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IRELAND FAMINE The Spaniards discovered the potato in the Andes Mountains of South America. Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato to Europe about 1590 when he presented it to Queen Elizabeth. The potato became important to Ireland because it was highly nutritious and was generally a reliable crop. It was well-suited to the Irish climate. It could be grown almost anyplace, even in the mountain area and next to bogs. Famine was not uncommon in Ireland. Bad weather often contribut
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  IRELAND FAMINE The Spaniards discovered the potato in the Andes Mountains of South America. Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato to Europe about 1590 when he presented it to Queen Elizabeth. The potato became important to Ireland because it was highly nutritious and was generally a reliable crop. It was well-suited to the Irish climate. It could be grown almost anyplace, even in the mountain area and next to bogs. Famine was not uncommon in Ireland. Bad weather often contributed to famine and plagues. Famine hit Ireland five times in the 1700’s. It is estimated that 250,000 -400,000 people perished in the famine of 1740-1741. At the beginning of the 1800’s, at least a dozen varieties of potatoes were grown in parts of Ireland. Even the poor  raised oats, barley and rye along with beans and other green vegetables. The potato soon became the principal source of nutrition for the vast majority of the poorer classes. It produced more food per acre than wheat and could be used to generate income. Accompanied by milk, potatoes provided most of the important nutrients for a healthy, nutritious diet. There were fourteen partial and complete Irish famines between 1816 and 1845. Even though the economy of the early 1800’s was stagnant, the Irish po pulation continued to spiral upwards. Unemployment and destitution were major problems. There was emigration to England and America, but it had little effect on the fast-growing population. LANDHOLDERS   The levels of landholding in Ireland before the Great Famine were: 1. landlord -the actual owner of the land; he usually resided in England and an agent administered his estate 2. large farmer -held a given amount of land from a landlord for rent; his rent could be raised whenever the landlord or agent decided to do so; often the large farmer sublet small plots of land to the landless laborers or cottiers 3. small farmer -rented a plot of ground, 4-10 acres in size, from the landlord or his agent 4. landless laborer -rented a piece of land on which to build a cabin and had a small garden for growing potatoes 5. cottier  – a laborer for the landlord who would rent a cottage with or without land Conacre became a common practice. Land was rented for the taking of a single crop. The laborers invested all or most of their earnings in ground from which to feed their families. These were the lowest in the social order. They relied on seasonal labor and migrated to the east of the country or England when harvesting or planting work was available there. This work paid for the rent of the conacre and bought clothes. Between the landlords and the landless laborers, there could be six tenants, each renting to the one below them. All tenants held the land at the will of the landlord. When old leases expired, the landlords raised the rent to the improved value of the farm. Sometimes the tenant had to sell almost everything he owned to meet the increased rent and taxes. IRISH LIFE Irish women were subservient to their husbands. The English thought they were treated as slaves. Among the peasant class, married men dressed better than married women. Their clothes were provided for first. Peasant women, however, had an equal input into the economy of the household. They cooked, cleaned, reared the children and had the sole responsibility for the animals and the making of butter. They would dig the potatoes, collect fuel, and then wash and boil the potatoes. They never had much time for anything else. Production and marketing was the work of the man. June, July and August were called the “Hungry” or “Meal” months. By then the potatoes from the previous year had all been eaten and the new crop was still not ready. Oatmeal was then the basic food eaten; turnips and cabbage were also eaten when available. None of these were considered to be as good as the potato. July was also called “Yellow Month” because fields were yellow and the faces of the paupers were a greenish yellow from the lack of food.  May hungry July find your haggard full and may the God of plenty watch over us all. Irish Blessing Landless laborers were hit the hardest during these months. Their wives and children were often forced to beg in other areas than where they lived. Men never begged. Two and a half to three million people suffered from seasonal hunger and were wiped out during the Great Famine. In the years before the Great Famine struck, nearly half of rural families lived in windowless, one room mud cabins. The roof was made of straw or some sod. For its chimney there would be a hole in the roof or smoke would escape through an open door. Those who were a little better off had a cabin with a chimney and a window or two. A simple cabin would contain a father, mother, several children and sometimes even the grandparents. There would be no furniture. The entire family would sleep on a single bed of straw. If there was a pig inside the dwelling, it was a sign that the family was living in relative comfort. The unemployed roamed the countryside, begging and sleeping in ditches. Land was scarce. Some families tried to survive on only half an acre of land. Between 1800 and 1830, the population of Ireland grew from 5 to 8 million people. The potato played a part in this population increase. Potatoes yielded far more per acre than any grain crop so laborers could feed their families on small portions of land. People married early in life and they tended to have large families. Ireland lacked major industrial centers and jobs were scarce. A share in the family farm and a small stone and mud house was all most people expected. Parents considered children insurance against starvation in their old age. Farmers subdivided the land among their children and holdings were gradually reduced to tiny plots. Two-thirds of the Irish population was dependent on agriculture and many of these were subsistence farmers. 