At the time of the onset of the famine in 1845, there was a Conservative government in Westminster led by Sir Robert Peel. The initial response to the impending crisis and averted any deaths from starvation in 1845 by the importation of alternative foodstuffs.
A Whig administration led by John Russell replaced Peel’s government in 1846. The potato crop failed again. In the latter half of that year maize imports fell and grain prices rose sharply. Irish Nationalists argued that widespread famine could be avoided if food output (other than the spoiled potato crop) were kept in Ireland. However, Russell’s Government refused to ban exports.
Quaker soup kitchen in Cork during the great famine (Illustrated London News)
Soup kitchens were established in the city by charitable groups such as the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Lee Committee. The Society of St Vincent de Paul also visited the poor and provided them with assistance. Father Theobald Mathew was heavily involved with relief efforts in the city. Assistance from the United States, in the form of grain and meal, began to arrive in 1847.
Workhouse life during famine
By December 1846, the number of inmates in the Cork Union Workhouse exceeded 4,600. In the last three months of the year, there were on average over 40 deaths per week. The Workhouse Guardians acquired a burial ground at Lapland, between Douglas and Carrigaline, from a workhouse official named George Carr.
Providing food for the inmates, even within the workhouse, proved difficult. Meals consisted largely of porridge and bread. Many destitute people came to the doors of the Workhouse for food in the last months of 1846. Although initially fed with leftovers, the Poor Law Commissioners disapproved of the feeding of non-residents and the service was withdrawn.
By the middle of January 1847, over 5,300 inmates were housed in the building. Overcrowding led to poor hygiene and the spread of disease. Fever infected many inmates, and during one week in March over 180 people died. The workhouse physician, Dr O’Connor, remarked that death came as a relief to many.
Scene at the gate of a workhouse, 1846
Dr Callanan, another workhouse doctor, said at the time
“From the commencement of 1847, however, Fate opened her book in good earnest here, and the full tide of death flowed on everywhere around us. During the first six months of that dark period one-third of the daily population of our shadows and streets consisted of shadows and spectres, the impersonations of disease and famine, crowding in from the rural districts, and stalking along to thegeneral doom – the grave – which appeared to await them at the distance of a few steps, or a few short hours.”
(Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, 8 (1849), p. 270).
Cork Relief Committee
With little direct involvement from the British government, famine relief within the country fell, by and large, to charitable relief groups, such as the Cork Relief Committee. Started in March 1846, they quickly raised over £3,000 in subscriptions from members of the public. One of their first acts was to purchase Indian Meal from the government’s store, and distributed it to designated sellers in the city. The meal sold out within hours. At their depots the Relief Committee sold meal significantly below market price, but because the cost of food was rising it became increasingly out of reach for many of the city’s poor, even those who were in employment.
The Fever Hospital and the North Infirmary reached capacity early in 1847. Dozens of applicants were refused daily, and sent home to die. A fever hospital was opened at Cat Fort in April 1847, and had admitted 30 patients within two hours. Horrifying conditions were reported in the city’s newspapers. Typhus, dysentery, influenza and smallpox were rife, and in 1848 a new cholera epidemic approached.
From September 1846 and May 1847 there were 13,000 burials in St Joseph’s cemetery. It has been estimated that there were between 400 and 500 deaths in the city each week during this period. Paupers were also buried in Curraghkippane, often in large, single plots. By June, over 2,000 workhouse inmates were buried at the new Carr’s Hill graveyard.
Deaths from starvation began to decrease during the summer of 1847, but deaths from disease, in particular typhoid fever, began to increase. Fever affected not only paupers, but also some members of higher social classes, including merchants and clergy.
Between 1846 and 1848, over 5,000 inmates of the Cork Union Workhouse died, 3,000 or so of these during 1847 alone. Thousands more would die from cholera during 1849.
(Adapted from O'Mahony, 2005)