Descended from Survivors - An Gorta Mór 1845-1850

What does it take to survive? What is needed for a person to face overwhelming adversity and not give up? What kind of will does it take to make it when so many others don't?

Ireland has always been a land of abundant fertility. Even from the earliest historical texts our ancestors gave descriptions of the island as 'a fruitful land.' with 'a fishful sea.'

Maybe it was this abundance that drew so many invaders to our coast. Time and again, Ireland came under the oppression of outside forces, not least of which was the British empire.

It was during this oppression, under the rule of their monarch Queen Victoria, that one of the greatest tragedies of our time befell the people of Ireland. A tragedy which changed the face of the world. Which destroyed so many lives of our people, and scattered us across the globe.

There had been other famines in Ireland over the years but there is only one known as an Gorta Mór or the great hunger. Precipitated by a fungal blight of potatoes, wide-spread crop failure occurred through out Europe.

The impact of this on the Irish people was significant, because the potato had been intentionally introduced to Ireland specifically for its ease of growth and its high nutritional value. This was the food with which they fed their unpaid workforce. This was the food they allowed us to keep, while they took the rest.

The 1841 census showed an Irish population of just over eight million. Over five million of those depended on agriculture for their survival. Given the discrimination of the penal laws, less that 5% of Ireland was owned by the people of Ireland - the rest of the land being in the control of (often absentee) English landlords.

The Irish had to work for these landlords, growing grain and cattle for export, in return for the patch of land they needed to grow enough food for their own families. This was the system which forced Ireland and its peasantry into danger, since only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity.

During the  great famine, when the potato crops failed again and again, there was sufficient food, flax, and wool grown on the land to feed and cloth double its population.

The decisions of the British government to adopt a 'laissez-faire' economic policy, in which transactions between private parties are free from government intervention, meant that the English landowners were under no political obligation to address the rampant starvation decimating the population of Ireland. In many cases these landlords never even set foot on their holdings more than twice in their life time, relying on middlemen to secure and send their revenues to them in England.

This famine was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland, of anywhere from 45% to nearly 85% depending on the year and the county. Only the younger stronger members of families emigrated, so much so that emigration almost became a rite of passage.

Unlike similar emigrations throughout world history, women emigrated just as often, just as early, and in the same numbers as men. The emigrant would send money back to family in Ireland, which, in turn, allowed another member of the family to leave. Even for these young people, survival was not guaranteed.

There was such a demand for passage - and landlords were so eager to clear 'their' land of a starving, desperate population - that overcrowded, poorly maintained, and badly provisioned vessels known as coffin ships sailed from small, unregulated harbours all along the coastline of Ireland.

Mortality rates were high. Those that did survive the journey to England, Scotland, South Wales, North America, and Australia, found themselves in new lands desperately struggling to make a life for themselves in any manner they could, so that they could send support back home to those left behind.

A census immediately after the famine (in 1851) counted 6.5 million people living in Ireland, a drop of over 1.5 million in 10 years. It is estimated that Ireland suffered approximately 1.1 million to 1.5 million deaths between 1846 and 1851 brought about by starvation and disease impacting a malnourished population.

So whether you come from a family which stayed, or from a family which left to support those left behind, it's fair to say you are descended from survivors.

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1 comment

  • I’ve been reading a bit about the Potato Famine; I never once knew any of the details until these past few months. It’s heartbreaking and gives me pause to think of so many things. Thanks for sharing this information.


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