45% farmed less than five acres of land and they were hugely vulnerable to any kind of crop failure. THE ARAN BANNER Potatoes produced more calories per acre than any other crop that would grow in northern Europe. To increase their harvest, farmers came to rely heavily on one potato variety, the Aran Banner, also known as the Lumper. It was one of the worst tasting and least nutritious varieties, but it was very fertile. It had a higher per acre yield than other varieties. Potatoes from a single acre of land could support a family of six. Storage was easy, but this potato was very susceptible to blight. For about three million people potatoes were their only source of food. They rarely ate anything else. A man would eat 7-15 pounds of potatoes each day. The children would take a big potato to school for their teacher. In County Mayo, the potato was the only food eaten by 90% of the population. When the potato was boiled, the pot was turned into a basket outside the door to let the water drain off. Then the basket would be put in the middle of the floor and all would sit around it to eat. On a three-legged stool nearby would be a bowl of saltwater or just salt. The pota toes were dipped in the bowl before being eaten. This was called “dip at the stool.” A noggin of buttermilk or skim milk would complete the meal. People would let one thumbnail grow long because, without knives, that was the best way to peel the potato. Several different dishes were made using the potato such as Boxty Bread and Champ. WORKHOUSES The government didn’t do much for the poor until inquiries were held in the 1830’s. The British report determined that publi c workhouses, rather than charity, would be the best solution. With the passage of the Poor law Amendment Act of 1834, the Poor Law Guardians had to provide accommodations for paupers in workhouses. The workhouse policy was extended to Ireland along with free primary education and subsidized emigration to Britain or the United States. Workhouses were buildings designed for the poorest in society. These people could no longer afford to live outside of them. Discipline, hard work, separation from family members and dull food were the trademarks of a workhouse. 130 long, gray stone workhouses were built in Ireland between 1830 and 1843. Before the famine, they were usually run at 40% capacity. Those who entered the workhouses were genuinely needy and in reality had no other option. The buildings were prison-like structures built to accommodate 600-1,000 people. Too many people were crammed into a small space. Thirty-two men would live in a dormitory 20 feet long. When a workhouse needed more space, beds would be set up in the attic for the children.  High walls surrounded each workhouse so inmates could not see the world around them. Windows were six feet from the floor. The windowsills sloped downward so they could not be used as seats or shelves. Open turf fires, one in each room, had to be extinguished by 8:30pm. The workhouse had stone floors, unplastered walls and bare rafter ceilings. The steep and narrow stairways were made of stone and were not suited for the old, weak or frail. If these people were housed on the upper floors, they became virtual prisoners and never left the floor. A whole family had to enter the workhouse in order to qualify for relief. Each inmate worked for room and board. They did not get paid. When people entered the workhouse their clothes were removed, washed and stored. Each person was searched, washed and given a haircut. Each woman received a shapeless, waistless dress that reached to her ankles. This was usually made of a striped convict-like material. She also received a shapeless shift, long stockings (bright yellow in some workhouses) and knee-length drawers. She also received a polebonnet. Each man was given a striped shirt and ill-fitting trousers that he adjusted by tying a piece of string around the knees. He was also given a thick vest, woolen drawers and socks, a neckerchief in winter and a coarse jacket. Children were dressed like the adults. All wore hob-nailed boots except the children under two years of age. They had no socks or shoes. Inmates were divided into seven categories and these seven groups were kept totally separated at all times, even during leisure time. Married couples, no matter their age, were kept apart at all costs so they could not breed. This rule was relaxed in later years. Basic furniture consisted of a cheap wooden bed with a flock-filled sack mattress. Two or three blankets were provided. There were no sheets or pillows. There were also wooden stools or benches and tables; these had no arms or backrests. None were upholstered. The only decorations on the walls were the workhouse rules. There were no newspapers, books, toys or games. If the inmates were not working they simply sat and did nothing. A bell rang for each different activity of the day. The first bell rang at 5am. There were prayers followed by breakfast from 6am-7am. Meals were eaten in silence. Meals consisted largely of potatoes, bread and milk. Often the quality and quantity of meals meant that workhouse inmates were on a slow starvation diet. Sometimes the only way to get food was to fight for it. Work time was from 7am to noon. Dinner was from noon to 1pm and this was followed by another five hours of work. Prayers took place between 6pm and 7pm. Supper was served from 7pm to 8pm and