230 – The Great Famine 1840s

The victim – sculpture by Rowan Gillespie – 1997

When you Google “The Great Famine,” accounts of starvation and death are numerous and overwhelming.

But as you read further and “go down the rabbit hole,” the story gets much more complex.

Potato blight

There had been crop failures before. The decades of the 1820s and 1830s each had several years where famine ravaged the peasants.

The 1840s were different, because in that decade there also occurred the potato blight, which wiped out the total crop. The fungus (Phytophthora infestans) thrived in the cool, damp climates of western and southwest Ireland.

The Great Famine

The Great Famine in Ireland was from 1845 to 1852. From a population of 8 million in 1841, one million died and another one million emigrated.

The Sketch of a Woman and Children represents Bridget O’Donnel. Her story is briefly this:– ‘. . .we were put out last November; we owed some rent. I was at this time lying in fever. . . they commenced knocking down the house, and had half of it knocked down when two neighbours, women, Nell Spellesley and Kate How, carried me out. . . I was carried into a cabin, and lay there for eight days, when I had the creature (the child) born dead. I lay for three weeks after that. The whole of my family got the fever, and one boy thirteen years old died with want and with hunger while we were lying sick.

Illustrated London News – December 22, 1849

Asanath Nicholson

Asanath Nicholson was an American philanthropist and activist. She traveled throughout Ireland in 1844-1845, and again in 1847-1849, organizing relief efforts and providing direct relief herself. She recorded her experiences in a diary.

Nicholson’s diary is full of conflict. She witnesses poverty and hunger and death, and then enjoys a nice dinner at her host’s estate. She organizes relief contributions, then observes that the funds aren’t spent for relief. It’s a fascinating and poignant story, and she’s a great writer. Here are a few examples:

The first that called my attention was the death-like stillness — nothing of life was seen or heard, excepting occasionally a dog. These looked so unlike all others I had seen among the poor I unwittingly said — “How can the dogs look so fat and shining here, where there is no food for the people?”

“Shall I tell her?” said the boat pilot to Mr. Griffith, not supposing that I heard him.

This was enough: if anything were wanting to make the horrors of a famine complete, this supplied the deficiency. Reader, I leave you to your thoughts, and only add that the sleek dogs of Arranmore were my horror, if not my hatred.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

We went from cabin to cabin, till I begged the curate to show me no more. When we entered their dark, smoky, floor-less abodes, made darker by the glaring of a bright sun, which had been shining upon us, they stood up before us in a speechless, vacant, staring, stupid, yet most eloquent posture, mutely graphically saying, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh, made in God’s image, like you. Look at us! What brought us here?”

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

More died of disease than starvation

During the 1851 census, the census-takers recorded who had died in each family since the last census in 1841, along with their cause of death. They recorded 21,770 deaths from starvation and 400,700 deaths from disease. The diseases listed were typhus, diphtheria, dysentery, cholera, smallpox, and influenza. The census commissioners reported that the number of deaths was drastically under-reported. It’s generally agreed that about one million died from all causes.

When I stood in the burying-ground in that parish, I saw the brown silken hair of a young girl, waving gently through a little cleft of stones, that lay loosely upon her young breast. They had not room to put her beneath the surface, but slightly, and a little green grass was pulled and spread over, and then covered with stones. I never shall forget it.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Not everyone starved

80% of the population were Irish Catholic peasant tenants. Their small crops of potatoes were ruined. But not everyone suffered equally, or at all.

Shops had food for sale. People with jobs, like police or administrators or land agents, could purchase a variety of available foods other than potatoes. The peasant tenants didn’t have money, so they starved while food was available in nearby shops.

An officer paid by government was generally well paid, consequently he could take the highest seat in a public conveyance, he sought for the most comfortable inns, where he could secure the best dinner and wines; he inquired the state of the people, and did not visit the dirty hovels himself when he could find a menial who would for a trifle perform it; and though sometimes when accident forced him in contact with the dying or dead, his pity was stirred, it was mingled with the curse which always follows: “Laziness and filth, and he wondered why the dirty wretches had lived so long; and he hoped this lesson would teach them to work in future, and lay up something as other people did.”

