For the most part, the Irish Potato Famine has been relegated to the dustbin of history, mentioned either as a casual example of British cruelty or, more often, as a joke. While some think the famine is best forgotten as an unfortunate combination of genetic accident and policy error, others see the famine as one of the earliest intentional genocides in modern history.
The story of the famine, like many historical tragedies, is too often told through a combination of statistics and dates, rendering it dry and abstract. To truly understand the desperation, the tragedy, and the human drama of the famine, it is necessary to examine what the Irish experienced on a personal level. The best way to do that is to look at their own writings and the accounts of those who witnessed their suffering.
These stories illustrate the range of perilous situations that the average Irish person could find themselves in. Starvation was common, but there were many additional dangers. Evictions contributed to the demise of many, as did illness and even highway slayings. The famine also resulted in one of the largest diasporas of the 19th century, in which up to a million Irish men and women migrated, many of them to America.
'The Great Evil With Which We Have To Contend Is Not The Physical Evil Of The Famine'
There is perhaps no greater villain in Irish history than Charles Trevelyan, the assistant secretary of the Treasury, who was responsible for organizing relief during much of the disaster.
There had been a general anti-Irish sentiment in the government and in British society for years, but no one turned that into policy more readily than Trevelyan. Certainly no one was more personally responsible for the enormous mortality rate during the famine.
Trevelyan believed in the providence of the famine - that it was ordained by God in order to cull the Irish population. In 1846, at the height of the famine, he wrote:
The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.
'The Workhouses Are Full And The People Are Turned Away To Perish'
The workhouse was an English institution long before the Great Famine. It was a form of public assistance, whereby the homeless and the destitute could be sent to work and, in return, would receive a small amount of food and shelter. This system was prone to exploitation even at the best of times (as documented almost a decade before the famine by Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist).
During the famine, the workhouses were taxed to the breaking point and conditions became deplorable. The staff could be horrible, and some would take things from the residents. In other places, conditions were unsanitary, with cadavers remaining in the workhouses for days before being collected.
Workhouse conditions got so bad that even the British government took notice, with one official warning the prime minister:
The workhouses are full and the people are turned away to perish. It is impossible to allow this state of things to continue without making some effectual effort to relieve it. The mortality in the workhouse is rapidly increasing, both from the crowded state of the unions and the exhausted state in which the applicants are received.
'Not A Single House Out Of 500 Could Boast Of Being Free'
In all of Ireland, few places were hit as hard as the town of Skibbereen in Cork County, which lost fully a third of its population. Mortality, eviction, and immigration made Skibbereen a haunted word, even in its own time. If an Englishman wanted to speak of the worst privations of the famine, he would likely speak of Skibbereen.
When James Mahoney visited the area in 1847, he was similarly shocked by what he saw there. Between famine and fever, doom had visited the area on a scale not seen since the plagues of old:
We next reached Skibbereen... and there I saw the [ailing], the living, and the [expired], lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them. To point to any particular house as a proof of this would be a waste of time, as all were in the same state; and, not a single house out of 500 could boast of being free from [mortality] and fever...
'Do Not Imagine There Is Any Exaggeration In The Reports'
Letters to America were common during this period, and not just among family members. At least one farmer, Thomas Maher, wrote to a clergyman, Father Heyden, in Bedford, Pennsylvania, begging for help:
When I wrote you last I gave you an account of the probable loss that would attend the failure of the potato crop. I was very far from knowing the real loss, but now, alas, I know it at my own expense. You must have seen through the press the number of [fatalities] from starvation and its concomitant diseases [of] fever and dysentery. And do not imagine there is any exaggeration in the reports.
Of course, the poorest and most destitute of Ireland’s farmers would not have been able to write such a letter. They wouldn’t know any American clergymen. However, even wealthier citizens felt the pinch of the famine, and asked for money from American sources.