The Great Irish ‘Famine’ of the 1840’s: an act of genocide – accidental or planned?

Workhouse Dining Hall

The Great Irish ‘Famine’ of the 1840’s:

an act of genocide – accidental or planned?

Irish workhouse 1840's
Irish workhouse 19th century

One family’s story

“The famine came, and Sheila, her father and mother and little Diarmuid had to go down to Macroom (Co. Cork) and go into the workhouse. As soon as they were inside they were separated. The father was put with the men and the mother with the women. Sheila was put with the little girls and little Diarmuid with the younger children. The workhouse was full and all the poor people in it were sunk in every kind of dangerous sickness. The people were falling with the sickness. As fast as they came in, God save the hearers, and dying as soon as it came on them. There was not room in the workhouse for half of them. Those that could not get in just went away and lay down on the bank of the river below the bridge. They were to be seen there every morning after spending the night there, stretched in rows, some stirring, and some who were quiet enough and stirring no longer. Presently people came and lifted those who were still, put them into carts and carried them up to a place near Carrigastyra where a big, wide, deep pit gaped open for them, threw them all into the pit together. The same was done with those who were dead in the workhouse after night.

Not long after they went in and he was separated from his mother, little Diarmuid died. The small corpse was heaved into a cart, carried up to the big pit, and thrown into it with the other corpses. But it did not matter to the child. His soul was happy above in the presence of God long before his body was thrown into the pit. Soon Sheila followed little Diarmuid. Her young body went into the pit, but her soul ascended to where Diarmuid was, in the presence of God, and in the joy of heaven, where she had solace and the company of the saints and angels, and the Virgin Mary.

The father and mother were enquiring as much as they could for Sheila and Diarmuid. The children were not long dead when they heard of it. All the poor people knew Irish, but those in charge did not know it, or knew it but badly, so that the poor people could often get information secretly about one another. When the parents found out that the two children were dead, they grew so heartbroken that they could not stay in the place. They were separated, but they managed to get some word to each other. They agreed to steal away. Kate was the wife’s name. Patrick slipped out of the workhouse first. He stood up at the top of Sop Road waiting for Kate. After a while he saw her coming, but she was walking very slowly. She had the sickness. They went on up Sop Road towards Carrigastyra, and reached the place where the big pit was. They knew that their children were below in the pit along with all the other corpses. They stood by the pit and cried their fill. Above at Derryleight, east of Cahireen, was the cabin where they had lived before they went into the workhouse. They left the big pit and faced north-west towards Derryleight, where the cabin was. It was six miles away, and night was falling, but they kept on. They were hungry and Kate had the sickness. They had to walk very slowly. When they had covered a couple of miles Kate had to stop. She could travel no further. They met neighbours. They were given a drink and some scraps of food, but everyone was afraid to let them in because they had come straight from the workhouse, and the wife had the bad sickness. So Patrick took his wife up on his back and continued north-west towards the cabin.

The poor man himself was very weak. He could have found it hard to do the journey, even without a burden. Laden as he was he had to stop often and rest his burden behind him on the ditch for a while. But however tired he was, he continued the journey and did not part with his burden. He reached the cabin. It was cold and empty before him, without fire or heat.

The next day some neighbour came to the cabin and went in. He saw the two of them lying dead, with his wife’s feet held to Patrick’s breast, as if he were trying to warm them. It would seem that he had noticed the death weakness coming on Kate and feet growing cold, and he drew them to his breast to take the chill of them.

‘That was a fine, a faithful and noble man,’ someone will say perhaps, ‘and he did a noble deed.’

‘That is true. But I tell you this. Thousands of deeds of the same kind were done throughout Ireland during that time, and no one wondered at them very much. Everyone though that Patrick Buckley did only what any man would do who was worthy of the name Christian.’”

(Translated from An t-Anthair Peadar O’Laoghaire (1839-1920) in his Mo Sceal Fein (My Own Story), taken from The Workhouses of Ireland by John O’Connor, Anvil Books, 1990, Dublin.)

Evictions in Ireland during the 1840's
Evictions in Ireland during the 1840’s
Children during Irish genocide
Children during Irish genocide




The workhouse and the ‘famine’

I discovered this story (above) when researching nineteenth century Irish history for a novel I am writing. I became interested in Irish workhouses after discovering that my Scots Presbyterian great-grandparents were married in a Dublin workhouse. What I didn’t fully understand is how central to managing the so-called ‘Irish famine’ (referred to by its more accurate name here of genocide) the workhouses were in the 1840’s.

The Irish workhouses were set up after the Poor Law for Ireland was passed into law by the British parliament in 1838. The plan was to build 130 workhouses to house 80,000 paupers. Through a ‘happy coincidence’ these workhouses were completed and ready for the genocide (aka the ‘famine’) which began in 1845 and lasted until 1850. The Irish workhouses were built to a lower specification and at two-thirds of the cost of the English workhouses by an English architect, George Wilkinson.

