Great Famine Facsimile Pack


The failure, due to blight, of the potato crop in Ireland in September 1845 marked the beginning of a series of events that was to become known as the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor. This Great Famine of 1845-1849 had a devastating effect on the Irish population, particularly on the poorer classes. It set in motion major demographic, economic and political changes and left a deep cultural and psychological scar on modern Ireland. Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1616) is popularly believed to have introduced the first potatoes into Ireland. At first it was used as a supplementary vegetable by most social groups but it gradually became the staple diet of the poor. By 1840 approximately two fifths of the Irish population, over 3,000,000 people, were relying on the potato as their main source of food. There were many advantages to the growing of potatoes. They were nutritious, easy to cultivate, could be grown in abundance in boggy or marginal hilly areas and required very little skill to cook. The loss of the potato crop struck at the weakest sector of Irish society. A harsh winter, a shortage of seed potatoes and the return of the blight added to the crisis. By the winter of 1846-1847 thousands of people were dying from starvation and from Famine related fevers. It is estimated that between 1846 and 1850, 113,425 people died in County Cork. These deaths made Cork, along with County Leitrim, the two most distressed counties in Ireland. In County Cork, in the period 1841-1851 there was a drop in population of almost 27%. Even before the Famine the problem of poverty and hardship was endemic. In early 19th century Cork there had been several shortages and epidemics. Living conditions for the urban and rural poor were equally bad and there were large numbers of mendicants, ranging from evicted tenants to beggars. These frequently roamed from town to town seeking what assistance was on offer. The attitude of the middle and upper classes to the poor and the labouring classes ranged from benign paternalism to utter contempt. The poor, it was commonly believed, were improvident, lazy and had far too many children for their own good. Thus, at the beginning of the Famine there is a certain ambivalence towards the poor; this is particularly strong among the urban business community and among the farming community. When the tragedy began to unfold, there was often more concern about the potential damage to trade and law and order, than concern for the extreme suffering that the poor were experiencing. The British Government's reaction to poverty in Ireland and the problems caused by droves of Irish poor arriving in English ports was to establish commissions of inquiry, which eventually resulted in 1838 in the English Poor Law being extended to Ireland. By 1841 the country was divided up into 130 administrative districts known as unions. In each union a workhouse was built, paid for with locally collected poor rates. A board of guardians, consisting partly of justices of the peace and partly of members elected by the local rate-payers, oversaw the administration of these union workhouses.


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