At the foot of Croagh Patrick is the National Famine Memorial - a brilliantly sculpted 'famine ship'. Incorporated within the rigging are depictions of skeletons. The famine touched all parts of Ireland but no where was its effects more devastating then in the west.

When the Great Famine was raging over Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century thousands tried to escape starvation by emigrating to the United States of America and Canada. Unseaworthy ships were deployed and even if the ship managed to stay on the surface of the ocean hundreds of emigrants died of diseases caused by the horrible living conditions on these so-called coffin ships.

The memorial is a starkly beautiful bronze sculpture by John Behan entitled 'Coffin Ship'. It takes the form of an emigrant ship, the rigging of which is composed of skeletal figures. The Irish National Famine Memorial was commissioned by the Irish Government and was unveiled by President Mary Robinson in 1997. It is the largest bronze sculpture in Ireland.

Irish Potato Famine:

Beginning in 1845 and lasting for six years, the potato famine killed over a million men, women and children in Ireland and caused millions to flee the country.

Ireland in the mid-1800s was an agricultural nation, populated by eight million persons who were among the poorest people in the Western World. Only about a quarter of the population could read and write. Life expectancy was short, just 40 years for men. The Irish married quite young, girls at 16, boys at 17 or 18, and tended to have large families, although infant mortality was also quite high.

A British survey in 1835 found half of the rural families in Ireland living in single-room, windowless mud cabins that did not even have chimneys. The people lived in small communal clusters, known as clachans, spread out among the beautiful countryside. Up to a dozen persons lived inside a cabin, sleeping in straw on the bare ground, sharing the place with the family's pig and chickens. In some cases, mud cabin occupants were actually the dispossessed descendants of Irish estate owners. It was not uncommon for a beggar in Ireland to mention that he was in fact the descendant of an ancient Irish King.

Most of the Irish countryside was owned by an English and Anglo-Irish hereditary ruling class. Many were absentee landlords that set foot on their properties once or twice a year, if at all. Mainly Protestant, they held titles to enormous tracts of land long ago confiscated from native Irish Catholics by British conquerors such as Oliver Cromwell. The landlords often utilized local agents to actually manage their estates while living lavishly in London or in Europe off the rents paid by Catholics for land their ancestors had once owned.

Throughout Ireland, Protestants known as middlemen rented large amounts of land on the various estates then sub-divided the land into smaller holdings which they rented to poor Catholic farmers. The middleman system began in the 1700s and became a major source of misery as they kept sub-dividing estates into smaller and smaller parcels while increasing the rent every year in a practice known as rack-renting.

The average tenant farmer lived at a subsistence level on less than ten acres. These Catholic farmers were usually considered tenants-at-will and could be evicted on short notice at the whim of the landlord, his agent, or middleman. By law, any improvements they made, such as building a stone house, became the property of the landlord. Thus there was never any incentive to upgrade their living conditions.

The tenant farmers often allowed landless labourers, known as cottiers, to live on their farms. The cottiers performed daily chores and helped bring in the annual harvest as payment of rent. In return, they were allowed to build a small cabin and keep their own potato garden to feed their families. Other landless labourers rented small fertilized potato plots from farmers as conacre, with a portion of their potato harvest given up as payment of rent. Poor Irish labourers, more than anyone, became totally dependent on the potato for their existence. They also lived in a state of permanent insecurity with the possibility always looming they might be thrown off their plot.

The most fertile farmland was found in the north and east of Ireland. The more heavily populated south and west featured large wet areas (bog) and rocky soil. Mountains and bogs cover about a third of Ireland. By the mid-1800s, the density of Irish living on cultivated land was about 700 people per square mile, among the highest rate in Europe.

Potatoes are not native to Ireland but likely originated in the Andes Mountains of Peru, South America. In the early 1500s, Spanish conquerors found the Incas growing the vegetable, which the Spanish called patata. They were taken back to Europe and eventually reached England where the name changed to potato. About 1590, potatoes were introduced to Ireland where farmers quickly discovered they thrived in their country's cool moist soil with very little labour. An acre of fertilized potato field could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with leftovers going to the family's animals.

By the 1800s, the potato had become the staple crop in the poorest regions. More than three million Irish peasants subsisted solely on the vegetable which is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin and Vitamin C. It is possible to stay healthy on a diet of potatoes alone. The Irish often drank a little buttermilk with their meal and sometimes used salt, cabbage, and fish as seasoning. Irish peasants were actually healthier than peasants in England or Europe where bread, far less nutritious, was the staple food.

