Chronology of the Famine

1845

August – A new disease, increasingly referred to as blight, was damaging potato crops in parts of mainland Europe and appeared to be spreading westward.

September – The blight was sighted in many parts of Ireland, although its appearance was patchy. The affected potatoes were inedible.

October – The British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, appointed a Scientific Commission to inquire into the cause of the disease and find a remedy.  It was unsuccessful.

November – Potato shortages were causing food prices to rise.  Workhouses were allowed to provide alternatives to potatoes to the inmates. A Temporary Relief Commission was appointed in Dublin to oversee local relief efforts.

 December – The Irish Board of Works was asked to assist in providing relief.

1846

January – Disease was spreading in Ireland, especially dysentery and diarrhea, caused byeating rotten potatoes or uncooked grain, and fever.

March – A Fever Act established a temporary Board of Health in Dublin.

June – Sir Robert Peel resigned as Prime Minister, having lost the support of his party over the repeal of the Corn Laws.

July – Lord John Russell and his Whig Party formed a new government. Reports of the re-appearance of the potato blight were increasing.

August – A new, harsher system of public works was introduced.

September – The potato disease was spreading rapidly and destroying more of the crop than in the previous year.

November – Deaths from famine were being recorded, although no official list of mortality was ever kept.

December – The small town of Skibbereen in County Cork achieved international notoriety for the scale of disease and death occurring there on a daily basis. By the end of the year, more than half of the workhouses were full.

1847

January – Despite delays and problems in opening the public works schemes, more than 600,000 people were employed on them for a minimal wage. A number of private individuals formed committees to help the Irish poor. The largest charitable organization was the British Relief Association, which had its headquarters in London. Changes in government relief were announced; the public works were to be phased and government soup kitchens were to be opened.

March – The public works started to close down with workers being discharged.

May – Government soup kitchens opened throughout the country, but some delays and reports of poor quality soup.

July – Over three million people were being fed daily in the government soup kitchens.

August – Soup kitchens were closed down. The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, which transferred the responsibility for all relief to the workhouses system.  It also provided for more workhouses to be built.

November – Major Denis Mahon, a landowner inStrokestown, County Roscommon, was shot dead. He had sent a large numbers of his tenants on “coffin ships” to North America.

December – The change to Poor Law relief had not only failed to save lives, but had contributed to an increase in evictions and emigration.  An estimated 220,000 left Ireland in 1847.

1848

February – Almost 200,000 people were receiving relief in the workhouses; almost 500,000 were receiving outdoor relief.

April – More than 600,000 people were receiving outdoor relief. Evictions and emigration were also increasing, but no central records were kept.

June – Approximately 200 female orphans, who had been inmates of the workhouses, sailed for Australia. Hundreds more were to follow them.

July – Potato blight was spotted in parts of the west; parts of the northeast were reporting healthy crops. At the end of the month, a nationalist group known as Young Ireland led a small, unsuccessful rebellion against British rule.

August – The Encumbered Estates Act was passed to facilitate the sale of land that was heavily mortgaged.

November – Many of the poorest Poor Law unions were in debt, but as many as 3,000 people were applying for relief daily. 

December – Cholera appeared in some parts of Ireland, adding to already high death toll from disease. An estimated 180,000 emigrated in 1848.

1849

February – to assist the struggling Poor Law, the British government made a grant of £50,000 available.  

April – Regardless of the recent grant from the government, the Poor Law Commissioners were without funds.

May –  A new Irish tax was introduced: the Rate-in-Aid.

June30,000 people in the Kilrush union, more than half the population, depended on the Poor Law for survival.

July – Almost 800,000 people were in receipt of outdoor relief. A second Encumbered Estates Act was passed.

August – Queen Victoria and her family visited Ireland. Overall, they were warmly received. Some blight was evident, but mostly in the west.

December – During this year, the number of evicted families totaled almost 17,000, while an estimated 220,000 had emigrated.

1850

February –  Following complaints about the orphan girls being sent to Australia, an enquiry was held.

May – More than one million people were receiving both workhouse and outdoor relief.

August – There were only limited instances of blight on the potato crop, mostly in the southwest of the country.

