calamity not be adopted during this very present session of Parliament famine & pestilence will not fail to desolate the land to an extent to appal mankind, while to heighten the horrors phrenzies despair will be sure to take the place of the long-abused patience of the most suffering & worst treated people on the face of the globe…’
In January 1847, O’Connell was still in London fighting for repeal of the Act of Union, but his health was failing. His power and influence were still admired by those in power to such an extent that Sir Randolph Isham Routh, Chairman of the Irish Famine Relief Commission 1845-1848, wrote to O’Connell from Dublin Castle asking for help. Routh asked him to buy a few ‘cwt’ of Long Altringham Carrot and Hollow Crown Parsnip. ‘Cwt’ is a hundredweight, which in turn is equal to 112 pounds. The cost of these vegetables would be covered by the Relief Fund and Routh wrote that ‘Your example would be of the highest value’.
Correspondence like these gives a broader and more detailed picture of the pain and suffering felt by those who had to endure, and in many cases not survive, the Great Famine.
- This post was researched and written by Meadhbh Murphy, Archivist, UCD Archives.