The Famine Story

The following article is taken from ‘Killarney History & Heritage’ (2005) and forms part of a project by Kate Landers in 2005 entitled.

Gleninchaquin The History of a Valley.

There are gaps in the text but we hope you will be able to follow the thread as we read of these most desparate of times back in the 19th Century.

Text in Italics is additional information.

In 1845, a mysterious blight caused by the fungus Phytophthora Infestans, previously unknown in Ireland, struck the potato crop, which was at that time the main food source of almost half the Irish population. The blight was widespread. The crop looked fine and healthy one day, and the next, the potatoes would crumble into a wet black mash when taken from the ground. By the end of November, two of the three Kerry newspapers had concluded that the progress of the potato disease had already been halted. What no one knew was that this blight would continue to affect the staple food crop of a large proportion of the population for the next three or four years. Early in 1846, the government’s Relief Commission encouraged the setting up of ‘Relief Committees’ throughout the country. These committees would sell food at cost price to those in need, and would be funded by a combination of grants and local subscriptions. Fourteen relief committees were established in Kerry, and the number increased to thirty in the following year. These committees played a major role in counteracting the effects of the Famine in the eighteen months from April 1846 to September 1847.

A  change of government in the UK in the summer of 1846 brought Lord John Russell and the Liberals to power. Russell and his colleagues decided to make Public Works the main source of famine relief. Employment would enable the destitute to earn wages so as to buy food from the merchants and the retailers. The relief committees role was therefore altered – they would still sell food where necessary, but on a commercial basis, so as notto undermine the normal trade in food. They would also help select people for the public works employment. The new government’s hopes that the damage to the coming year’s potato crop would be partial were soon dashed, when it became apparent that the 1846 crop would be a total failure. In 1846 the new government insisted that the full cost of all public works be borne locally, even that half which had previously been covered by a government grant. Objections…as the government, while failing to link food prices and wage levels, wanted relief committees to pay the market price for their stocks and to charge accordingly. The wages paid on relief works were grossly inadequate in the face of rising food prices. When operated properly, task work rather than payment by the day was in the best interest of the workers, as it allowed them to earn more. However, it did not always work out that way, and workers tended to favour payment by the day. The rate of pay was determined by the average paid in the district so as to deter labourers from depending on relief works when alternative employment was available. This meant that wages remained at eight pence per day throughout Kerry during the Winter of 1846 – 47, while food prices were about double those of the previous year. Relieving famine distress through public works, particularly in the middle of winter, was wrong. Yet these works helped many to survive. Some relief works were extremely wasteful but this was not the case in much of Kerry. The enhancement of the road network was widely welcomed and there could be no argument about the benefits of the improved sanitation works undertaken in the principal towns.

Large numbers began to die of starvation and disease in early 1847. Poverty, squalor and fever were familiar elements of many people’s lives even in normal times. These problems were now intensified and an influx of destitute persons from the surrounding area did not help the situation in any of South Kerry’s main population centres – Killarney, Killorglin Kenmare. In April 1847 the Tralee Chronicle reported “an army of most wretched human beings swarming into Killarney from Tuosist and elsewhere in Glanerought. (Glanerought is an area on the north side of Kenmare) A few weeks later Kerry Evening Post reported that “death was very busy in Killarney ‘if not among the poorer inhabitants, terribly so among the stranger paupers …… from Kenmare, Killorglin, Millstreet, Kanturk and the parishes nearer.” The prospect of relief work or charity handouts, the fact that the town had both a Workhouse and a Fever hospital attracted the destitute to Killarney. Fever sufferers who failed to secure admission to an already overcrowded hospital often ended up sleeping rough in the streets. The Soup Kitchen Act – Introduced in January 1847 as a temporary measure – up to the harvest of ’47 – was intended to provide food for large numbers through an extensive system of ‘soup kitchens’  (soup = any food cooked in a boiler and served in a liquid state” Porridge made from Indian meal or mixed with either oatmeal or rice was the norm). Starvation was being effectively tackled from May 1847 onwards, but disease was so much more difficult to tackle…. needed cleaning up, whitewashing of houses inside & out ……. From September 1847 onwards, The Board of Guardians were responsible for all famine relief. The Poor law system was financed by rates levied by the Guardians on property in their area. Kerry had, in the end, a total of 6 Unions. Cholera spread from England to Ireland at the end of 1848, and to Kerry by the following April. Tralee had 91 fatalities out of 156 admissions; Killarney escaped lightly by comparison (no data for this). The sharp drop in numbers seeking admission to Killarney workhouse from June 1850 onwards clearly showed the worst of the famine was over. Other parts of Kerry – such as Dingle and Tuosist – had fared much worse, but the Famine’s impact on the Killarney area was still significant. The population of Killarney Union dropped by 18% in the 40 years from 1841 to 1891 – but this was less than the other Kerry Unions. Overall the population of the county fell by 25% in that 40 year period. The comparable time frame in Tuosist saw the parish suffer a massive almost 40% population decline. Some of this was due to starvation or illness. W.S. Tench’s proposal to counteract the effect of massive sub-division of the small holdings on the Lansdowne Estate, was to some, nothing short of inspired. He persuaded Lord Lansdowne to pay the passage to North America (£3 -10 shillings) for his tenants, rather than keep them in the workhouse, which would cost about £5.00 per annum. Emigration was a major contributor to post – Famine population loss. Before the famine, Kerry people showed a marked reluctance to leave their homeland, but this now changed. Although some wealthier people were struck by fever, their numbers were small. In Kenmare, as elsewhere, the vast majority of the Famine’s victims came from the ranks of the poor. People with meansdid not have to resort to the relief works, the soup kitchen or the workhouse. Neither did they starve to death.

From ‘Killarney History & Heritage’ (2005).