Irish farmers utilized an ancient 'lazy bed' planting technique. Using a simple spade, they first marked long parallel lines in the soil about four feet apart throughout the entire plot. In between the lines, they piled a mixture of manure and crushed seashells then turned over the surrounding sod onto this, leaving the grass turned upside down. Seed potatoes were inserted in-between the overturned grass and the layer of fertilizer then buried with dirt dug-up along the marked lines. The potato bed was thus raised about a foot off the surrounding ground, with good drainage provided via the newly dug parallel trenches.

Planting occurred in the spring beginning around St. Patrick's Day. Most of the poor Irish grew a variety known as Lumpers, a high yielding, but less nutritious potato that didn't mature until September or October. Every year for the poor, July and August were the hungry months as the previous year's crop became inedible and the current crop wasn't quite ready for harvest. This was the yearly 'summer hunger,' also called 'meal months,' referring to oat or barley meal bought from price gauging dealers out of necessity. During the summer hunger, women and children from the poorest families resorted to begging along the roadside while the men sought temporary work in the harvest fields of England.

By autumn, the potatoes were ready to be harvested, carefully stored in pits, and eaten during the long winter into the spring and early summer. The Irish consumed an estimated seven million tons in this way each year. The system worked year after year and the people were sustained as long as the potato crop didn't fail.

The Famine began quite mysteriously in September 1845 as leaves on potato plants suddenly turned black and curled, then rotted, seemingly the result of a fog that had wafted across the fields of Ireland. The cause was actually an airborne fungus (phytophthora infestans) originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England.

Winds from southern England carried the fungus to the countryside around Dublin. The blight spread throughout the fields as fungal spores settled on the leaves of healthy potato plants, multiplied and were carried in the millions by cool breezes to surrounding plants. Under ideal moist conditions, a single infected potato plant could infect thousands more in just a few days.

The attacked plants fermented while providing the nourishment the fungus needed to live, emitting a nauseous stench as they blackened and withered in front of the disbelieving eyes of Irish peasants. There had been crop failures in the past due to weather and other diseases, but this strange new failure was unlike anything ever seen. Potatoes dug out of the ground at first looked edible, but shriveled and rotted within days. The potatoes had been attacked by the same fungus that had destroyed the plant leaves above ground.

By October 1845, news of the blight had reached London. British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, quickly established a Scientific Commission to examine the problem. After briefly studying the situation, the Commission issued a gloomy report that over half of Ireland's potato crop might perish due to 'wet rot.'

Meanwhile, the people of Ireland formulated their own unscientific theories on the cause of the blight. Perhaps, it was thought, static electricity in the air resulting from the newly arrived locomotive trains caused it. Others reasoned that 'mortiferous vapours' from volcanoes emanating from the centre of the earth might have done it. Some Catholics viewed the crisis in religious terms as Divine punishment for the "sins of the people" while others saw it as Judgment against abusive landlords and middlemen.

In England, religious-minded social reformers viewed the blight as a heaven-sent 'blessing' that would finally provide an opportunity to transform Ireland, ending the cycle of poverty resulting from the people's mistaken dependence on the potato.

With the threat of starvation looming, Prime Minister Peel made a courageous political decision to advocate repeal of England's long-standing Corn Laws. The protectionist laws had been enacted in 1815 to artificially keep up the price of British-grown grain by imposing heavy tariffs on all imported grain. Under the Corn Laws, the large amounts of cheap foreign grain now needed for Ireland would be prohibitively expensive. However, English gentry and politicians reacted with outrage at the mere prospect of losing their long-cherished price protections. The political furor in Britain surrounding Peel's decision quickly overshadowed any concern for the consequences of the crop failure in Ireland.

Ireland's potato crop failures in the past had always been regional and short-lived with modest loss of life. Between 1800 and 1845, sixteen food shortages had occurred in various parts of Ireland. However, during the Famine the crop failure became national for the first time, affecting the entire country at once. British officials believed the 1845 food shortage would likely end with next year's harvest. Thus they reacted to the current food shortage as they had in the past by enacting temporary relief measures.

A Relief Commission was established in Dublin to set up local relief committees throughout Ireland composed of landowners, their agents, magistrates, clergy and notable residents. The local committees were supposed to help organize employment projects and distribute food to the poor while raising money from landowners to cover part of the cost. The British government would then contribute a matching amount.

However, in remote rural areas, many of the relief committees were taken over by poorly educated farmers who conducted disorganized, rowdy meetings. Local landowners, upon seeing who was on the committees, baulked at donating any money. There were also a high number of absentee landlords in the remote western areas with little first-hand knowledge of what was occurring on their property. They also failed to donate.

Ireland was decimated . . ..

 

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