Ireland’s 18th Century Famine

Ireland was struck down by famine in 1740-1741, and this period in their history was referred to as the “Year of the Slaughter.”

It started with a Great Frost in December 1739 and went on to September 1741.  Temperatures across Ireland and Europe plummeted to -12 °C indoors, and as high as -32°C outdoors.

Little snow fell, as the winds increased, and temperatures dropped even further.  Ireland and most of Europe had been affected, as rivers, lakes and streams froze, and the fish died in the first few weeks of this natural disaster.

Hypothermia was the greatest fear; people burned what they could to stay alive.  Country dwellers fared better, as many properties were of wooden construction, and they burned trees to keep warm.

In normal weather conditions, Ireland received shipments of coal from Wales and Scotland, but the weather temporarily suspended deliveries.  By late January 1740, when shipments had resumed, prices had soared, above most people’s pockets.

Much machinery in those days was powered by water, and the sub-zero temperatures brought them to a halt.  Like the food processing plants, cloth for the weavers, and paper for the printers.  Then Ireland was plunged into darkness, when the oil froze, and the street lights were snuffed out.

Ireland had two main food sources; potato and oatmeal.  Potatoes were grown in gardens and on farms, but most had been attacked by the frost and destroyed.

In the spring of 1740, the rains did not come, the frost dissipated, but the fierce cold winds remained.  If the cold had not killed off the livestock; sheep and cattle etc, the drought was the final straw.

In the summer of 1740, the people of Ireland faced a famine of the likes they had never experienced … The frost had killed the potato harvest.  The drought killed off the grain harvest, cattle and sheep.

People were starving, and food was becoming scarce.  There started a mass exit out of Northern Ireland, heading to the south of the country, where beggars lined the streets.

With food prices soaring, hungry people vented their anger on grain dealers, bakers and food warehouses.

It was expected, and they should not have been surprised, when hungry hoards, boarded a vessel at Drogheda, preparing to deliver oatmeal to Scotland.  The rioters removed the rudder and sails, preventing the delivery.

In the summer of 1740, rioters clashed in many cities and towns, in a bid for food.  Dublin was attacked, as they sought out bakers holding on to bread.  This brought out the troops to restore order, and some rioters were killed in the scuffles.

An international war broke out; and Spanish privateers captured food ships destined for Ireland.

Autumn 1740, and Ireland had a small harvest, some cattle had survived, but milk and butter was limited.  Prices in the shops dropped a little, it was no more than a goodwill gesture … for it could not last.

October 1740, what Ireland dreaded most; snow blizzards swept along the East Coast.  In December, the rain arrived causing widespread flooding.  Within twenty-four hours, temperatures had fallen, and snow fell yet again, as the rivers and lakes froze.  This time the cold spell only lasted for ten days, for it was followed by warm temperatures.

Ireland’s people needed food, and riots ran wild through the country.  In December 1740, the signs were there for all to see, famine was upon the people of this land.  They needed help.

For it was on the 15th December 1740, Samuel Cooke, the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, met with Archbishop Boulter, Henry Boyle Speaker of the Commons, and Lord Jocelyn; Lord Chancellor of Ireland, to look for ways to reduce the price of corn.

Boulter, seeing the need of the people, started a feeding program for the poor of Dublin.  The High Sheriff of each county was ordered to take stock of grain and cereal reserves held by farmers and merchants.  It was staggering, that some 85,000 barrels were being held, whilst the people of this land were dying from hunger.

The late William Conolly’s widow and a major landowner distributed food in the “Black Spring” of 1741.  In Drogheda, Henry Singleton Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas donated a large amount of his personal money towards famine relief.

In the June of 1741, five ships reached Galway, laden down with grain from America.  In July of the same year, grain prices dropped, in response to stored grain being released onto the market.

The autumn harvest of 1741 was one of plenty, for the food crisis was at an end, but it would take Ireland many years to recover from that deadly period.  Hundreds of thousands died during that time…

If the hoarded grain stocks had been used to feed the country’s people, just think, how many lives might have been saved!

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