My family are survivors. On both sides, we managed to either survive or flee from the destruction of the potato crop between 1845 and 1851, the sole means of sustenance for the poor in Ireland.
How could it be that a nation not 20 miles away from mainland Britain, could be decimated within 3 years, losing approximately 2 million of its people through starvation, disease or emigration?
It seems inconceivable that the catastrophe happened on the doorstep of the world’s richest nation at this time, yet it was the result of a complex set of circumstances both political and economic, which had very little to do with the potato and everything to do with bigotry and greed.
At school, I was taught the very stark fact that in 1945 there was a potato famine in Ireland and lots of people died. As I grew older and learned more about my own family history, I came to realise that we were somehow caught up in this “famine” although I didn’t really know how.
I knew my family came from Roscommon and Mayo, and I learnt that both counties were devastated during the potato failure. So I’m currently tootling around the mid and west counties of Ireland, doing some solo delving into the local history and trying to work out the link between events here and my being born English.
To begin with, I had no idea of the fact that throughout the “famine”, Ireland was actually still producing a large variety of crops and produce such as dairy and meat. The problem was that this was for export only, by the landowning classes both Irish and foreign.
The subsistence nature of farming meant that people grew produce for the landowners and kept small amounts of crops to feed themselves. By far the cheapest and most nutritious crop to grow with which to feed a growing population was the potato. Spuds fed the masses.
Until the potato blight.
There wasn’t an Irish famine as such, rather, a failure of the staple foodstuff that so many had become wholly reliant on – the potato. There was a reluctance of the Government to interfere with capitalist forces by giving food away and centuries of ingrained prejudice towards a people seen as lazy and inferior.
It would snowball into the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe.
And what of my own family’s involvement?
The McCarthys were itinerant Travellers in Roscommon. Very little documentary evidence exists other than baptism records in Dysart, however some of them survived the hunger (my existence being testimony to this fact).
Little is known of Irish Traveller history during the time of the Hunger. Indeed, it was thought until recently that Travellers were simply Irish famine survivors who took to the road to search for food and work and simply continued that way of life. We now know that they reach as far back as 17th century Cromwellian Ireland and have a DNA pattern distinct from the settled Irish population.
I guess being travellers meant they had possession of knowledge and the means to adapt and move with the change in circumstances. They would have been used to living in adverse conditions with scarce resources, having the ability to turn their hand to many different trades in order to feed their families. If they were lucky, they could have earned 8d per day breaking stones to build roads as part of the “relief works”, a kind of early public assistance scheme.
Their tendency to keep themselves to themselves would also help to reduce the chance of picking up the deadly typhus or other infectious diseases. Large family networks would enable them to pick up news about conditions in neighbouring counties with a view to moving on if needs be. Whatever the reasons for their survival, the McCarthys were able to get through the worst of it and remain in Ireland until more recent times favoured economic migration to the English West Midlands in which I was born.
Another side of my family, the Clarkes from County Mayo, did not fair so well. Such was their plight that 3 cousins, from which I am descended, left the family in Crossmolina, where there were around 100 cases of Typhus and where starvation reduced the population from 12,000 in 1841 to 7000 in 1851.
I found my 3x grandfather Thomas Clarke on an 1851 census in a barn in Trysull, Staffordshire, England with his 2 cousins, Michael and John. Their ages ranged from 17 to 19 and they travelled around 200 miles to get from home to that barn. Most of this was across bogland and harsh terrain, in inclement weather and with empty stomachs.
They had first travelled to County Cavan, then down to Dublin to catch a paddle steamer across to Liverpool, where they would have worked their way down to the Midlands, eventually ending up in the Black Country area of Wolverhampton, and the metalwork industry.
The England and Wales census of 1851 finds them living in a barn, separate from other farm workers and employees who lived together in a large farmhouse. They would have been comfortable enough, used to living without a kitchen and the usual amenities. They would have spoken Irish, as 80% of people in Crossmolina did at that time and so communication with their fellow workers would have been difficult. None of the other inhabitants were from Ireland.
By the census of 1861, the cousins had moved to lodgings in Wolverhampton, right in the heart of an irish immigrant population. There is no mention of family members from the old country coming over to join them, and they never went back home to live. It’s hard to imagine what happened to the rest of the family. There are no burial records in Crossmolina. One can only presume that they, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, perished in the disaster.
The McCarthys and the Clarkes met in the traditional metal working industries of the Black Country in the West Midlands. They had endured hardships beyond imagination. They had left behind them families and loved ones to seek a better life. They had left behind their travelling heritage, customs and way of life. They ended up in the grimy urban back to back squalor of a heavily industrialised part of England.
They became me. And for this and their determination to survive, I thank them.