Ireland experienced a number of famine situations during the 18th and 19th century, the most severe being 1846 - 1849. The following explanations have been offered for this period;

  1. failure of the potato crop due to blight
  2. overpopulation
  3. machination in agriculture causing unemployment in rural areas
  4. bad government and oppressive government

To examine all of these separately would not give a complete answer as any one of them would not of itself cause starvation. There is no wisdom like the wisdom of hindsight so it is in hindsight that we attempt to give a fair and accurate account of events in England in Ireland in the years 1845 -1848 that caused over 6 million people to die of starvation in 3 years.

1. Failure of the potato crop due to blight

In July 1845 potato blight arrived attacking the potato crop, the upshot of this was that the potato stalks died off within 2 weeks and the blight spores washed from the affected stalks through the soil to the tubers causing the tubers to blacken and rot.

2. Overpopulation

The population of Ireland in 1845 was close to 11 million. 80% of people lived in rural areas and depended on agriculture for employment and primarily on potatoes for food.

3. Machination in agriculture causing unemployment in rural areas

The steel plough appeared in Ireland about 1820. This was pulled by two horses and completed as much work in one day as ten men with spades. Towards the middle of the 1840s most landlords and medium tenant farmers possessed a steel plough, leading to massive unemployment for rural spades men.

4. Bad government and oppressive government

With the collapse of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, the House of Commons made a deliberate and very successful attempt to suppress the Roman Catholic religion in Ireland. The Penal Laws enacted by the House of House of Commons in England were designed to eliminate Roman Catholic religion and replace it with Protestantism. This resulted in almost all of Irish property coming under Protestant control. Roman Catholics, who represented approximately 90% of the population, owned less than 5% of property. This repression of the Catholic population continued for 50 years and led to an uneducated, squalid-living, and poverty-stricken Catholic population, totally controlled by Protestant landlords and courts, as well as a Protestant Parliament in England. British merchants saw the success of the Penal Laws in Ireland and started, through the medium of their Parliament, to enact trade laws favourable to themselves and very unfavourable to their Irish Protestant cousins. These laws covered most manufactured goods and all agricultural goods. Pensions and burdens amounting to 80% of Irish GNP were levied on Irish landlords which increased the poverty of an already destitute rural population.

The economic structure in rural Ireland at this time also contributed to the famine situation: The landlord rented the land to a local farmer for an annual rent. The farmer in turn sublet some of this land, often as many as eight times, to local agricultural labourers who worked with their spades for a wage. To pay for a patch of ground and a one-room cabin, a labourer would often grow his potatoes with those of his employer and use his small wage to pay for a cabin. The introduction of machination led to widespread loss of wages among labourers. As the Protestant landlord owned all the land and all the houses and cabins built on it, loss of a wage inevitably led to the loss of a cabin and ultimately starvation through the inability to produce food. In other words, a family could go from a situation of relative comfort and security to one of destitution, poverty, and starvation overnight. Through a combination of these factors, a famine situation developed in the winter of 1845-46 and continued into 1847-1849 through the successive failure of potato crops.

The English Parliament's attempts to deal with the Famine in Ireland do not deserve any serious mention here. Irish Catholic politicians' attitude towards the problem is epitomised in a statement by Daniel O' Connell to the House of Commons in November 1845:

"The people are not to blame It has pleased Providence to inflict this calamity on them. It is your business to mitigate it as well as you can. Famine is coming, fever is coming and this House should place in the hands of this Government power to stay the event."

This says more about his lack of knowledge of divine Providence than any attempt to tackle the Famine.

The English solution is summed up by George Trevelyan, the then Viceroy of Ireland, in 1847 when he wrote as follows:

"In my opinion, too much has been done for the people under such treatment. The people have grown worse instead of better and we must now try what independent exertion can do."

This policy prevailed throughout the Famine resulting in the death of six million Irish men women and children. Trevelyan was duly Knighted for his inaction. This was a terrible time in Ireland, the terrible misery, horror, pain and anguish of which will not be indulged in here. Better to remember the six million people that died and the horror and slow pain of their starvation.

 

The Famine in Castlemagner

Locally in Castlemagner, the Famine took its toll as in every other Parish in Ireland. Geoffrey O'Donoghue, a great great grandfather of the present owner of the Castle Bar in Castlemagner, together with Fr John O'Riordan PP, operated a soup kitchen. Both died of famine fever in a single week in 1847. There is a famine grave in Killbarrahan large enough to hold 500 corpses. This was used in living memory for the burial of still born babies. The famine in Ireland was man-made and could have been easily avoided. Let us the Irish people never turn our backs on starving people anywhere in any generation in any century.