Famine. Digging potatoes

History of the Irish Famine 1845 – 1850 

The first famine relief came to Ireland in 1845, it from two places and for two different reasons, from Calcutta in India where a group of English civil servants raised funds to show the benefits of being part of the British Empire.  At first they fundraised among other expats, but donations were received from Indian Princess, from Hindu’s and Muslims and  from the poorest of the poor, some of contributors described themselves as carpet sweepers. At the same time relief was sent from Boston in North America. The relief committee in Boston were supporters of Danial O Connell and they sent donations to show how bad it was to be ruled by England.

In 1846, the Society of friends, also known as Quakers or friends, established the first Soup Kitchens. They also provided  294 of the large cast iron pots or boilers that became known as Famine pots. There were also a number of large pots sent to Ireland from relief committees in Turkey and the USA.  The Quakers sent 19 famine pots to Donegal by boat, they took them in at Aranmore Island and Donegal Town. The large pots were seen as an ideal way of feeding large  numbers of starving people, but where were they going to get the food to feed the starving masses.

There were three thousand Quakers in Ireland, many of them were merchants and businessmen and through their worldwide contacts they were able to appeal for help For the starving Irish. There appeals were met with a worldwide response never before witnessed.  People throughout the world mobilised to provide money, food and clothing to assist the starving Irish. Donations came from as far away as Australia, China, India and North and South America and the contributors  emerged  from  across the various religious, ethnic, social and gender divides.

The British relief committee was founded in January 1847, by  Jewish banker Ronald De Rothchild  and they recorded over fifteen thousand donations. At first they fundraised in Britain and then in Countries in the British Empire, but donations  of food, money and clothing came from all corners of the World.

4sultanFinancial donations were received  from President James Tulke, Sec of State James Buchannan, who proudly boasted his dad was from Donegal.  The Choctaw Indians, themselves persecuted and forced from their lands, sent one hundred and Seventy dollars to Ireland.  Queen Victoria donated €2.000. The Sultan of Turkey wanted to give €10.000, but he was told it would insult Royal proto call if he donated more than the Queen, so he reduced his donation to €1.000.

Donations were  received from inmates  in male and female prisons in England, a group of prisoners on board a convict ship sent 17 shillings in pennies to the famine relief committee.  The relief committee considered returning a  donation from a slave owner in a southern US State, but after much consideration they  decided to keep it.  However, financial donations received from the Paris Can Can dancers and London’s ‘Ladies of the Night’ were returned as it was seen as money earned from ‘Immoral Earnings’

The British Government provided a further 600 pots when the implemented the Soup Kitchen Act  in January  By June of that year  there were one thousand eight hundred and fifty Famine Pots, Soup Kitchens in operation nationwide, and over three million people were dependent on a daily serving of soup or porridge from the humble pots.

The British Government sponsored soup kitchens closed in August 1847, but a great number of famine pots remained in operation until the latter years of the famine. There is no doubt the death rate would have been much greater were it not for the humble famine pots. The term ”souper” survives to this day. It was applied to families who allegedly changed their religion in order to get the soup. The Church Mission took measures  to ”Christianise the poor deluded Papists” But there was no proselytising  with the Quakers. It was a pre-condition of all relief offered by them that it would be offered irrespective of religious persuasion and there was no strings attached

Famine Pot (3) BuncranaThe famine pots are a reminder to the present and future generations of that grim period in our history, when a million people died of starvation and disease and a million plus fled across the Atlantic, it is estimated 17.000 of them died on board the ‘Coffin Ships’ and were buried at sea. A further 20.000 Irish people died in Canada during 1847, either in the quarantine stations of Grosse Isle, Quebec, Partridge Island and New Brunswick, or in the town and ditches of Montreal.

By July of that year over three million people were collecting daily rations of food; even though the people regarded queuing with containers to be degrading they swallowed their pride in order to fill their empty stomachs. The soup recipes were generally not balanced for minerals and vitamins and over time gave rise to scurvy and other diseases.

The famine hardships of ’Black 47’ are well documented, when Ireland became a country of homeless starving paupers and the nobility in their concern promised to eat less. In Castlebar people lay on the street with green froth from eating grass on their mouths. In Skibbereen a widow caught stealing a few potatoes from a garden was fined one pound with the option of four weeks hard labour, although her defence was she was dying of hunger.

QUAKER SOUP KITCHEN-tnIn January 1847 the British Government decided that due to the high costs involved [almost five million pounds in the autumn and winter of 1846/47] and the need for people to work the land, relief by employment was to be abandoned. In its place the Soup Kitchen Act was introduced on January 25th 1847. Under the Act, soup kitchens were to be established in each of the electoral divisions. By 1847 there were 1,250 soup kitchens in operation and by June this had increased to 1,850.

The famines pot [which contained the soup] sometimes referred as soup boilers or ‘workhouse pots’. were manufactured in Coalbrooke in Severn Valley in England by the Quaker iron foundry run by the Darby family The pots were made of cast iron, 600 of them were supplied by the Government, a further 295 were provided the Friendly Society [Quakers] a number of them came from Turkey and the U.S.A.

The Society of Friends [the Quakers] will be remembered for their generosity during the famine of 1847. They hired ships to bring in much needed supplies of food and medicine. They landed a shipment of food at Donegal Quay from the Adele on 8th April 1847, which included 1,229 bags of meal, 102 barrels of flour, 48 barrels of beans, 659 bags of peas a gift from the Irish famine relief committee in Philadelphia.

5chactawsTwo months earlier they delivered to the Quay 70 bags of rice and one cauldron. There were also gifts of flour sent from Turkey. The Choctaw Indians, themselves harried and nearly destitute, took up a collection that raised one hundred and seventy five dollars in gold to help the starving Irish. Soup was made in the cauldrons or famine pots from whatever scraps the people could afford and even nettles and herbs were used as vegetables. This was a mix that would not normally be used but then these were not normal times

However, all too soon instructions were issued to close the soup kitchens. Fifty five of the one hundred and thirty Unions [workhouse areas] closed 15th August, those in 29 Unions closed on 12th September and in 19 Unions on 31st October 1847.

The Soup Kitchen Act was only a temporary measure, designed to sustain the Irish until the autumn harvest. But the harvest of 1847 was only a quarter of the normal size due to insufficient planting in the spring. The three million Irish people who relied on the soup for survival would now have to fend for themselves, with no food, no money, no employment and owing back rent and weakened by malnutrition and disease.

Relief Granted to each County
Note: In this Appendix the Famine Pots are referred to as Boilers

Quaker Statistics


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