Harsh winter weather leads to severe famine

The freezing winter conditions 1739/40 destroyed the crops to such an extent that famine conditions prevailed costing the lives of at least 200,000 in the West of Ireland.

The freezing winter conditions 1739/40 destroyed the crops to such an extent that famine conditions prevailed costing the lives of at least 200,000 in the West of Ireland.

Harsh winter weather leads to severe famine.

November 1739 was bitterly cold with constant northeast winds culminating in a prolonged period of intense frost which started from about the middle of December and continued for 8 to 9 weeks. The frost killed birds in large numbers. Even sheep died from the cold. Turnips were destroyed as well as trees and shrubs. Galway’s great historian James Hardiman records that ‘the river was frozen from the bridge to the mouth of Lough Corrib, and continual recreations were held on the ice from Woodquay to Newcastle and Terrilan. This memorable winter was followed by famine and pestilence in which multitudes of the poor perished’.

Much of the blame for this famine, which in many ways, was equal, if not worse, than the Great Famine of the mid 19th century, was due to the severe weather, and a dramatic change in diet, among the farming class. The dependence of the mass of the population on the plentiful potato, as their staple food, was only beginning during this time. Until then, the land-owning class grew wheat, barley, oats and rye which fetched good prices on the export markets. The trend towards grazing, however, produced even better profits, gradually reducing land availability for cereals. Soon cereals and animal products alone could not sustain the rapidly increasing population.

It was acknowledged that even marginal and mountain land, sown with potatoes, could sustain up to four times the population as the same acreage of cereal. Nor was the potato as vulnerable to wet and windy conditions as cereals. Its cultivation involved relatively little labour, and important to the Catholic subsistence farmer in the West, was not tithable, a bitterly resented tax. By the end of the 18th century, and for the first time in out history, the poor throughout rural Ireland were completely dependent on the potato, which would bring its own disastrous consequences in the 1840s.

No effort made

In the lead up to the 1740/41 famine, the preceding spring and summer had been a mixture of wet and stormy weather resulting in a poor grain harvest. Then in March and April 1740 it is recorded that not one day’s rain fell in Connacht, resulting in a meagre harvest. Soon there was no food, and with the exception of a handful of good landlords, notably the Eyre family, who provided some succour, ‘the roads were spread with dead and dying bodies, the colour of the docks and nettles they fed on, and many buried in the fields and ditches where they perished.’

This famine did not muster any active interest either in Dublin Castle or in England, and no official effort was made to relieve the distress in the country. The only action of an official nature was the transfer of the summer assizes to Tuam in case any of the perriwigged-judges might catch a fever.

Ironically, when about 200,000 were already dead of famine and pestilence, the Government proclaimed a ‘general fast’, and sort of penitential sacrifice, asked of the Irish people as a prayer for the success of His Majesty’s Army against the King of Spain!

Influx of refugees

Inevitably famine was accompanied by malignant fever (typhus ) and dysentery, and we are told that Galway became ‘one large lazaretto with thousands dying in the streets of famine, fever, and bloody flux’. One estimate is that one-fifth of the national population died of starvation and fever, with the proportion much higher in the West than elsewhere.

There were no facilities available in Galway to cope with the influx of refugees, nor is there any record of any official or voluntary effort to provide relief or help for the sick and dying. The small infirmary in Abbeygate Street had accommodation for only a few patients; St Bridget’s Hospital on Bohermore had closed some years previously, and the Poor House of St Nicholas on Shoemaker’s Lane, completely dependent on charitable donations, was not adequate even for the poor of the town.

The physicians of the town were equally scared of the virulence of the fevers, and refused to treat any patient no matter what fee was offered.

There was, however, some action taken by the gentlemen of the Race Committee. They transferred the popular summer meeting due to be run at Park, near the town, to Terlogh Gurranes, near Tuam, ‘the town of Galway being very sickly at this time.’

Heavy snow

Even those wise farmers who saw the value in planting potatoes, did not have the skills to store them safely. The method of storing potatoes in dry, deep pits, or clamps, was unknown at the time. When the stems withered, farmers simply covered the beds with a further few inches of soil, leaving the potatoes in the ground until Christmas time, when they were dug up and stored. The frost was so severe that 1739 winter it penetrated deep into the ground destroying the entire crop.

Nor did the weather much improve in the succeeding years. In 1765/6 severe frost destroyed the carefully stored potatoes prompting the government to distribute corn to the poor, and for a time to forbid the export of grain. Again in 1784 a late Autumn frost and heavy snow the following January wiped out the preciously stored food, causing once again widespread near-famine conditions.

Amounts of potatoes

Yet there was a window of hope. At least until the next agricultural catastrophe which brought famine and an epidemic of typhus 30 years later. A fascinating description of Ireland at this time is given by a bright young Englishman, Arthur Young, who toured Ireland from North to South observing life as he saw it. He was dismayed at how harsh and insecure life was for the labouring poor of county Galway. Describing many of their cabins, ‘which were held at the whim of the landlord’, he writes that they were the most miserable looking hovels that can be conceived…. they generally consist of only one room, mud kneaded with straw is the common material for the walls. These have only a door which lets in light instead of a window, and lets the smoke out instead of a chimney…some are thatched with straw, potato stalks or with heath, others covered only with sods of turf’.

But despite the wretchedness of their circumstances, Young was impressed by the vigour and health of the labouring poor: ‘Their cottages swarming with children, the men athletic and the women beautiful’. He compared the diet of potatoes and milk with the bread and cheese of the English farm labourer. He describes ‘the Irishman’s potato bowl placed on the floor, the whole family on their hams around it, devouring a quantity almost incredible’. The amounts of potatoes consumed were, indeed incredible - an adult consuming 12 to 14 pounds per day. But even for the very poor, who would have had little milk and only occasional meat or fish, potatoes in such prodigious quantities provided a reasonably nutritious diet. Deficiency diseases, such as scurvy, were unknown except in times of famine.

Next week: A series of famine and typhus fever once more grips Galway town in the early decades of the 19th century. The mayor pleads to Dublin for assistance, and the first fever hospital opens 1822.

NOTES: Sources include: A Tour of Ireland - With General Observations of that Kingdom 1776 - 1779, published in two volumes, 1780; and Galway - A medico Social History by James P Murray, published by Kenny Bookshops, 1992.


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