An Overview of the Famine in Waterford

The potato blight spread stealthily across the potato fields of Europe in the summer of 1845. By September it had made its appearance in County Waterford. The degree of destruction was highly variable in the 1845 crop, but Waterford seems to have been badly hit, losing over 40% of its potato crop by the spring of 1846. By the beginning of December 1845, occupancy in the Dungarvan workhouse had increased by 63% over the same week in the previous year. Lismore saw a 26% increase in inmates, and the city area seems least affected with an occupancy rise in the Waterford Union workhouse of only 2%.
By the spring of 1846 efforts were being made to provide relief by employing people on public works, but no public works had actually commenced by the end of March 1846. Local relief committees also made collections which were augmented by donations from the British Government via the Lord Lieutenant. By mid July 5,237 men were employed on public works in the county, having risen dramatically from 2,951 on July 4th, and rising to 5,403 by July 25th 1846. Employment began to decline by August 1st as men were laid off in expectation of the harvest. On August 1st 1846, 3,623 men were still engaged throughout the county on public works as follows : Coshmore and Coshbride had 1,233 employed, Decies within Drum 644, Decies without Drum 1,104 and Upperthird 742. Along with the rise in occupancy in workhouses, these figures point to the impact of the crop failure in Waterford of 1845 as falling most heavily on the western half of the county. It had been a terrible year, but Ireland had weathered similar years before. It is doubtful if anyone died of actual hunger during the first year of the famine in Waterford. Mortality rates did rise..., but deaths were probably due to other ailments prematurely carrying off the most vulnerable age groups.
The vital potato harvest of autumn 1846 was almost a complete failure, and the months that followed saw the country slide from crisis into catastrophe. Terror spread among the hungry, faced with the prospect of absolute famine, and among the elite confronted by social conflict, public disorder and violence. In October 1846 the Government made further grants to relief committees to support those out of work; for each head of household out of work, £4 - 00 was granted. The estimated number of destitute households in County Waterford was as follows: Glenahiry 962 households; Gaultier 1,831 households; Middlethird 2,529 households; Decies within Drum 3,996 households; Upperthird 4,603 households; Coshmore and Coshbride 4,743 households and Decies without Drum 6,378 households. By this reckoning 25,042 households in the county were at risk; if average family size was four persons it put 100,168 people, or if average family size was five persons it put 125,210 people at immediate risk in the county, or between 45% and 50% of the total population.
Public works, particularly road building and improvement, continued throughout the autumn and winter of 1846, but the scale of demand for work and the demands for supervision and administration swamped the system. The change from day wage rates to task work put further strains on an overworked administrative staff and impeded action, under an avalanche of paperwork and red tape. For the workers it led to lay offs and delays in payment. Government policy severely limited the availability of rations and food prices soared. Even those in employment could not afford sufficient food. Small farmers were forced to eat their corn seed, and labourers begged, borrowed, stole or starved.
The Inspecting Officer, Captain Hay, wrote in January 1847 of the eastern part of the county, “The relief committees are besieged by applications for employment on the public works”. Accusations of jobbery and favouritism were rife, and there is evidence that larger farmers used the public works as a means of ridding themselves of labourers and cottiers traditionally dependent upon them for work and conacre. The employment offered on public works was a lifeline to those facing starvation, but as food prices continued to soar the lifeline metamorphosed into a garotte. Captain Hay said of those on the works, “Their food is most scanty owing to the high price of meal”. He went on, “Labourers are unable to accomplish a day’s work from want of sustenance”.
Farmers themselves were in very straitened circumstances due to increased rates and seed shortages, and with no potatoes, they could not in many instances afford to employ labourers in early 1847. Lieutenant Downman was now told, “The farmers have dismissed all their servants”. A little later he noted, “A plough is now occasionally seen on the farms, but instead of labourers being employed, the farmer’s sons now guide the plough”. For the smaller farmers even this substitution option was not available. Reporting from Waterford in February 1847 Captain Mayne stated, “The farmers of from 5-15 acres, who hold so much of it, have not the money to expend on their farms, or seed to sow, and must probably all become labourers, as many are now, their land being given up”.
Early in 1847, the long standing government policy of not providing outdoor relief was reversed and soup kitchens opened. Tied to this was another policy shift, the phasing out of public works as a relief measure, and the provision that almost all relief measures were in future to be financed by the union concerned. This marks the start of the government’s disengagement from the crisis. By the autumn of 1847 the process was accelerating apace and by early 1848 was in full swing.
The Temporary Relief Act of 1847, which provided for soup kitchens, administered to huge sections of the Irish population. However the needs of the population varied immensely from place to place. It varied from unions in Ulster where less than 1% of the population required outdoor relief, to large parts of the west where over 60% of the population were on the Relief Lists. In Ballinrobe (Mayo) the figure reached over 93% of the population at one point. The experience in Waterford lay between these two extremes. The Waterford Union had 44% of its population eligible to receive soup, Dungarvan had 47.8% at the height of the crisis, Carrick-on-Suir Union, which included part of County Waterford, had 28% and Clonmel (Tipperary) 35.8%. Lismore Union stood out with 66.7% of its population on temporary relief lists. This figure is higher than for any union in the provinces of Leinster or Ulster and is on the scale of west Cork and Kerry, west Limerick, Clare and Connaught. Lismore was the only union east of a line from Cork City to Sligo which exceeded the 60% figure.
