The Irish Potato Famine And Genealogy

Were your ancestors or relatives living in Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine?

The failure of three annual potato crops led to the emigration of one and a half million people, mostly to the United States and Canada. The disaster plays a massive part in the family tree of so many people of Irish ancestry.

This article gives you the context of events with a focus on what genealogy records are available for your research into family history.

What Conditions Led To The Irish Famine Of 1845?

The majority of people in Ireland in the first half of the 19th Century were completely dependent on the potato as their main source of food.

Tenant farmers mostly grew potato crops. This meant that a potato blight in 1845 that devastated crops resulted in a disastrous impact on the population.

About seven in eight people in Ireland resided outside towns or built-up areas. However, few owned the land on which they acted as tenants or laborers.

Most tenant farmers had no security of tenure. In other words, landowners could evict them whenever they wanted. This could be for failure to pay rent or any other reason.

You may find genealogy records that show an ancestor or relative had a life lease on the land. This was quite rare.

Smaller and smaller plots of land

Most of the land in Ireland was in the hands of wealthy landlords of Anglo-Irish or English heritage. Many were absentee landlords residing in England. They used local agents to collect their rent.

Irish farmers tended to divide the land that they leased amongst their sons. The sons in turn would further divide their plots amongst their own descendants.

This led to many families depending on tiny plots of land to feed themselves and pay their rent.

Did The Irish Only Eat Potatoes At This Time?

It’s not true that potatoes were the only source of food. Many small farms would keep chickens. Some would have a single milking cow. And some would sow oats alongside the potato crops.

The eggs, milk, and butter would extend a family meal. The produce could also be sold or used as part payment for rent.

Aside from that, the potatoes were only available to eat from the harvest in August to about May the following year. During the summer, families ate their oats or bought oatmeal to sustain themselves until the next harvest.

The Change Of Potato That Led To The Blight

Different types of potatoes grow best on different types of land. The most nutritious types didn’t grow well on land of poor quality.

However, other types could grow in abundance on smaller and stonier plots. As the tenant farms got smaller and smaller, the farmers switched to a knobbly type of potato known as the Lumper.

I’ve never eaten a Lumper, but people who have say that it’s got a waxy or soapy taste. Food scientists say that it was much less nutritious in terms of vitamins.

The tragedy was that the Lumper was not resistant to a blight that arrived in the country in 1845.

Arrival Of The Potato Blight

The scientific name for this blight is Phytophthora Infestans. This infectious blight didn’t originate on the island of Ireland.

It had already appeared in Europe with newspapers running reports of the failure of potato crops. However, the rest of Europe wasn’t dependent on potatoes.

A Dublin newspaper ran a report in September 1845 of the first known attack of the disease in Ireland.

You can find Irish newspapers of the time on various online archives.

What Did The Potato Blight Look Like?

An early sign that a crop was attacked was from the potato leaves. The leaves turned black and curled up at the edges.

This was an outer sign that the potato was going black beneath the skin. The tuber was rotting within itself.

With so many potatoes going rotten in a crop, the fields produced a putrid smell so strong that it was almost overpowering.

Devastating Impact Of Two Blights

The accounts of the first potato blight are horrific in terms of the hardship suffered by so many people.

Villagers scratched in the fields for remnants of any edible plants such as a few turnips sown with the potato crop. I mentioned that farmers

When people died of starvation, their family members were too weak to dig the traditional deep graves. This led to dogs and foxes digging up bodies from shallow graves.

At the time, deportation to Australia was a sentence for some types of criminal offenses. It’s known that some resorted to crime in order to get onto a deportation ship out of the country.

You can find records of the deportation ships for genealogy research.

What about other food sources?

I mentioned that some farms grew oats alongside their potato crops. These should have been an alternative source of food when the potato crop failed.

However, landlords refused to let them harvest more than a quarter until the rent was paid.

This was a form of insurance for the landowner. Their agents would inspect the fields and hire people to enforce the policy.

What Did The Government Do?

I won’t go into the politics of the time, except to mention that the philosophy of the elite classes was against government “interference”.

