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Wednesday, 19 April 2017


19‭ ‬April‭ ‬1741:‭ ‬In a letter to Dr.‭ ‬Thomas Prior,‭ ‬Dublin,‭ ‬the Bishop of Cloyne,‭ ‬Dr.‭ ‬George Berkeley,‭ ‬wrote of the Famine which was then raging:

The distresses of the sick and poor are endless.‭ ‬The havoc of mankind in the counties of Cork,‭ ‬Limerick and some adjacent places hath been incredible.‭ ‬The nation,‭ ‬probably,‭ ‬will not recover this loss in a century.‭ ‬The other day I heard one from the county of Limerick say that whole villages were entirely dispeopled.

The Great Famine of‭ ‬1741‭ ‬had its origins in the‭ ‘‬Great Frost‭’ ‬of January‭ ‬1740‭ ‬when an intense and bitter cold that emanated from the Artic and not experienced in living memory swept across Western Europe.‭ ‬So cold was it that birds dropped from the sky and seed was destroyed in the ground.‭ ‬Trade came to a halt as ports froze up and travel became almost impossible.‭ ‬In the Springtime the expected rains did not come,‭ ‬and though the Frost dissipated,‭ ‬the temperatures remained low and the northerly winds very strong.‭ ‬By the Summer of‭ ‬1740,‭ ‬the Frost had decimated the potatoes and the Drought had wrought havoc with the grain harvest and the herds of cattle and sheep had suffered huge losses.

In the Autumn a meagre harvest commenced and prices in the towns started to fall.‭ ‬Cattle began to recover,‭ ‬but in the dairying districts,‭ ‬cows had been so weak after the Frost that at least a third of them had failed to‭ “‬take bull‭”‬.‭ ‬Then blizzards swept along the east coast in late October and more snow fell several times in November.‭ ‬A massive downpour of rain fell on‭ ‬9‭ ‬December causing widespread flooding.‭ ‬A day after the floods,‭ ‬the temperature plummeted,‭ ‬snow fell,‭ ‬and rivers and other bodies of water froze.‭ ‬Warm temperatures followed the cold snap,‭ ‬which lasted about ten days.‭ ‬Great chunks of ice careened down the River Liffey and through the heart of Dublin,‭ ‬overturning light vessels and causing larger vessels to break anchor.‭ ‬The price of foodstuffs rocketed and people began to starve.‭

The Spring of‭ ‬1741‭ ‬went down in popular memory as the‭ ‬Black Spring of‭ ’‬41‭ ‬as the impact of two very hard Winters and the destruction of so much livestock and grain supplies began to be felt.‭ ‬This was especially so amongst the rural and urban poor of whom there were very many in Ireland at that time.‭ ‬Diseases swept the Country:‭ ‬Dysentery‭; ‬Smallpox and Typhus took the lives of many thousands.

Sir Richard Cox wrote from Cork in April that year:‭ 

Mortality is now no longer heeded‭; ‬the instances are so frequent.‭ ‬And burying the dead,‭ ‬which used to be one of the most religious acts among the Irish,‭ ‬is now become a burthen…In short,‭ ‬by all I can learn,‭ ‬the dreadfullest civil war,‭ ‬or most raging plague never destroyed so many as this season.‭ ‬The distempers and famine increase so that it is no vain fear that there will not be hands to save the harvest.

Eventually in the Summer of‭ ‬1741‭ ‬the Crises abated and while the situation was still very hard the plagues and starvation eased off.‭ ‬The next Harvest while not abundant was sufficient to ensure that enough food would be available to avert a similar situation the following year.

So ended what was the worst set of recorded climate related disasters to hit Ireland since at least the‭ ‬14th Century.‭ ‬Nobody knows how many people died as a result of this Great Famine of‭ ‬1741‭ ‬and the hardships that preceded its apogee.‭ ‬Out of an overall estimated population at the time of around‭ ‬2.4‭ ‬million it seems probable that between‭ ‬300,000‭ ‬and‭ ‬450,000‭ ‬of the people died as a result‭ – ‬a mortality rate that stands comparison with if it did not actually exceed the more infamous events of the‭ ‬1840s.‭ 

Picture: http://antarcticspring.deviantart.com/art/Vanitas-famine-284255931