650x4green.gif (935 bytes)
The Famine 6: The Famine after 1847
650x4green.gif (935 bytes)
Main Menu \ History Menu \ The Great Famine \

The harvest of 1847 was a success. Tragically, however, so many people had been on the Public Works schemes and not on their farms, that too few potatoes had been planted that Spring. So it turned out that the relief measures were going to have to be extended into the winter of 1847-48 to make up the food deficit.

The government had felt that, with the anticipated harvest due in Autumn [Fall] 1847, the worst was now over. They decided that the workhouses, which operated as part of the pre-famine Poor Law system, should be made primarily responsible for relief, with soup kitchens only provided if absolutely necessary. Recall that the workhouses had been built with a capacity of 100,000. At the end of January 1847, they were housing 108,000. However, this was not evenly distributed: one of the worst examples was Kanturk workhouse in county Cork which, with a capacity of 800, was housing 1,653 people at one point. The government embarked on a scheme of expansion of the workhouses. They encouraged the local Poor Law Unions to build extra shelters and rent buildings for use as 'temporary' workhouses. They also built extensions to the workhouses. By March 1847, design capacity had increased to 114,000. In July 1849, 200,000 people were living in workhouses, with 800,000 getting relief outside. The design capacity reached 309,000 in 1851.

Throughout the rest of the famine period, which is generally regarded as ending in 1849, the workhouses never managed to keep up with demand, so overcrowding was always present. A charity worker who visited one workhouse wrote "In the bedrooms we entered there was not a mattress of any kind to be seen; the floors were strewed with a little dirty straw, and the poor creatures were thus littered down as close together as might be, in order to get the largest possible under one miserable rug - in some cases six children, for blankets we did not see" [2 p245]. An inspector to Lurgan workhouse, in county Armagh, in February 1847 wrote: "the supply of clothes was quite inadequate, and it had hence become necessary to use the linen of some of those who had died of fever and dysentery, without time having been afforded to have it washed and dried; and that, from the same cause, damp beds had in many instances been made use of" [2 p246]. Clearly, workhouses were terrible places to end up.

The new relief measures were passed under the Irish Poor Law Extension Act in June 1847. They were to derive all their money from local funds, in the form of accumulating debt. (In the end, most of this money was never repayed.) One provision of the Act, the so-called Gregory Clause (named after William Gregory, an MP for Dublin who suggested it) exempted from relief anybody who owned more than a quarter of an acre of land. This clause was widely misinterpreted, and some who should have qualified for relief were refused. Many unscrupulous landlords used the Gregory Clause as an excuse to evict thousands of unwanted cottiers from their estates. Those made homeless by these evictions were forced to join the workhouses or to built woefully inadequate shelters on other people's land. The picture below shows a village at Erris, county Mayo, after the landlord had evicted the residents.

A Mayo village after evictions [13kB]

To the anguish of the people, the Potato Blight struck the harvest of 1848, wiping out most of the crop. With the continued improvements to the workhouses, deaths from starvation were not as great in 1848 as they had been in 1847. Nevertheless, the winter of 1848 to 1849 was a hard one and disease helped to wipe out tens of thousands more people. Even doctors themselves were infected. The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science wrote "From several districts of Ireland, where the late epidemic committed fearful ravages, no reports have been received. In many cases we regret to say that this has been caused by the lamentable mortality amongst our professional brethren" [2 p310].

The diseases, mainly fever and dysentry, finally began to wane after the winter. In Dublin, it was declared over in February 1848, but in most areas it lingered for another one or two years. Many of these people died merely because they had been weakened by hunger. If they had not been suffering from malnutrition, many may well have survived. The government began a campaign to try to get farmers to grow green vegetables and other root crops other than potatoes and, while they met success in some areas, most farmers could not be persuaded to give up their traditional methods. The Society of Friends purchased and operated a 'model farm' to teach farmers new methods of agriculture.

The Potato Blight struck yet again in the harvest of Autumn [Fall] 1849, but not at the same intensity that it had in 1848. Things were complicated when an epidemic of Cholera broke out in the winter of 1848 to 1849. It reached its peak in May and died away by the summer. The disease was coincidental to the famine, and struck in Britain as well. It did not differentiate between rich and poor. At the time it was not known how Cholera spread, and there were fierce arguments about whether or not victims should be segregated from those who were not ill. (We now know that Cholera spreads through contaminated water, not by contact.)  The epidemic was heaviest in the towns, with the worst effects being Drogheda, Galway, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Cork. We have no reliable way of knowing how many died in the epidemic, but it acted as the final insult of the Famine period.

The workhouses continued to manage the relief effort, and herein lies the difficulty in determining when exactly the 'end' of the famine was. Many of the destitute had ended up with nothing, and therefore found it very difficult to get out of the workhouses again. The famine ended gradually, with recovery spreading from east to west, as the capacity of the workhouses increased and the number of inmates decreased. By 1849-1850 the workhouses had enough capacity to take appropriate care of all the destitute. Emigration also continued, although not quite at the levels of 1847. Approximately 200,000 per year left between 1848 and 1852 inclusive. Most of these travelled to America.

The Extension Act of 1847 indicated that the government believed that the famine was over, and this view was not reversed in the light of the crop failure of 1848. This premature decision no doubt contributed to the deaths that continued to occur in both the winters of 1847-48 and 1848-49. During the famine, total relief expenditure was £8 million by the government, £7 million from Irish taxes and well over £1 million from landlords [1]. This still only amounted to 2 to 3% of the total government expenditure during those years, and academics argue over whether, given the UK's poor financial state at the time, any more could have been spent. Nevertheless, this value of 2-3% does seem anomalous given that the government found £100 million to spend on a war with Turkey.

> Next > Effects of The Famine 1: Agriculture >


[1] Ó Gráda, Cormac; "The Great Irish Famine", Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[2] Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", Lilliput Press, 1956, (Reprinted 1997)

What do you think
of this site?