Great Famine Facsimile Pack

From the collections of Cork City and County Archives Service.


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.


In County Cork eleven poor law unions were declared and after 1850 this number was increased to eighteen. During the famine these institutions were severely strained to accommodate all those paupers who sought relief. During the crisis of 1845-1849 boards of guardians faced problems of: overcrowding and disease in the workhouses; lack of funds and difficulties raising rates; problems adhering to the provisions of the Poor Law and at the same time humanely meeting the neeas of the destitute. Each union was responsible for keeping a variety of official records. These included minute books, rate books, incoming and outgoing letter books, ledgers of accounts and registers of thoseentering and leaving theworkhouse. A large collection of Poor Law Union records survive for County Cork. Apart from the relief provided by the poor law union workhouses, the Government attempted a variety of other methods of dealing with the Irish Famine. These included the sale of Indian corn to the poor from food depots, employment of the poor on public works schemes and soup kitchens. This relief was however devised by Government officialS--in London, many of whom were firm believers in theories of political economy which advocated as little Government intervention as possible in the market place. This pack is an introductory pack of facsimile documents for those interested in the Great Famine in County Cork. Items reproduced in the pack are from documents held at the Cork Archives Institute and from sources held in our local public libraries. They relate, in the main, to workhouses and Famine relief. For those wishing to carry out more detailed research the following addresses may be of use. Please note an appointment is required before gaining access to original documentation, 19th century publications or microfilm readers. Cork City and County Archives Service, 3 2 Great W illiam O 'B rien St., Cork (021) 4505876 Email: archivist @ W ebsite: Cork City Library, Grand Parade, Cork . (021)427711O Cork County Library, Carrigrohane Rd, Cork. (021) 4546499 Cork Public Museum, Fitzgerald Park, Mardyke, Cork. (021) 4270679

This Great Famine Facsimile Pack has been sponsored by Cork County Council.

Contents: Map of places associated with the Great Famine 1845-1848 in County Cork

Facsimiles (Documents)

Transcriptions of 2 facsimiles / documents

Sources for additional study

Leaflet of ' Our Dark Legacy: an archival exhibition on the Famine in County Cork '

Painting ' Awaiting the Emigrant Ship ' , by Cork Artist Charles H . Cook 1867




Birds Eye View of the Limerick Union Workhouse 1847, reproduced from the Thirteenth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners & ground plan of a smaller and more typical workhouse, such as that built at Dunmanway, reproduced from the 5th Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners.


Facsimile of page from Cork Union Board of Guardians minute book 31 August 1841 - 7 July 1847. This provides details of the proposed diet for inmates of the Cork Union Workhouse for 29 May 1847. It documents how much food each inmate should receive and the cost of same. It was often said that the prisoners in Cork County Gaol were better fed than the paupers in the workhouses. According to this record, children between five years and thirteen years were to be given stirabout (made from rice and Indian meal) and milk for breakfast, bread and porridge for dinner and bread for supper. The workhouse doctors, D.C. O'Connor and John Popham, complained that this diet was too low in sustenance to keep people in a good state of health.


Facsimile of page from Midleton Union minute book for 18 February 1846. Special business dealt with includes discussion of rates, paupers diet, deplorable condition of apartments in which children are housed and a complaint at the refusal of the Guardians to admit a pregnant servant girl into the workhouse.

4. EXTRACT FROM KINSALE REGISTER 4 December 1841 - 4 January 1848

Facsimile of pages from Kinsale Union Indoor Register. This provides details of those seeking relief at Kinsale Workhouse in September 1845. Previous occupations are given and these include fishermen, spinners, servants and labourers.


In the spring of 1846 Indian corn was imported into Ireland to be sold in Government depots as a food to replace the destroyed potato crop. This bright yellow, hard grain required special milling and cooking to make it edible. Posters advocating the use of Indian meal as an article of food were issued to encourage the proper use of this strange American import, that the poor had nicknamed ' Peel's Brimstone.' In May 1846, some 300 tons were sold weekly by the Government food depot at Cork.



Table taken from Census of Ireland 1851, providing details of deaths in permanent and temporary fever hospitals. Fever epidemics were common in 19th century Ireland. However,the displacement of large numbers of people caused by poverty and eviction along with the insanitary, overcrowded conditions of the workhouses was to aggravate the situtation. Fever raged in epidemic proportions in County Cork during 1846 ana 1847. Themost prevalent diseases were Typhus and Relapsing Fever, both were caused by micro-organisms, transmitted by the human body louse.. Patients recovering from these often developed dysentery and diarrhoea. Severe outbreaks of cholera and what is referred -to as Asiatic Fever also occurred spasmodically during 1848 and 1849.

16. Painting ' Awaiting the Emigrant Ship ' by Cork artist Charles H. Cook, 1867


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