The great famine  1845 – 1849

The first indication of the impending famine was published in London on 6 September 1845. Paradoxically, On the same day, the Linster Express, in an editorial, reported that  “… the harvest will be abundant and of good quality” and that the farmers were “in the height of good spirits.” Ireland it claimed, was at “the dawning of a bright and glorious era.”  The Famine struck shortly after.

Between 1845 – 1849, Out of a total population of eight million, over one million died from starvation and disease in Ireland. A further two and a half million emigrated during the same period. The tragedy of the ship The Brig ‘St. John’ tells the story of some of the emigrants on their journey to a new life. The cause of the famine was not just the failure of the potato crop. There was no shortage of food in the country at the time. The famine was caused by  political decisions made both in Dublin and Westminster prior to, and during the famine. This was compounded by social structures which deliberately denied the people access to readily available alternative food supplies. This set the stage for human misery, destitution and economic ruin. Prior to the famine, the potato was the main subsistence food for one third of the population. It had a high nutritional value, It was  cheap and easy to grow. Livestock and other valuable crops, such as wheat was also grown but had to be sold to pay exorbitant rent, often to absentee landlords.

The Famine potato

The potato was first domesticated in Peru and Bolivia more than 7,000 years ago. It arrived in Europe following the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The Irish began planting the ‘lumper’ variety in the 1800s.  Unfortunately, it was genetically flawed. The lumpers were genetic clones of one another. This left it wide open to the rapid and uncontrollable spread of the destructive blight. The blight which swept Ireland in 1845  was a fungus which attacked the non-resistant lumper, turning it to ‘inedible slime.’ If a more genetically variable potato seed had been available in 1845 some potato crops would have survived, substantially reducing the hardship of the famine. This, on its own, would not have prevented the catastrophe. Oppressive political and social policies, particularly in the agricultural sector, combined with the flawed potato gene, created a situation which made a famine inevitable. The Irish revolutionary, John Mitchell remarked at the time that “God sent the potato blight, but the English sent the famine.”

Bridget O'Donnel

Bridget  O’Donnel

The above illustration is the most iconic image from the famine. It shows Bridget O’Donnel (Donnell?) from Doonbeg, Co. Clare with two of her children after her eviction. It appeared in the Illustrated London News on December 22, 1849. Subsequently, it was published in newspapers around the world.  It highlighted, on a international scale, the severity of the famine and the  social and political injustice in Ireland at the time.

Bridget O’Donnel  gave an interview to the Illustrator London News in which she states that she, her husband, and her family were evicted from their seven and a half acre plot, three of them bog, in November 1849. Six men came to her home seeking possession. When she refused, they began to “tumble” the house around her. She was pregnant and “down-lying” (confined to bed)  with fever. Neighbours came to her rescue and gave her shelter. Shortly afterwards, she gave birth to a stillborn baby. All her family had come down with the fever. A thirteen year old son “died with want and with hunger while we were lying sick.” There is no mention in her interview about the  whereabouts of her husband or other possible family members. Neither is there any record of the fate of Bridget O’Donnel afterwards.

It is now believed locally, that Bridget O’Donnel’s cottage was located on, or close to the present five star international golf course in Doonbeg. The golf course belongs to Donald J Trump, the former President of America.


Painting of the Brig St John