Ireland at this time was ruled directly from London after the Irish parliament was removed by the Act of Union in 1800. The country was run by an English civil service with little understanding of or sympathy with the Irish. A high price was to be paid by the Irish throughout the 19th century for this form of colonial government.

The conditions of the Irish workhouses were designed to be worse than that of the ‘lowest working labourer’ to discourage ‘freeloaders’. The diet was just above starvation levels composed of two meals a day of potatoes and milk. This was much worse than the English workhouses because it was felt that the Irish wouldn’t eat the English diet. It was also much cheaper.

‘The exclusion of meat, cheese, tea and butter (which are used in the workhouses in England) from the workhouse dietary in Ireland was due to the fact that meat was not an ordinary article of food for the Irish labourer or peasant….

Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for 1860

Whole families had to enter the workhouse: individual family members were not allowed to enter separately. All rights to property no matter how meagre had to be given up on entering. As the story above relates, families were separated within the workhouse and in many cases never saw each other again.

When the potato blight hit Ireland in 1845 numbers in the newly built workhouses rocketed and by the end of the decade hit 200,000 – three times the level they were designed for. They became charnel houses where many that entered in poor health soon died there. In this way I believe that the workhouses were central to the genocide planning. They not only managed the dying population, but also broke the spirit of the people.

There had been twenty-four failures of the potato crop from 1728 to 1851, but no steps were taken to allow the Irish poor to access a wider diet. The diet of the peasantry in Britain and Europe was not so dependent on the potato and hence why the ‘famine’ was unique to Ireland when the potato blight struck all across Europe. All other food sources in Ireland – beef, mutton, pork, wheat corn, oats, cheese, fruit, fish – were needed to feed the empire and were exported in spite of the hunger. Under the rigid ‘laissez-faire’ economic policies of the British Conservative Government, little food was sent to support Ireland, but by 1847 Britain had sent the largest concentration of soldiery seen in Ireland then or since to ensure that food exports still took place.

‘There is a large British force in Ireland; larger than the whole army and navy of the United States, including the armies of Mexico. At the beginning of September (1847) there were in Ireland ten regiments of cavalry; thirty battalions of infantry; two companies of marines, making a total of 28,000rank and file; plus 21,182 enrolled pensioners, militia staffs and recruiting parties. Add 11,000 constabulary and you get 60,000 men.’

The Northern Whig, October 1847.

Ireland food exports 1840's
Ireland 1845-1850: the Perfect Holocaust, and Who Kept it ‘Perfect” Chris Fogarty

In the 1840’s the crop failure was universal from Antrim in the north-east to Kerry in the south-west and it happened virtually overnight.

“I happen to recall precisely the day, almost the hour, when the blight fell on the potatoes. A party of us were driving to a seven o’clock dinner at the house of our neighbour, Mrs Evans of Portrane. As we passed a remarkably fine field of potatoes in blossom, the scent came through the windows of the carriage, and we remarked to each other how splendid the crop. Three or four hours later, as we returned home, in the dark, a dreadful smell came from the field, and we exclaimed, ‘Something has happened to those potatoes; they did not smell at all as they did when we passed them on our way out.’”

Francis Power of Newbridge, Co. Dublin, July 1846 quoted in The Workhouses of Ireland.

It was as if a switch had been thrown.

The result was that – according to the history books – over one million died and two million emigrated during the 1840’s. However the census records were extremely inaccurate and understated the actual population. By another ‘coincidence’ of Irish history most of the census records for the 19th century were destroyed by fire and bureaucratic incompetence. So we shall never know the true impact of the great Irish genocide. It could be several million.

The failure of the potato crop impacted on both Irish Catholics and Protestants alike (see here ). It should have been a unifying event, but powerful forces moved rapidly in the aftermath to ensure Catholic and Protestant poor remained divided. Today most Irish Protestants, especially those in the north, believe the ‘famine’ is not part of their history.

After the 1840’s Ireland’s economy boomed; landed estates had been cleared of many of their poorest tenants, who had been a drain on their resources, and land ownership was greatly consolidated.

The genocide radicalised Irish politics leading firstly to demands for much more self-government with the formation of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1874, campaigns for land ownership and the Home Rule crisis and, ultimately, demands for outright independence from Britain, reaching a climax with the Easter Rising in 1916 and the granting of a form of independence in 1922.

I say a ‘form of independence’ because a truly independent government would have sought reparations from Britain for the 1840’s genocide of its people. To this day a fiction is maintained by most historians, educationalists and both governments that this disaster was a ‘famine’. The facts show that the failure of one source of food – the potato – cannot be defined as a ‘famine’.

For more information on the genocide: