The Great Famine refers to a seven year long (1845-52) period in Irish history in which one million people died of starvation. Often called the „Potato Famine” in the United States, that term obscures the fact that man-made factors greatly exacerbated the suffering.
British agricultural and economic policies exploited Ireland during the period, e.g., amidst mass hunger, large quantities of meat and grain continued to be exported from Ireland to Britain.
Prevailing laissez-faire thinking prevented the taking of strong governmental measures to alleviate the high mortality rate, literally evident in the dead on streets and in bogs. The British civil servant responsible for relief efforts — Sir Charles Trevelyan — in Scrooge-like terms wrote of Ireland’s „surplus population”.
At the end of the Great Hunger, in addition to the million dead, another million emigrated, reducing the island’s population by 20-25% (rates comparable to Poland after World War II).
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That emigration laid the foundation for large-scale U.S.-bound immigration from Ireland. Into the breach of malign, neglect stepped various charitable souls, attempting to provide some relief for Ireland’s starving.
One of those souls was Polish Count Paweł Strzelecki Prof. Christine Kinealy, director of the Irish Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, and author of „Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland.”
The Kindness of Strangers, and contributor to a new book,„Mayo: History & Society” talked with the Polish American Journal about Strzelecki and the Great Famine.
—For readers unfamiliar, can you tell us something more about the „Great Hunger” and its place in Irish culture and society?
The Great Hunger (in Irish, an Gorta Mór) was a watershed in the development of modern Ireland. It was triggered by a disease in the potato crop (the subsistence food of almost half of the population), which returned in varying degrees for seven years. Many of the relief policies put in place by the British government proved to be insufficient and inappropriate.
The population in 1845 was approximately 8.5 million; by 1851, it had dropped by two million due to a combination of death and emigration. But what makes the Irish Famine both unique and tragic is that Ireland never recovered from this demographic shock. The population today is smaller than it was in 1845.
Culturally also, Ireland changed. Many of those who died or emigrated were Irish speakers, so the use of the language was weakened. And, in the words of a descendant of a survivor, „music, dancing and poetry died.”
—Why was the Great Hunger so particularly hard-hitting in the west of Ireland, in places like County Mayo? Can you describe the local conditions in the 1840s?
All of Ireland was affected by the Famine, but some regions were particularly hard hit, such as west Cork (Skibbereen achieved a particular grim notoriety), west Clare, and north Mayo. County Mayo before the Great Hunger was one of the poorest districts in the country, with high levels of dependence on the potato and poor quality land that ad been repeatedly sub-divided into ever-smaller plots.
In some of the most remote districts, such as the Belmullet peninsula, most of the landlords were absentee or showed little compassion towards their tenants. A young Quaker who visited Mayo in 1847 described the local poor as „living skeletons … barely able to crawl”.
Count Paul de Strzelecki chose to base himself in the small town of Westport in County Mayo, at the center of so much suffering.
—In your work on County Mayo, you introduce the relief work of Polish Count Paul de Strzelecki. What was he, and what brought him to Ireland?
Strzelecki was a Polish-born explorer and scientist. In the early 1840s, he had achieved some fame for his pioneering explorations in Australia. Strzelecki had left his homeland around 1830, and in 1845 had become a naturalized British citizen.
At the beginning of 1847, the British Relief Association was formed in London to raise money on behalf of the Irish poor. Within a few days, Strzelecki had offered his services, free of charge.
Only twenty-four hours later he was asked to travel to the west of Ireland to ascertain the situation there. This is what brought him to Westport.
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—Can you describe in broad lines what Strzelecki did in terms of relief work in Ireland?
Strzelecki’s contribution to saving lives was immense. Firstly, he proved to be a sympathetic eyewitness. In his first letter from Westport, he wrote:
„ No pen can describe the distress by which I am surrounded … You may now believe anything which you hear and read, because what I actually see surpasses whatever I read of past and present calamities ”.
More than that though, in order to get much-needed food to the poor, he put himself at personal risk. When his carriage could not get through the snow, he would walk to his destination.
In April 1847, while working with people dying from disease, he caught „famine fever„ , impairing his health for the rest of his life.
—Can you tell us something particular about his relief work for suffering children? What was the magnitude of his efforts?
One of Strzelecki’s most successful schemes was to provide funding for children who attended local schools, the money was to be use to buy them a suit of clothes and a daily meal.
He started the scheme in Westport, but it proved to be so popular and effective that he extended it throughout the west of Ireland. Sadly, the scheme ended in 1848 when Strzelecki’s funds ran out. At this stage, over 200,000 children were being fed daily as a result of this scheme.
In any famine, children are one of the most vulnerable groups, reflected in their high rates of mortality, so giving them relief directly was very beneficial, to the children and their parents.
—What eventually happened to Strzelecki’s efforts?
Most of the charitable relief that was sent to Ireland was concentrated in 1847. By the end of that year, most fund-raising committees started to end their activities.
The British Relief Association, which was the most successful of all these bodies was able to continue working until summer 1848, by which time its funds were totally exhausted. Although Strzelecki’s formal involvement ended at this stage, he did return to Ireland in 1849 and again in 1850, at the request of the British government.
—How eventually did the Great Famine end?
It is hard to say how or when the Famine ended. For the most part, the potato blight had disappeared from Ireland in 1852 but, throughout the 1850s levels of disease, mortality, and emigration all continued to be far in excess of their pre-Famine levels. Also, large numbers of people continued to leave Ireland, with men and women emigrating from Ireland in equal numbers.
By 1901, the Irish population had fallen to just over four million people. So, in demographic terms alone, it is hard to say that the Famine ever really ended.
The next part of an interview with Prof. Christine Kinealy is on the next page — click here_