Desperate Haven – The Famine in Dungarvan 2. Overture to Disaster 1845

Desperate Haven – The Famine in Dungarvan 2. Overture to Disaster 1845

 
The Fateful Dependence 
 
In the late 17th century and early 18th century the diet of the Irish peasant consisted of potatoes from August to May and oatmeal for Spring and Summer. The potato had become an established part of the peasant’s diet by the mid-18th century.
Dungarvan was notable as a potato-growing area. Charles Smith commented in 1746 that: ‘The lands at Kilrush…afford great plenty of potatoes, with which the markets of Dublin are yearly supplied, upwards of 18,000 barrels having been sent thither in one season from this place.’ [1] In 1752 Dr. Pococke noted that Dungarvan was ‘famous for the export of potatoes to many parts of Ireland.’ [2] In 1836 Beresford Boate gave an interesting insight into the diet of the tradesmen and artisans:

Bread is much more used as food in the town and neighbourhood…35 years ago there were only two bakers in the town of Dungarvan, there are now nearly 50…The tradesmen and artisans of the town generally eat bread at least at one meal in the day …Small farmers, as well as labourers, eat potatoes because they cannot afford to eat bread. [3]

 In the 1830s several varieties of potatoes were being set which did not last as long in storage as the old varieties. As a result the period between the end of the old crop and the availability of the new potatoes became longer. This caused increased distress amongst the poor because their food supply was limited. From 1832 to 1836 a disease attacked the potato crop in Ireland. Many new varieties were grown in an attempt to develop a disease-resistant crop. This experiment was unsuccessful and a new stock of potatoes was imported to Europe from South America. Austin Bourke [4] has suggested that this may have been the original source of the potato blight in Ireland.

The First Appearance Of Blight 
 
The potato harvest of 1845 appeared promising until the appearance of blight. It was first noticed in Belgium in June 1845 and by August it had appeared in Southern England. The arrival of the potato blight in Ireland was first reported on 6 September 1845 in the Dublin Evening Post and the Waterford Freeman:

We regret to learn that the blight of the potato crop, so much complained of in Belgium and several of the English counties has affected the crop, and that to a considerable extent, in our own immediate locality…We are assured by a gentleman of vast experience that the injury sustained by potatoes from blight on his domain is very serious – that they are entirely unfit for use; and he suggests potatoes so injured should be immediately dug out for the use of the pigs.
 
The earliest surviving minute-book for Dungarvan Union begins on 1 November 1845. The first entry shows that there were 197 inmates in the Workhouse. [5] At a meeting of the Dungarvan Board of Guardians on 20 November Lord Stuart de Decies [6] proposed that the Guardians of each division form a committee to report to the Board of Guardians every second week on the stock of potatoes in their districts. He also suggested that they have a contact person living in each district to inform them of the peasants’ diet. 1,000 copies of a questionnaire on the state of the potato crop were printed and fifty copies were given to each guardian for the East Divisions of Dungarvan, Kilgobnet, Whitechurch, Kilrossanty, Ballylaneen, and Aglish. On 18 December the Master was ordered to have the ground at the front and back of the Workhouse ‘dug up and formed into drills, three feet wide, which will improve the soil and afford employment to the male inmates.’ The Rev. James Alcock sent the answers to a set of queries to Lord Cloncurry, concerning the state of the potato crop in Ring. Alcock cautioned against giving relief to those whose potato crop had partially failed as he felt that they would use up their existing stock, leaving them with nothing for the Summer months.

A practice is beginning to prevail to a very considerable extent in our neighbouring market towns, where persons are daily purchasing diseased potatoes at about 1d per stone, and selecting the best of those they dispose of them at 3d or 4d, while they give the refuse to cattle and pigs. Thus a market is at once opened to those who are disposed to sell at mere nominal prices and who perhaps are calculating upon pecuniary aid from your committees at the close of the season.

Answers to queries:

1. There has been a decided change for the better, the progress of the disease has arrested.   
2. Not as many people were ill after eating diseased potatoes.
3. The general custom in this locality being to consume the diseased potatoes first and reserve the others for summer use, at present the supply is most abundant; and on no former year have I observed the farmers’ haggards so well supplied with grain of every description…and the rents paid.
4. Half the crop is diseased in this parish, but still it is used for human food. [7]

In January 1846 the Lismore Guardians reported a deterioration in the potato crop and that there was a shortage at the various markets. As a result the Workhouse inmates had to be given bread instead. [8]On 22 January 1846 the Dungarvan Guardians ordered that 200 yards of limestone at one shilling a yard, be acquired to give employment to the Workhouse inmates. Stone was to be broken and sold for road repairs. On 29 January the Guardians decided that they would have to take steps to reduce the numbers in the Workhouse. They ordered the Clerk to prepare a notice stating that there were several boys and girls aged 12 to 15 years in the Workhouse who could be taken into service by farmers and others. In March the Lismore Guardians reported that the potato crop of the ‘labouring classes’ in the Lismore Union would soon be gone and a committee was appointed to find a substitute for potatoes. This committee recommended that the Guardians adopt soup No.1 from Count Rumford’s book on the best and cheapest method of feeding the poor. [9] It should be noted that the occurrence of blight in 1845, while serious, did not give rise to a desperate situation. The potato crop had failed before, notably in 1832. It was commonly assumed that blight would not reappear in 1846. This was to prove a vain delusion.

References

  1. Smith, Charles, The Antient & Present State of the County & City of Waterford, Dublin 1746 p.91.
  2. Pococke, Rev. Nicholas, Pococke’s Tour in Ireland 1752, ed. by George T. Stokes, Dublin 1891.
  3. Poor Inquiry (Irl.) Appendix E.(37) H.C. 1838 xxvii p.31.
  4. Bourke, Austin, The Visitation of God – The Potato & the Great Irish Famine, Lilliput Press 1993.
  5. Dungarvan Union Minute Book 1/11/1845 – 20/8/1846.
  6. The Right Hon. Henry Villiers Stuart (1803-1874), chairman of the Board of Guardians. He was born on 8 June 1803. Educated at Eton. Married Theresie Pauline Ott of Vienna in 1826. Had a famous victory in the Waterford election of the same year. Created a Baron in 1839 as Lord Stuart de Decies. Had an only son, Henry Windsor Villiers Stuart.
  7. Cork Examiner, 22 December 1845.
  8. Lismore Union Minute Book, Co. Library archives, Lismore.
  9. ibid.

 

Author: William Fraher

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