No one will deny that Ireland has had its share of hard times. From adverse policies implemented by Britain to inequality abroad, the Irish have weathered countless struggles and horrors. Despite their often tragic history, the Irish have created a unique culture that has profoundly impacted the world at large.
Ireland's influence can particularly be felt in the United States. Scores of Irish immigrants fled to the states in the mid-19th century, landing in New York and forever changing the culture of both the city and country as a whole. The Great Potato Famine of 1845-1852 prompted this enormous exodus. The famine itself was caused by a disease that arrived in Ireland in 1845 and devastated the year's potato crop. In addition, the corruption of local landlords, negligence of British governors, and fragility of the Irish economy increased its detrimental impact.
What happened next would today be called a human-rights disaster. Famine, riots, massive emigration, and corruption plagued the nation for two years, reducing its population and hurting the national consciousness. Many thought Ireland would never recover from what was then called the Great Hunger.
1846: The Second Crop Fails
The failure of the 1845 crop and the government's foot-dragging response already caused desperation. But when the second potato crop failed in 1846, the new government fell even further into indifference and neglect, causing the situation to become dire.
A land agent passing through Ireland at the time wrote about his observations:
The leaves of the potatoes on many fields I passed were quite withered, and a strange stench, such as I had never smelt before, but which became a well-known feature in "the blight" for years after, filled the atmosphere adjoining each field of potatoes. The crop of all crops, on which they depended for food, had suddenly melted away.
The famine had begun in earnest. Millions attempted to sign up for the few relief programs available. Thousands got evicted from their homes for their inability to pay rent. Winter was coming, and it promised to be severe.
November 1846: The Quakers Bring Aid
The Society of Friends, known as the Quakers, were present throughout Ireland and one of the few major organizations outside of the government that attempted to provide relief. A man named Joseph Bewley assembled a series of relief committees in Dublin that soon spread to nearby cities.
The first goal of these committees was to provide direct food-based relief to the Irish people. Primarily, they acted as intermediaries with local organizations, soliciting donations from businesspeople and Ireland's wealthy. They also collected clothing donations to keep people warm through the freezing winter.
When the famine's inevitable longevity became apparent, the Quakers tried to focus on longer-term programs. By 1847, however, their resources were stretched thin and the donors had stopped giving. In their final analysis, the central relief committee considered their operations a failure. That said, thousands of people did survive the famine due to the Quakers' efforts, and their aid remains a bright spot of compassion amid a dark chapter of human history.
1847: The Irish 'Starve In The Midst Of Plenty'
One of the cruelest ironies of the Potato Famine is that Ireland was producing many other crops; however, landowners relied on Britain's purchase of these crops to pay their bills, meaning almost none of them were consumed in Ireland. Throughout the country, farms continued producing grain, dairy, and meat, only to put that food on carts and ship it to England.
As the politician and revolutionary William Smith-O'Brien said of the situation:
The circumstances which appeared most aggravating was that the people were starving in the midst of plenty, and that every tide carried from the Irish ports corn sufficient for the maintenance of thousands of the Irish people.
February 1847: Coffins Become Too Expensive For Rural Towns
In 1847, the London News dispatched artist and journalist James Mahony to provide a series of sketches about life in Ireland during the famine. Mahony's observations painted a devastating picture of the Irish countryside's condition. He said of the rural western town Skibbereen and neighboring Bridgetown:
[The famine's victims were] 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 [hunger] and fever, though several could be pointed out with the [lifeless] lying close to the living for the space of three or four, even six days, without any effort being made to remove the bodies to a last resting place.
In the town of Clonakilty, he described a horrifying experience:
The vast number of famished poor, who flocked around the coach to beg alms: amongst them was a woman carrying in her arms the [lifeless body] of a fine child, and making the most distressing appeal to the passengers for aid to enable her to purchase a coffin and bury her dear little baby. This horrible spectacle induced me to make some inquiry about her, when I learned from the people of the hotel that each day brings dozens of such applicants into the town.