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.