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The Great Famine

The Great Famine of 1845 – 1849 was caused by the failure of the potato crop through blight.

The fungus Phytophthora Infestans was first noted at the RDS Gardens in Dublin.

On 20 August, 1845 the Curator, David Moore, noted its symptoms.

The blight appeared as dark brownish spots on the leaves of the potato plant.

Under prevailing damp conditions the entire plant was quickly infected leading to a rapid decay and an offensive smell.

Rainfall washed spores off diseased plants onto potatoes in the soil.

The potatoes rotted as soon as they were harvested.

Infected seed potatoes incubated the disease and helped restart the cycle.

Four main varieties of potato were in general use in Ireland in the 1840’s.

These were Apple, Black, Cup, and Lumper.

A third of the population depended on the potato for food.

Poor tenant-farmers rented a piece of land to grow potatoes for consumption.

Other crops were grown to pay the rent.

This system was known as Conacre.

An estimated £1m worth of foodstuffs left Ireland between July, 1845 and February, 1846.

Indian maize was imported and distributed for relief.

Its yellow colour and its initial effect on the digestive system earned it the name, “Peel’s Brimstone”.

It was named after Sir Robert Peel who was Prime Minister during the first year of the Great Famine.

The first food depots for famine relief opened on 28 March, 1846.

Relief schemes were introduced employing people in the building of roads, bridges, and piers.

Initially these schemes used 140,000 people.

By 1847 there were 734,000 people working on relief schemes.

As people could not pay rent evictions were common.

Starving people wandered the countryside subsisting on berries, roots, and nettles.

People were found dead with what became known as An Béal Glas.

An Béal Glas is Irish for the "Green Mouth" meaning that they had resorted to eating grass in a last effort to stay alive.

Many landlords reduced rents while others impoverished their estates in an effort to help their tenants.

People were forced to emigrate and the emigration trade became a lucrative business.

To maximise profit ships were altered to carry the maximum number of people.

In 1847 alone there were 17,465 documented deaths as a result of disease on board emigrant ships.

This does not include the dead who were simply cast overboard or the ships that disappeared without trace.

These emigrant ships were known as Coffin Ships.

Sir Charles Trevelyan was Assistant Secretary to the Treasury from 1840 to 1859.

He defended the export of grain from Ireland on the grounds of free trade.

He directed that Irish grain be exported.

A sum of $710 was sent by the Choctaw Nation to alleviate the suffering of the people of Co. Mayo during the Great Famine.

The sliding coffin was introduced during the famine as it was impossible to meet the demand for coffins.

The coffin was placed over the grave and the base was drawn out allowing the body to fall into the grave.

A variation on the sliding coffin was the hinged coffin.

The potato crop failed for five successive seasons.

Disease was also endemic during the Great Famine.

The more common diseases were Cholera, Dysentery, Typhus, Relapsing Fever, Scurvy, and Xerophthalmia.

The census of 1841 recorded a population of 8,177,744.

The census of 1851 recorded a population of 6,544,074.

The number that died during the famine cannot be estimated but is generally accepted as one million.

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