The Demographic Impact of the Famine in County Waterford

Part 1


The Great Famine has been seared into the Irish consciousness both at home and abroad for a century and a half. Historians have seen it as one of the great watersheds in Irish history. On this fulcrum, Irish nineteenth century experience neatly divides into two equal but contrasting periods. The 1840s were years of shortage, deprivation and hunger all over Europe, but nowhere else was the experience as catastrophic, pervasive and enduring as in Ireland and among the Irish overseas. Widespread starvation, mass destitution and wholesale emigration were unique to Ireland in their intensity and scale.
For a century and a half, social, religious, cultural, economic and political development have been seen as irrevocably influenced by the Famine. Scholars and others have sought to apportion blame, a phenomenon which began almost as soon as the famine itself. Depending on one’s perspective, the blight, the potato, farming practices, the social structure, the ignorant Irish, the landlords, the British Government and its administrators, or God have all been held responsible. Culpability has frequently been utilised to sharpen political axes, and some recent historians have downplayed the significance of the famine. Popular perceptions have inevitably been coloured by the politics and historiography of the famine. A frequent misconception is to see the famine as culminating late in 1847. This may be due to British Government policy at the time, the famine was called off in the autumn of 1847, and was declared officially over a little later. In reality the famine continued only slightly abated during 1848, reaching a new peak in 1849, and continued at a horrific level in parts of Ireland in 1852. Another aspect of popular perception of the event in parts of eastern Ireland, is that the famine is largely forgotten as having occurred in the immediate locality. Such horrors have been externalised to areas further west. Such historical amnesia is paradoxical given the importance the famine assumes in the national psyche.

Population and Land

This essay seeks to place Waterford in the context of the famine nationwide, and to examine the variations of its impact on a local scale across the county. The population of Ireland was 8.2 million in the early 1840s, of which 196,187 people lived in Waterford City and County in 1841. In 1991 this same area had a population of 91,624. The city population in 1841 stood at 23,216 which left 172,971 in the county. Twenty six towns were recognised by the census enumerators, but it makes more sense to amalgamate Knockmahon with Bunmahon and Scrothea with Clonmel, leaving twenty four towns and villages ranked by population in the table below:–

Waterford Towns and Villages: 1841 Census

1. Waterford City 23,216
2. Dungarvan 8,625
3. Portlaw 3,647
4. Lismore 3,007
5. Tallow 2,969
6. Carrickbeg 2,680
7. Cappoquin 2,341
8. Bunmahon–Macmahon 2,026
9. Kilmacthomas 1,197
10. Tramore 1,120
11. Stradbally 814
12. Environs of Clonmel 739
13. Ardmore 706
14. Passage East 624
15. Aglish 458
16. Kill 338
17. Villierstown 328
18. Ballyduff Upper 302
19. Dunmore East 302
20. Ringville 264
21. Tallowbridge 258
22. Annestown 149
23. Rathcormack 130
24. Cheekpoint 74