The change of government policy with regard to relief works swung rapidly into action. On March 20th, 1847, 20% of those on the works were discharged, while a further 10% were discharged on April 24th and the remainder a week later. The complete abandonment of public works relief on May 1st, several months before the potato harvest in the autumn, is either an admission that public works were totally inadequate, or signal the intention of government disengagement.
While the Temporary Relief Act undoubtedly saved thousands from starvation, it came too late for many. Weakened by hunger, poorly housed and only partly clothed, many died. Estimates of mortality vary. S.H. Cousens (of UC Swansea — Ed.) estimated 3.3% of the 1841 population in Waterford died, 6,474 deaths in total.
Throughout the summer of 1847, food flowed into Ireland and prices dropped as a result. The potato harvest of 1847 was largely free from blight, but the acreage planted had been severely restricted for the reasons outlined above. Estimates put the 1847 acreage at about one third of the usual potato acreage.
The good harvest provided a brief respite, but now another by-product of the distress and economic dislocation was to come centre stage in the experience of the poor in County Waterford. Since 1843 landlords had been eligible for the payment of rates due on properties whose land was valued at less than £4 - 00. Faced with inflated rates bills and high rent arrears many landlords proceeded to evict. The Gregory Clause of the Temporary Relief Act forbade relief at the expense of the union to anyone holding over a quarter of an acre. These two legal provisions caught the labourers and cottiers in a pincer movement. While the 1843 act may have inadvertently led to unforeseen consequences, the Gregory Clause could only have had malice aforethought. Landlords evicted or “encouraged” tenants to surrender their holdings, as they could only obtain relief when they had surrendered their land. The result was an exodus of the rural poor which changed forever the face of the Irish landscape. Such a huge transformation was only possible, without massive agrarian disorder, amid the despondency and helplessness of famine conditions.
From now on all Irish poverty was to be relieved by local rates. As Cecil Woodham Smith states, “From this point onwards good intentions on the part of the British Government became increasingly difficult to discern”. Joel Mokyr is more blunt, “When the chips were down in the frightful summer of 1847, the British Government simply abandoned the Irish and let them perish”.
As government support declined and local responsibility increased during late 1847 and into 1848, the percentage of those receiving relief dropped dramatically. The need for relief had declined somewhat due to death and emigration. The partial harvest of 1847 had helped for some months. By the spring of 1848 hunger and destitution were increasing again but access to relief had tightened dramatically due to the Gregory Clause, and its financing fell on local resources. In April 1848 we can measure this using the parliamentary papers. Again, marked regional contrasts are apparent. Three Ulster unions, Gortin (Tyrone), Newtownards and Downpatrick (both in Co. Down) had less than 1% of their respective populations in receipt of relief. Across Ulster the average was 3.88%. In Connaught the average was 19,8%, with Ballinrobe the national blackspot with 41.75% of its population in receipt of relief. Waterford was a little better than the Munster average of 14%, Dungarvan stood at 8%, Lismore at 7.8% and Waterford City at 10.9%, neighbouring Clonmel was at 11.95% and Carrick-on-Suir at 3.7%.
Death rates from starvation rose again in the spring of 1848, accelerated by very cold weather, but by now it was a famine that dares not speak its name, at least in official circles. Charitable donations began to dry up after the extraordinary charity of 1846-7. Following the non-blighted but small potato crop of 1847, most people believed the pestilence had passed, and massive effort was expended on putting in the 1848 potato crop. But from mid June, wet weather made extensive blight inevitable and the resultant crop failure was as devastating as in 1846. The abortive Young Ireland Insurrection was used in Britain to popularise a policy decision which pre-dated the insurrection. Ireland was to be left to her own devices. What followed during the winter of 1848 and the spring of 1849 was as bad or worse than two years earlier. In the face of huge rate increases, even previously solvent tenant farmers fled the prospect and emigrated. Landlords faced with empty farms, no rent and huge rate increases went bankrupt.
Thomas Carlyle visited Waterford in 1849 and commented on the ruined commerce and empty shops and warehouses. Another blow fell with the arrival of cholera in the spring of 1849. By June even the Quakers, exasperated, by government inaction, gave up relief work and stated the scale of the problem to be beyond their means. Mortality in Waterford City and County peaked in 1849. Some 31% of total famine deaths in Waterford occurred that year. Throughout the country, workhouse occupancy peaked in June of 1849 with some 227,329 inmates. In July 1849 outdoor relief peaked for the year at 784,370 recipients, far less than had availed of soup kitchens two years earlier, but death, emigration and local financing of relief had seen to that.
The 1849 potato harvest was quite good except in parts of the west, and outdoor relief was wound down in most areas. By the spring of 1850, rate collection nationally was exceeding expenditure. The 1850 harvest was again mostly healthy, with the exception of parts of the west of Ireland. The famine was over locally: its grim legacy had begun.

©: Jack Burtchael, Waterford. First published in the book, Teacht na bPrátaí Dubha: the Famine in Waterford, 1845-50, published in 1995 by Geography Publications, Dublin. We are grateful to the author and to the publisher for permission to publish this slightly modified version.

Published in

The Green Dragon No 3, June 1997.

Another article by this author on the famine in Waterford.