In Donegal, on the East side of town, there is a famine grave. This was my first time visiting one, though they exist throughout the country.
Known as the Great Famine, the Great Hunger or the Irish Potato Famine, it was a very difficult time for Ireland. Between 1845 and 1848 with effects being felt until at least 1852, around one million people died and millions emigrated dropping the Irish population by close to 25 percent. The country has never recovered the numbers.
So what exactly happened.
Potato blight is a destructive disease that affects potatoes, but can also affect tomatoes. It is said that the fungus that affects the plants was found in Eastern North America in the early 1840s. The spores spread to crops towards Nova-Scotia, and the unknowingly infected seeds were sent to European countries. All of the countries were affected by the fungus infected seeds, but Ireland was definitely hit the hardest.
The potato became the main part of meals for the poor in the 18th century. There wasn’t much variety in the types of potatoes in Ireland. The main potato was the Irish Lumper. Because there wasn’t a wide range of potato diversity, the potato blight was easily spread from crop to crop with disasterous results. The potato was also so important because the wealthy living in England demanded beef – a delicacy that was not available to the poor. The demand for grazing fields grew stronger with the increased demand for beef, and the Irish poor were left with the poorer quality soil – a soil that potatoes could grow in.
There were other instances of failed potato crops in Irish history due to frost or disease, but even though the potato was a relatively unreliable crop, it was necessary for survival.
In 1845, the news of “potato cholera” had spread across Europe. When the crops were pulled in October, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the crops had failed. In 1846, the percentage of loss had amounted to about 75%. By the fall of that year, the first deaths caused by famine were recorded. In 1847, the potato seed was hard to come by, so little crops were even planted. While 1848’s potato yields improved, only 2/3 of the already reduced crops were successful.
During the famine, food export out of Ireland was still happening. Mass amounts of people were starving to death, but food was being exported from the country. In 1847, 400,000 people died from starvation and related disease, yet nearly 4000 ships left Ireland full of food to feed the rest of the UK population across the Irish Sea. The famine killed thousands, but diseases associated with hunger and malnutrition (fever, dysentery, small pox, cholera and influenza) killed thousands more. The actual number of deaths remains unknown but the estimate is around 1 million people.
The poor came together the best they could during the famine. Families brought what they could to a communal cauldron. Soup was made with whatever they could find, and small cups were dished out to as many people as possible. The Donegal famine grave has one of these famine pots on display as a reminder of the times that so drastically changed Ireland.
The famine lead to a mass emigration towards other parts of the world – other countries in Europe, as well as Australia and North America. It is said that 1/5 of the people emigrating to Canada perished during the long voyage. Ships ariving to Canada were often quarantined to avoid the spread to disease. The numbers were staggering. Over 100,000 people – men, women and children – emigrated to Canada in 1847. In 1851, census reports show that half the population was Irish. Other larger Eastern Canadian cities also welcomed enormous amounts of Irish escaping the hard times in Ireland for years to come.
It is not known how many souls rest in the famine grave in Donegal, but the area is fenced off and overlooks a beautiful valley. One only hopes that their souls may now rest easy.