Ireland’s 19th Century Famine (1879)

Ireland’s last famine had been in 1845-1852 which caused mass hunger and deaths, yet twenty-seven years later in 1879; they had not fully recovered, and would be struck down once again.

The country’s poor farmers, lived as tenant farmers, and were subject to landowners whether they had a roof over their head.  Any improvements to the land or their homes became the property of the landlord upon termination of lease or eviction.

Farm produce and prices had seen a growing economy between 1852 through to the 1870’s, and tenants had seen their rents increase.  With high crop yields, and good sales, everybody was happy.  Suddenly without warning, the weather conditions changed in 1874, covering most of Europe, which saw poor harvests in the following years.

What they had dreaded most, was just around the corner, waiting to strike.  Blight, hit the potato crops of Ireland once again, and the people knew what was coming next; starvation and famine, as many had lived through the previous famine, and lived to tell the tale.

Help came from abroad; Wheat from USA and Ukraine, Meat from Argentina and Australia, to keep the prices down for producers, and help a country weather a bad storm.

Back in the 1850’s, a new form of tenancy agreement had been laid down.  The old lease was referred to as “lease of three lives” which is exactly what it meant within any family unit.  This was replaced by an annual or eleven month lease, thus long-term security had gone.

Twenty-seven years had passed, and the farmer’s and labourer’s had become organised.  Now they were represented by the “National Alliance” better known as the “Land League” (Much like our unions of today), led by Charles Stewart Parnell.  The land league was financed by donations from America, but their actions against landowners, was nothing short of hostile.  They physically blocked evictions in mass and burnt leases in public places, showing their contempt.

One of the worst area’s was Connacht, for it suffered from poor quality of land, more rain than most other parts of Ireland, which equalled poor farmers, and reduced crops and levels of food.

When the first signs of bad crops appeared in the Connacht area in 1879, they knew what was coming… hunger and famine.  They didn’t need to be told, you could see the frightened look upon their faces, and the fear in their eyes.

Parnell’s Land War brought British political reforms for Irelands small farmers and tenants to a head.  William Gladstone, the then British Prime Minister had to act, before it got seriously out of control.  The former Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act of 1870, was replaced in 1881, with the “Occupation and Ownership of Land in Ireland Act,” which was designed to create official rent reductions, and would recognise the interest of tenants, on leased land.

Parnell, further enhanced his demands upon the British Government, by promising to stop disruptions across the land, if all unpaid rents were cancelled.  They had no choice, but to agree.

The “Wyndham Act” of 1903, was brought in to help Irish Tenant Farmers, and would see an end to their unstable lifestyle.  Over a period of time, they would see their life of poverty fade in the distance behind them.  Tenants could purchase land from their landlords, at a fair price set by the government, and pay the money to the government, spread over many years, without causing any hardship.

***

Many of the world’s poorest countries have relied on a single crop for survival in much the same way as Ireland did during its famine years.  This has proved to be a disadvantage, as weather and diseased crops can wreak havoc across countries, and thousands of people face hunger, and the thought of famine.

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