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Ethnic and religious bigotry

Upper-class British looked with disdain on the Irish. The Irish were filthy, lazy, and not self-reliant. The Irish had to learn to stand on their own two feet. Some considered the famine a long overdue correction to the high Irish birth rates.

Likewise, the protestant Church of Ireland had failed to convert Catholics, and considered that a mark of ignorance for the Irish people.

The British press portrayed Irish as freeloaders.

A poor man, with a numerous family, applied to a rector of the Established Church for a portion of the donations committed to his care for the parish.

“Where do you go to church?” was the question.

“I am a Catholic,” the man answered.

“Ah, yes, you give your soul to the priest, and then come here for me to feed your body; go back, and get your bread where you get your teaching.” “This will learn ’em,” said the exulting sexton of the church, who related the incident, “this will learn ’em where they are.”

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

The government

Ireland had become part of the United Kingdom in 1801. The poverty and hunger in Ireland had been recognized as a problem for many years. In the 40 years leading up to the famine, over 100 government committees grappled with the Irish problem.

But the government didn’t do enough in the way of relief. It had a policy of laissez-faire, meaning that its commonwealth countries should deal with their local problems by themselves. The government wanted to avoid hurting English landowners and businesses.

The British government provided around £8 million, but the administration and distribution of relief was often unequal and unorganized.

…that it rotted in the harbors while the dying were falling in the streets, for want of it? Yes, unhesitatingly may it be said, that there was not a week during that famine, but there was sufficient food for the wants of that week, and more than sufficient. Was there then a “God’s famine” in Ireland, in 1846-7-8-9, and so on? No! it is all mockery to call it so, and mockery which the Almighty will expose, before man will believe, and be humbled as he ought to be.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Poor Law workhouses

In 1838, the Poor Law directed that “able-bodied” indigents be sent to workhouses instead of being given direct relief. That often left the women and children at home with no ability to pay rent, and sometimes resulted in evictions.

And further, that over the Green Isle are scattered one hundred and twenty-nine more like palaces! rearing their proud turrets to the skies, furnished within for tens of thousands, so that every Paddy, from Donegal to Kerry, and from Wicklow to Mayo, may here find a stool, a tin of stirabout, and pallet, on the simple condition that he owns not either “hide or hoof,” screed or scrawl, mattock or spade, pot or churn, duck-pond, manure-heap, or potato-plot, on the ground that reared him.

To pauperize men, women, and children, in sight of, and walking over a rich uncultivated soil, as is Ireland, and shut them up, with no other crimes than that of compulsory poverty, where they are fed, clothed, and lodged at the governor’s option, inclosed with bolts and bars, like felons, with no more freedom than state prisoners have, is certainly a strange comment on liberty.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland


Relief poured in from private and religious organizations in Europe and America. Much of the relief was funneled to the estate landlords and Church of Ireland to distribute. Like today, there was fraud and waste, and some relief food and clothing didn’t make its way to those in need.

I had boxes of clothing, and am obliged to acknowledge that the people of the higher classes in general showed a meanness bordering on dishonesty. When they saw a goodly garment, they not only appeared to covet, but they actually bantered, as though in a shop of secondhand articles, to get it as cheap as possible; and most, if not all of such, would have taken these articles without any equivalent, though they knew they were the property of the poor.

The poor were shamefully defrauded, where they had no redress and none to lift the voice in their favor.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland


Surprisingly, western Donegal didn’t experience the drastic population loss like some other areas. Do Lord George Hill and Francis Forster and Jane Russell deserve any credit for this? Perhaps so.

While stopping in Belfast, at the hospitable “White House,” so called, owned by the family of Grimshaws, I became acquainted with a Miss Hewitson, whose father resided in Donegal. My destiny was to that county; hearing that the distress there was very great, I wished to see it.