1851

March –  The census was taken. It recorded that the Irish population had fallen from 8,175,124 people in 1841, to 6,552,385.
August – The potato crop was largely blight-free.
December – An estimated 210,000 had emigrated during the year.

1852

Although the Great Hunger was widely considered to be “over,” levels of eviction and emigration remained high.

WHAT IS THE GREAT HUNGER?

The Great Hunger (or an gorta mór) refers to a tragic period in Irish history when more than one million people
died of famine or famine-related diseases. Many Irish speakers simply referred to this calamity as an drochshaol,
which roughly translates as “the bad times”.

The immediate cause of the tragedy was a new strain of potato blight which first appeared in Europe during the harvest of 1845. Its arrival in Ireland was greeted with alarm as the potato was the subsistence crop of a majority of the Irish population. Prompt intervention by the British government (who had governed Ireland from the Westminster parliament in London since 1801) and by local Irish elites, meant that nobody died in the first year of shortages. However, the unthinkable happened, and the potato blight returned for a second time in 1846, both earlier and more lethal than in the previous year. And the blight returned, in varying degrees, for a further five years. Inappropriate and inadequate relief policies by the British government contributed to the suffering of the Irish poor. Famine had arrived in Ireland, and the consequences were mass mortality and mass emigration. To this day, Ireland had not recovered from this catastrophe.

LOCATION:

Most of this narrative is set in the beautiful area of Kilkee in County Clare. Kilkee was part of the Kilrush Poor Law Union, where the main workhouse was located. In 1846, ‘Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland’ was published, which gives details about the residents in Kilkee. A number of the people and places in ‘The Bad Times’ are based on the information provided in the local Directory (see the section on Primary and Secondary Sources). One of the Catholic priests, Father Michael Comyn, for example, who features throughout ‘The Bad Times,’ lived in Kilkee during the Great Hunger. Father Comyn was a supporter of Daniel O’Connell, the Irish nationalist who was leader of the Repeal movement, and he did reside in ‘Repeal Cottage’. The West End Hotel, which is depicted at the scene at the beach, also existed and prided itself on its fine dining. The noted English writer, Charlotte Brontë, spend her honeymoon there in the 1850s.

POOR LAW UNIONS OF COUNTY CLARE

In 1838, new legislation passed by the British parliament, provided for a Poor Law to be introduced into Ireland. As a consequence, the country was divided into 138 new administrative units known as Poor Law unions. Each union contained its own workhouse, through which all relief was channelled. The workhouses were deliberately designed to be forbidding institutions, and to act as a deterrent to people seeking relief. In Co. Clare, four unions were created: Ennistymon, Ennis, Kilrush and Scariff.

The consecutive failures of the potato crop after 1845 put considerable pressure on the Poor Law system. By the end of 1846, many workhouses were full and in debt. Nonetheless, after August 1847, the Poor Law became responsible for all Famine relief. The consequences were disastrous, especially along parts of the western seaboard. The people who lived in the Kilrush union were in the forefront of this suffering. A ruthless policy of eviction contributed to their misery. Between July and December 1848, 6,098 people were evicted in Kilrush union and George Poulett Scrope, a sympathetic English politician, estimated that, in total, 20,000 people were evicted between 1847 and 1848. By June 1849, it was estimated that 30,000 people in the Kilrush union, more than half the population, depended on the Poor Law for survival. The Kilrush union had created seven auxilliary workhouses to deal with the demand. Nonetheless, the paupers were sleeping four and in some cases five, to a bed.

'GOMBEEN' MEN:

In the text, Liam’s father is a shopkeeper and pawnbroker. He is referred to disparagingly as a ‘gombeen man,’ that is, a person who lent money but at unfavorable terms to the borrower. These men were themselves Irish, but they were viewed as parasites on the poor.

The word gombeen is derived from the Irish term gaimbín, or ‘monetary interest.’ In Irish folk memory, recollections of the
gombeen men are particularly strong and always negative. One story recorded by folk historian Cathal Póirtéir, refers to a
gombeen man in County Leitrim, whose actions were remembered thus:

There were a few ‘gombeen men’ who charged the poor pound for pound – that is a pound interest for a pound lent.