Outside the towns and villages, 139,673 people lived in rural County Waterford, the overwhelming majority of whom derived all or part of their livelihood from agriculture, or servicing the agricultural industry. This figure is an underestimate, as many people who lived in towns, and especially in the smaller villages, were farmers or farm labourers.
The average rural population density, albeit involving wide variations, was 207 people per square mile in 1841, compared with 44 people per square mile in 1991. The county wide average of 207 per square mile was a fairly typical figure for rural population density in pre–famine Ireland. Large areas of the drumlins in south Ulster, and much of eastern Ireland had similar or lower scores. Population density alone, however, does not give an accurate picture of how resources were divided among individuals or classes. Farms varied considerably in size, productivity, value and labour requirements. Indeed, population densities were frequently low on some of the very finest agricultural land, as it was often occupied by large pastoral farms. Small farm areas obviously had more farmers per square mile, but their labour needs from outside the family were usually low. Large tillage farms employed vast numbers of labourers which often concentrated in neighbouring townlands at very high population densities.
Waterford in 1841 contained 10,729 land holdings of above one Irish acre in extent. (These figures were compiled in Irish acres, for statute acre equivalents multiply by 1.62.) Of these, 3,190 or 30% were of less than five Irish acres (8.1 statute acres). These farms were almost purely subsistence holdings heavily devoted to potato cultivation, and their occupiers frequently depended on seasonal labour on larger farms or non–agricultural work to sustain themselves. These people, known as cottiers, swelled the multitude of labourers and landless spalpeens (itinerant farm workers) in the agricultural jobs market each year. Some 3,024 farms or 28% of holdings were between five and fifteen Irish acres (8.1 to 24.3 statute acres). These small farms straddled the chasm between commercial and subsistence holdings. Economically vibrant during the tillage boom of the era before 1815, falling tillage prices in the three decades after Waterloo had pushed this sector to the margins of viability by the 1840s. Without either the acreage or the capital to move into more profitable pastoral farming, this small farming class largely sustained the huge expansion in grain exports during the decades before the famine in a valiant bid to increase production in the face of falling prices. In County Waterford, these small farmers also produced large surpluses of potatoes for pig rearing and human consumption in urban markets.
The holdings of small farmers and cottiers made up a majority of all farms in pre–famine Waterford. Together with the large numbers of labourers and spalpeens, they were the nt element numerically in the population, but were increasingly peripheral to the economy as it evolved in nineteenth–century Ireland. Much of the and lawlessness in pre–famine Ireland was an increasingly desperate response by such marginalised people to worsening conditions. In other countries these were the people filtering into the expanding industrial towns, but Ireland was in fact going through a process of deindustrialisation following the introduction of free trade in the mid 1820s.
So, very few opportunities existed for non–agricultural employment short of emigration. Emigration overseas, while significant and growing, was as yet prohibitively expensive for the poorer social classes. Emigration had taken large numbers to Newfoundland in the eighteenth century, and increasingly to Atlantic Canada, the United States and Britain in the years before the famine, particularly from the east of the country, but its impact in mid and west Waterford was considerably less.
The remaining 4,515 farms of over fifteen Irish acres (24.3 statute acres) were commercial holdings developing apace and of growing importance to the economy. These strong farmers were well integrated into the market economy and well attuned to fluctuations in the demands of the market. They also increasingly assumed leadership roles in the political, religious and social spheres. These farms constituted 42% of all farms in County Waterford on the eve of the famine and they were better equipped to weather the coming storm. Waterford had the most commercially viable farming structure of any Irish county at this date. Within this vibrant commercial sector, 2,179 or 20% of all farms were between fifteen and thirty Irish acres (24.3 to 48.6 statute acres). Farms with over thirty Irish acres (48.6 statute acres) numbered 2,336 or some 22% of all holdings in the county. Some of these were lavish holdings of several hundred acres, but most were not much above the thirty Irish acre threshold. These farms were the employers of large quantities of farm labourers and had the acreage and capital to respond quickly to changing market conditions. These larger holdings of the strong farming class were heavily concentrated on the best agricultural land. Since 1815, many of these farmers had begun to move away from commercial tillage towards less labour intensive and more profitable pastoralism. Some, who wished to do so, could not face the fury of the labourers that would be displaced and held their hand.
This strong farming element of the agricultural population was better represented in Waterford than in any other Irish county. Only the grazier county of Kildare had a higher percentage of its holdings above thirty Irish acres. Just two counties, mountainous Wicklow and Waterford, had over 40% of farms in this larger more comfortable commercial farming sector. Eight other counties, all (with the exception of Limerick) in the east of the country, had over 30% of their farms in this sector. At the other end of the Irish agricultural spectrum Galway, Roscommon, Leitrim, Monaghan and Mayo all had less than one in ten of their farms which exceeded thirty Irish acres. In Mayo an overwhelming 73% of farms were in the cottier class of less than five Irish acres. Most of these were in the partnership or rundale system so despised by commentators and improvers at the time.
Paradoxically, despite its relatively affluent farming structure, County Waterford produced more potatoes (0.46 acres per capita) than any other county. A large part of the crop was used to fatten pigs and to supply early crop potatoes to Irish towns and cities. With more potatoes per capita, and with a better farming structure, the county seemed to be better positioned than most others to survive the potato blight of the late 1840s. In years of dearth, such surplus potatoes could be withheld from market and used as a subsistence crop.

The Demographic Impact of the Famine in County Waterford. Part 2