Sir Robert Peel was the British Prime Minister of the day. To his credit, he set up a Relief Commission in late 1845 to distribute grain to starving people.

This fell short of what we’d expect now, but it was better than nothing.

Relief Work Projects

The philosophy of the day was against government “charity”. So, they set up public works projects such as road building so that people could earn money for food.

There were many problems with these schemes. For a start, the wage of a shilling per day wasn’t enough to feed a family.

To make matters worse, some workers were too weak from hunger to finish a working day.

And there weren’t enough places to meet the needs of the population.

Second Blight Disaster

There had been previous potato blights in Ireland. So, why was this one so devastating? Well, one of the reasons is that it didn’t strike just once.

The following year, the blight struck again and the potato crops failed across the country in 1846.

People had pinned their hopes on eking out an existence until the next harvest. This second failure was a disaster.

Soup Kitchens During The Famine

The relief works continued with 500 thousand people on the books in 1847. That still wasn’t enough places for what was needed.

The Government realized that they had to provide food for free more widely. They brought in the Soup Kitchen Act to distribute food from official stations.

The portions from these official stations were often tiny and the food was very poor quality.

Quaker soup kitchens

However, the Quakers (the Society Of Friends) had stepped in to set up their own soup kitchens. They were considered to be far more helpful to the impoverished people. They didn’t assign fault to the situation.

I’d say that modern Irish think back with gratitude to the efforts of the Quakers at this time.

The folk memory of the official effort is far less fond (I’m being polite, it’s still a source of enmity).

Workhouses During The Famine

By the end of 1847, the official Soup Kitchens were replaced by the use of the workhouses.

People who couldn’t physically work could get food and relief away from the workhouse. However, the rest of the unemployed poor had to enter the workhouse to get government aid.

The conditions inside the workhouses themselves were awful. People were more likely to catch infectious diseases from other poor unfortunates within those damp walls.

Typhus was the worst of the human diseases. Typhus is spread by lice, which bred in the cramped workhouses. Scurvy was another affliction due to the poor diet.

But many had to enter a workhouse to survive. Even then, relief was only provided to individuals for two months.

The records of the workhouses are available for genealogy research.

The Third Potato Blight

The potato blight didn’t strike the harvest of 1847. The problem was that the national crop was small due to so many being too weak to plant it.

With government intervention, a much larger crop was sown in March of 1848. But the third blight struck this harvest.

At this point, the Quakers had run out of funds for their soup kitchens.

The unfortunate population was reliant on a Government that made many errors even when trying to help.

Botched Relief Efforts

The government provided food relief but their policy was that people had to collect the meager rations on a daily basis. Many were too weak to make repeated journeys.

The government introduced a policy where people who had less than a quarter-acre had to give it up to get relief.

There’s a point that could be argued in favor of this, as the tiny plots had contributed to the problem. But it led to great hardship for people desperate to keep their land.

Eventually, both these policies had to be done away with in face of mass starvation.

They levied rates on landowners to cover the cost of the relief. In theory, the landowners would recoup some of this from their rent. But the people were too poor to pay rent.

Some of the larger landlords left their lands in droves i.e. sold or gave up ownership. As they weren’t paying rates to the Poor Unions that distributed the food, those Unions went bankrupt.

Evictions During The Famine

I mentioned that tenant farmers had little protection or tenure. Landlords could easily evict them for late payment in rent (or any other reason).

The winter of 1847 saw the start of a period of mass evictions from estates. You might think that the landowners were at a disadvantage by a dearth of healthy replacements to work the land.

But many landowners simply moved livestock onto the land.

There were over 70,000 evictions during this time. You may have seen paintings of burning dwelling places during evictions. This was to stop the evictees from returning another day for shelter.

How Did The Irish Potato Famine End?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the Irish Famine ended. After 1848, the crops were healthier and provided food if they could be harvested.

The death toll peaked in the winter of 1847. With so many dead in a single season, there were fewer people to die in the subsequent years.

It’s also the case that many people had emigrated to escape the country. About one and a half million emigrated, with the majority going to the United States and Canada.

Check out our article on where Irish immigrants settled in Chicago.