Mrs. Hewitson met me with her son, and we took tea at a delightful little mansion on the sloping side of one of Ireland’s green lawns, looking down upon a beautiful lake. “And is there,” I asked, “on this pretty spot, misery to be found?” — “Come and see,” was the answer of my kind friend. It was twilight when we stepped into the carriage, and few painful objects met us till we reached her dwelling.

My next visit was to the far-famed Gweedore, the estate of Lord George Hill.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Estate landlords weren’t much help

The laissez-faire philosophy of the British government was that “Irish property must support Irish poverty.” But Irish property was mostly in the hands of British estate owners, many of whom didn’t even live in Ireland.

In Donegal, Asanath Nicholson drank the Lord George Hill Kool-Aid. She stayed at the Gweedore Hotel and was chaperoned around the estate by Hill himself. It must have been a delightful time.

Yes! Lord George Hill is not a George Washington, his work was a mightier one. Washington had carnal battles to fight, and with carnal weapons, in the hands of gallant soldiers, he scattered the foe. But mark! He that by moral power grapples with the worst passions of men, and lays them harmless at his feet, has done more than he who has conquered whole armies by the sword. This, Lord George Hill has done.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Lord George Hill infamously wrote, “The Irish people have profited much by the Famine, the lesson was severe; but so were they rooted in old prejudices and old ways, that no teacher could have induced them to make the changes which this Visitation of Divine Providence has brought about, both in their habits of life and in their mode of agriculture.” 


The estate owners depended on tenant rents. If a tenant couldn’t pay, it was often advantageous for the tenant to be evicted. That would free up a leasehold farm, either for another tenant who could pay, or at least for grazing of the landlord’s sheep. Of course, the evicted tenant was put in dire straits.


Sometimes the evictors would tear the tenant’s house down so they couldn’t return.

Here I was invited to spend a few weeks, and would with gratitude record the many favors shown me there; and with deep sorrow would add, that I saw step by step all taken for taxes and rent; everything that had life out of doors that could be sold at auction, was sold; then everything of furniture, till beds and tables left the little cottage, and the mother was put in jail, and is now looking through its grates, while her children are struggling for bread. Sir Richard O’Donnell is the landlord in possession of most of the land there, and his “driver,” like others akin to him, does strange things to the tenants, quite unknown to the landlord, who has been called humane.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Assisted emigration

Sometimes, it was cheaper for the landlord to pay the fare to Australia, Canada, or America than to keep a tenant family that couldn’t pay rent. Again, that left another leasehold in direct control of the landlord. It’s thought tens of thousands were subject to assisted emigration.

We’ll see when we study our Large family from Kilkenny that the landlord may have paid their emigration fare.

Patrick Gallagher left

We know that Patrick Gallagher left Ireland in the mid to late 1840s. He was about age 25. We don’t know why he left, but we’ve learned so many possible reasons that it’s easy to justify his departure.

  • The elimination of Rundale changed the way land was allocated, so perhaps there was no way for Patrick to get land.
  • After Francis Forster’s or Lord George Hill’s or Lady Jane Russell’s draconian rent increases, maybe Patrick couldn’t see how he could pay.
  • After several years’ crop failures and then the blight, maybe Patrick’s family was starving.
  • Maybe the landlord paid Patrick’s fare to America.

We don’t know what happened to John Gallagher and Hannah Roarty or their families.

  • Maybe John and/or Hannah died.
  • Maybe John and Hannah were evicted.
  • We don’t know, but maybe John and/or Hannah emigrated.
  • Maybe John and Hannah survived the famine and continued to live in Gweedore or The Rosses.

These pages speak plainly of Clergymen, of Landlords, of Relief Officers, of the waste of distributions, and of Drinking Habits. Are these things so? Glad should I be to know, that in all these statements a wrong judgment has been formed. Yes, let me be proved even a prejudiced writer, an unjust writer, a partial writer, rather than that these things shall be living, acting truths. But alas! Ireland tells her own story, and every stranger reads it.

Asanath Nicholson – Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Nibbles Extra Credit

Read Asanath Nicholson’s diary online at Library Ireland. Click the link or the book.

Annals of the Famine in Ireland



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