It may not be scorched on the Irish psyche as the Great Famine of 1845-52 is, but the famine of 1879, which affected the west more than any other region, brought suffering and led to an increase in agrarian offences committed by furious and despairing tenants. In 1879 the Great Famine was still a painful memory for a large number of people. Most had witnessed first-hand family and friends die a slow, torturous, death by starvation, and had parted indefinitely with family members who had emigrated in an attempt to escape the living hell of famine. The population of Mayo fell by almost 30 per cent during the Great Famine due to death and emigration, and by 1879 the county was still recovering.
The weather in the weeks leading to the traditional harvest time of autumn was reported to have been poor with torrential rainfalls and lightning storms accompanied by high winds at times. Despite the lessons learned during 1845-52, Mayo farmers remained dependent on the potato crop because, except for limited areas mainly in south Mayo, conditions would not support any other crop. The wet weather, as it had done in the 1840s, brought on the feared blight. The telltale signs of an infected plant, the browning leaves followed by dying plants, spread panic through the county. The crop failure was swift and widespread and its effect instant. A visitor to Mayo in late August reported, “the entire community appears to me to be separated only by a film from an unknown abyss.”
The famine too influenced the markets as prices for turf soared due to the lack of dried product because of the rain, and with no money to purchase, the sale of cattle began to dive. Beleaguered by the weather, priced out of the markets, and rejected by the banks, the Irish peasant had few options. Some turned to their landlord in the hope of gaining a rent reduction or paid labour. A delegation appealed to landlord Lord Sligo in Westport for work, but as he was not receiving rents, he had no money to pay for public works and outdoor schemes. A number of Captain Knox’s tenants in Ballinrobe visited him to plead a similar case. Knox was vicious in his reply and stated that he would be ashamed to reduce rents and be associated with James Daly and Michael Davitt. Daly and Davitt had founded the Irish National Land League in Castlebar in October 1879 to campaign for a reduction in rents and ultimately secure ownership of the land for the Irish tenant.
Angered by the response of the landlord class and spurred on by the Land League organisers, tenants began a period of civil unrest known as the Land War, against their landlords and other tenants seen to be benefiting from another’s misery. Agrarian offences carried out in Mayo rose immediately prior to and following the formation of the Land League. In the eight months from January to August, 60 cases were brought to court. From August to the end of the year, four months, 107 cases were heard. The most common offences were the sending of threatening letters, damage to property, setting of fires, and the killing, cutting, and maiming of cattle.
Sometimes termed the mini-famine, or An Gorta Beag, the famine of 1879 did cause mass hunger but far fewer deaths than 30 years earlier. The potato crop in Mayo that year was the lowest yield in a decade but relief was assisted by the extension of the railway to Mayo with most stations opened by 1870. Money from emigrants from the previous famine was also sent back to suffering relatives. In the general election of April 1880, Mayo elected Home Rule League members Charles Stewart Parnell and Fenian John O’Connor Power, around which the now organised tenantry rallied.