the inmates went to bed by 8pm. Oakum picking was the work of the old. Oakum was old rope that was tarred or knotted. Inmates had to unravel 3 pounds of rope daily-inch by inch. The resulting material was then sold to shipbuilders who added tar and used it to seal the lining of wooden boats. Stonebreaking resulted in material for road making. Four or more men at a time would rotate heavy millstones grinding corn by walking round and round on a treadmill. Bone crushing, sack-making and wood chopping were other jobs for all able-bodied men. The able-bodied women scrubbed floors, polished brass, scrubbed tabletops and would knit or spin. There was no work, except the necessary household work and cooking, on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. There were no spirits or tobacco. Bad language, waste, idleness and disobedience were punished by confinement and less food. The workhouses were developed so that people would really only use them as a last resort. A large number of children ended up in the workhouses. Parents could barely keep themselves alive. They would put their children in the workhouses, emigrate, establish themselves in a new country, and then arrange passage to the new country for their children. Anyone could leave the workhouse after giving three hours notice. The clothes they wore to the workhouse would be returned to them. If a man left, his whole family had to leave with him. Short-term releases were given to paupers going out to seek work. About 20% of the people who entered a workhouse remained there for more than five years. These were mainly the elderly, chronically sick and the mentally ill paupers.  If someone died in the workhouse, their next of kin would be notified. Their family members could make funeral arrangements on their own or arrange burial through the workhouse system. If burial was through the workhouse, the cheapest coffin was used, burial was in an unmarked grave, and several coffins might be placed in a single grave. If no family member claimed the body, it was donated for medical research and training. Conditions in workhouses were much better by the time they were abolished in 1930. PROBLEMS CONTINUED In January of 1839, the “Big Wind” caused destruction all over Ireland. In 1841, nearly 80% of the population was employed i n agriculture and much of this rural population lived in abject poverty. 60% of the population in Kerry and Mayo lived in the worst type of housing. Literacy rates were low: Kilkenny-29%, Cork-27%, Mayo-23%, Roscommon-20%, Galway-15% and Kerry-13%. By 1845, more than half of the Irish population was completely or largely dependent on the potato for food and money. In 1845, the Irish planted over two million acres of potatoes. The main crop in 1845 was planted during April and May and was not ready for harvest until October. There were no early potatoes. This meant people were eating oatmeal from June to October, if they could afford it. Farmers tried to help the poor around them. One Protestant farmer in Roscommon was known for his acts of kindness to the Catholics and Protestant poor alike. In May of 1845, 200 men marched to his farm and tilled three acres of his potatoes to thank him. BLIGHT On September 11, 1845 a strange disease was seen attacking the potato crop in some areas. The potatoes turned black and rotted. The leaves withered. In Kilkenny about one-third of the crop was affected; in other parts of the country up to one half of the crop was affected. This was a new blight to Ireland. Phytophthora infestans  was an air-born fungus that turned both planted and stored potatoes into inedible rot. The same blight had destroyed crops in the eastern part of the United States in 1842. The fungus probably accidentally arrived in Ireland from Canada and America. Trade ships spread it to England and then to Ireland. It struck the southeast first at Waterford and Wexford. A slight climate variation brought the warm and wet weather in which the blight thrived. Potatoes could not be stored longer than nine months so there were none to fall back on. When the potato blight struck in 1845 mass starvation was inevitable. Families who relied on the potato to keep them alive were left with nothing. Even those who grew grain or barley had to decide whether to sell the food in order to pay the rent or eat the food and be evicted. The blight did not destroy all of the crop and most people had enough to make it through the winter. Potato crop failures were not unusual in Ireland so the partial potato crop failure was not yet of much concern. Government relief measures and local charities helped. Meal and Indian corn was imported from America. At the time there was plenty of wheat, meat and dairy in Ireland but the poor people did not have the money to buy it. The winter of 1845 was mild but the spring of 1846 was wet. That spring the farmers planted more potatoes than usual to insure there would not be another failure like the previous year. Unfortunately, they planted any potatoes they still had on hand. Although the potatoes seemed sound, some harbored dormant strains of the fungus. When it rained, the blight began even earlier than in 1845. In mid-June there was a heat wave and by early August the blight had spread to a point that 90% or more of the Irish potato crop was destroyed, especially in the west. There were abundant crops of grain not affected by the blight, but these were sold and not consumed to pay the rent to the landlord. The laborers were forced to starve. As the death toll mounted, the countryside was seized with panic and despair. There were mass gatherings throughout the country. Thousands marched into the towns seeking relief. Starving people pawned or sold everything they owned including their tools. The next planting season some would have no tools for planting, others would have no land to plant, and others would have nothing to plant.
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