Life During the Famine

The poor Irish who had lost their potatoes faced terrifying difficulties. They called the time an Gorta Mór, which means “the Great Hunger,” or an Droch Shaol, “the Bad Times.”

The poorest farmers, already living at a subsistence level, were the first to feel the effects. Within a few months of the bad harvest, the people in the hardest-hit areas were already dying of starvation. Travelers reported seeing skeletal people with their mouths stained green; they had tried to ward off hunger by eating grass. In some places in western Ireland, piles of corpses filled the ditches.

The first thing the stricken farmers did was try to eat their diseased potatoes. This made them terribly sick with stomach cramps, diarrhea, and intestinal bleeding. Some very old and very young people died from this disease.

There was some food to be found on the land, and the Irish were very resourceful at scrounging it. They trapped birds and stole eggs from nests, gathered shellfish from the shores, and caught fish. Coastal people ate seaweed. They would take blood from cattle and fry it. They ate rats, worms, nettles, and chickweed. When the opportunity presented itself, they stole food from wagons and barges. But none of it helped much.

With Famine Comes Pestilence

The malnourished Irish were very vulnerable to diseases. In fact, more people died from illness than from actual starvation.

Typhus appeared in the winter of 1846. The Irish called it the black fever because it made victims' faces swollen and dark. It was incredibly contagious, spread by lice, which were everywhere. Many people lived in one-room cottages, humans and animals all huddled together, and there was no way to avoid lice jumping from person to person. The typhus bacteria also traveled in louse feces, which formed an invisible dust in the air. Anyone who touched an infected person, or even an infected person's clothes, could become the disease's next victim. Typhus was the supreme killer of the famine; in the winter of 1847, thousands of people died of it every week.

Another fever appeared at the same time, the relapsing fever called yellow fever because its victims became jaundiced. This fever also came from lice. A victim would suffer from a high fever for several days, seem to recover, and then relapse a week later. Many people died from this fever as well.

Scurvy became a problem. This disease comes from a deficiency of vitamin C, and it causes the victim's connective tissue to break down. The Irish called scurvy black leg, because it made the blood vessels under the skin burst, giving a victim's limbs a black appearance. The cure for scurvy is fresh food — meat, vegetables, or fruit — none of which was available to the poor in Ireland.

The modern obsession with cleanliness isn't just a matter of cosmetics or pride. Dirty clothes and sheets can harbor disease. When someone died of typhus, anyone who took and wore that person's clothes without washing them first could catch the fever from dust lingering in the clothes.

There were other diseases, too. Some Irish children fell victim to an odd disease that made hair grow on their faces while it fell out of their heads. Some observers commented that the children looked like monkeys. Cholera was always a problem in unsanitary, crowded conditions; it broke out in workhouses throughout the famine years.

Deaths in the Family

When people died, the living were left with the problem of what to do with the bodies. There were not enough coffins to hold the dead, even if the poor had money to pay for them. Stories abounded of entire families dying, or of mothers losing all their children and carrying the bodies to the cemetery on their backs, one by one. Visitors reported seeing dead bodies stacked in ditches and dogs devouring corpses in the fields; to their horror, they also observed people killing and eating those same dogs.

When someone came down with typhus, relatives and neighbors feared that they would contract the disease, too. Sometimes all healthy members of a family would leave a sick person alone in a house, hoping to escape the contagion. They hadn't abandoned the sufferer; they would push food in through the windows on the end of a long pole. When there was no longer a response from inside the house, they would pull the house down on top of the victim and burn the whole thing.

Landlords and Evictions

Most of the victims of the famine did not own the land they lived on. Instead, they rented houses and farmland from large landholders. When the potato crops failed, they could no longer pay their rent. Some landlords were understanding; many actually helped their tenants, handing out food and concocting jobs that would allow them to earn wages.

But other landlords were less accommodating. Scores of poor Irish were evicted from their homes. This wasn't all due to cruelty and greed; many landlords themselves faced bankruptcy and starvation as their rents stopped coming in. Some landlords decided that grazing sheep or cattle would be a better use of the land, and the peasants and their potato plots had to give way for the livestock.

The result was that many poor Irish found themselves not only starving, but homeless as well. Some of them moved into workhouses, but many dug holes in hillsides or made huts out of peat and lived in them as best they could. Others simply wandered the roads until they dropped dead.

One of the most bitter comments about the Irish potato famine came from economic theorist and “father of communism,” Karl Marx. He remarked that in the time of Cromwell, the English had supplanted the Irish Catholics with Protestants, but during the famine they supplanted them with cattle.

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