The Consequences of the Famine

The Consequences of the Famine

The failure of the crop in July and August 1846 sparked the begin-nings of a rush to run away among those sufficiently strong to make departure feasible. Less a movement of emigration than a mass exodus, poor cottiers went in the autumn, followed in the early weeks of 1847 by small farmers. Many walked from western counties to Dublin and crossed to Liverpool, England. By June 1847, approximately 300,000 destitute people had landed, straining the city’s poor relief facilities. The very poorest remained in Britain. Those who were a bit better off could afford passage farther afield. Most sailed away to North America, and most sought refuge in the United States. Many among those who were poorer sailed first to Canada, where fares were lowest, and from there made their way south to the American republic. Little knots of emigrants would depart from villages and rural crossroads and, with a parting blessing from their priests, set off with their meager bundles for Dublin or smaller port cities, where they would board coal barges or the infamous “cattle ships,” old, often barely seaworthy, converted cargo vessels whose owners engaged in the traffic solely to reap rapid profits. Some cattle ships became coffin ships in 1847 when, of the 100,000 who sailed to Canada, about one-sixth died on the voyage or on arrival. Many fewer died on ships to the United States because of stricter regu-lations required of vessels sailing to American destinations.

Approximately 2.1 million adults and children fled during the decade from 1845 to 1855, totaling about one-quarter of Ireland’s population as recorded in the census of 1841. Catholic, Irish-speaking, and illiter-ate, they left from everywhere in Ireland, although south Ulster, north Connacht, and midland counties experienced especially high rates of emigration.

The famine transformed Catholic attitudes to emigration. Whereas before, poor Roman Catholics had been reluctant to leave, now not even the prospect of death or disease on the voyage could stem the outflow. They left behind a society that changed dramatically both in its demography and in the character of its agricultural economy. Population declined drastically down by 30 percent in Connacht. Although decreases would lessen in intensity in succeeding years, they would never abate. A drastic drop in the number of small farm holdings accompanied the loss of population. The cottier class largely disappeared, to be gradually replaced, except in the far west where subsistence levels of poverty persisted, by the modern Irish agricultural pattern, namely, a family farm practicing mixed tillage and livestock production with the latter in the ascendant. Subdivisions of land by tenants—so widespread before the famine ended, leaving social change in its wake. Late mar-riage, and with it the prospect of fewer children, became more common, the price paid to be able to keep the family farm intact.

A process that had actually begun before the famine now accelerated with larger farmers growing in number. Large landlords survived, although, with the population declines, rents fell and rates soared, forcing at least 10 percent into bankruptcy in the immediate postfamine years. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 freed landed property from legal obstacles that prevented sales, and many Irish estates were subsequently broken up. But they were not purchased by Irish tenants; rather, local speculators and other well-off landlords picked up the real estate.

Many blamed the landlords and, with them, the British government for the tragedy. Whether justified or not, the criticism bred a bitterness that burned deep. Political reform by constitutional means lost its appeal, replaced by sentiment in favor of drastic action. O’Connell’s National Repeal Association broke apart. Driven to radicalism by the appalling condition of the Irish people, William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel founded the Irish Confederation on January 13, 1847. Made up of a union of clubs across Ireland, the confederation secured the election of two MPs to Parliament in August 1847, and O’Brien publicly advocated the use of force against the British. Traveling to France to congratulate revolutionaries who had succeeded in replacing the monarchy with a republic in February 1848, O’Brien returned home inspired. He and others set up a War Directory, which drafted plans that led to the launching on July 29 of an engagement in County Tipperary called by some the “Battle of Ballingarry” and mockingly by opponents the “Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch,” because the struggle more nearly resembled a brief scuffle. Although a small skirmish, it ended in disaster for the perpetrators as O’Brien and others were arrested. They joined Mitchel, condemned in May under the Treason-Felony Act (April 1848), in being transported to Tasmania, a British island colony (now a part of Australia). First introduced in 1791, banishment to the distant Pacific outpost proved to be the fate meted out to thousands of nationalist rebels and land agitators.

The Young Ireland movement collapsed, the one brief action waged by its activists in 1848 serving as yet another link in the by now regularly recurring chain of periodic uprisings. Confederate clubs merged with the Repeal Association and drew back from violent means. Yet the shadow cast by the Great Famine would long linger. The tragedy seared its survivors, both at home and overseas, with unforgettable and, for many, unforgivable memories; and, thus, so too the resort to force would not die. It would only lie dormant, to be revived in 20 years’ time.