The Great Famine in County Kilkenny
The Great Famine in County Kilkenny

A History of Food Shortage

Prior to the 'Great Famine' there had been a number of significant famines experienced in Ireland, examples included those for the years 1740/1741, 1745, 1755, 1766, 1783, and 1800. In the famine of 1740/1741 an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 people perished in Ireland.

Ireland struggled through crop failures and subsistence crises throughout the nineteenth century including 14 partial and complete famines between 1816 and 1845. During this period the years of 'subsistence crises' in Ireland included, and were likely not limited to, those of 1816, 1817, 1818, 1819, 1821, 1822, 1823, 1824, 1825, 1826, 1830, 1831, 1836, 1837.

In 1816, the first significant failure of the potato crop occurred due to the cold, wet weather. In 1817 the situation deteriorated into a near-famine which was accompanied by an outbreak of typhus. For later in 1817 Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, of Callan, notes in his diary entry [of August 28, 1830], "... This autumn is cooler than any one I remember, apart from 1817, when we had seventeen weeks of continuous rain which rotted the ripe corn and that already cut on the ground, and left the rest unripened. I myself saw oats, still unripe, being cut on the first day of the new year in 1818, the year of the plague when thousands of people died, as a result of eating rotten half-ripe food. ... And the potatoes were wet, tasteless, and without nourishment."

The famine of 1822, experienced particularly in the south and west of Ireland, followed a disastrous crop in 1821. Between 1823 and 1826 there were further food shortages in Ireland.

Famine conditions are also recorded for 1830. Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, of Callan, notes in his diary entry for June 25, 1830, "The black famine is in Kilkenny and in Waterford, etc., that is in the large towns and cities, but in the small towns like Callan and in the countryside, alms are to be had more plentifully from the small farmers. The small farmers are very good people. It is they who, almost on their own, feed the poor people of Ireland. They get little food from the gentry, for it is abroad in far distant lands that [that] devilish crowd spend their time and the rents they snatch from the Irish tenants, who are being crushed in the grips of poverty by them and their rent collectors. Tradesmen and shopkeepers are also generous in giving alms to God's poor."

Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin goes on to write in his diary entry for June 26, 1830, "The Black Hunger is in Kerry. It is ninepence halfpenny for a miserable stone of potatoes there, and the workers are getting no work or pay. It will be all right, if it doesn't get as bad as the severe famine of the year twenty-two. County Clare is as bad, and Dublin is no better, as potatoes are tenpence a stone, and pay is small. In County Sligo a prize is being offered to anyone who imports oatmeal from England, oatmeal that the English acquired from Sligo already --- that is 'bringing turf to the bog'. Things are severe enough here in poor Callan, but thank God, the dearest potatoes are sixpence a stone, and some of them are fivepence halfpenny, but they are not even worth that. They are worth nothing."

Amhlaoibh's entry for July 26, 1830 reads, "... The paupers are picking potatoes out of the edges of the ridges. The 'black famine' is in their mouths".   ...   “This month is now called Hungry July. Buímhís (‘yellow month’) is its proper name in Irish. It is a suitable name, for the fields are yellow, and also the faces of the paupers are greenish yellow from the black famine, as they live on green cabbage and poor scraps of that sort."

The Poor Law

It was 1838 and the population in Ireland had been rapidly expanding toward 8 million, particularly since the turn of the century. The population in Kilkenny was close to 200,000 people at that time and poverty was widespread. Illiteracy was recorded from 36% to 51% in various parts of the County, while 30% or more are listed as living in the lowest (4th) class housing. The Poor Law Act became a law in July of that year, in opposition to both the Irish Protestant and Irish Catholic representatives (MP's) in parliament at Westminster. The Poor Law system was based on the concept of offering indoor relief within a Workhouse building, eliminating outdoor relief schemes. The idea was to compel the destitute to earn relief by working at a local Workhouse, thus reducing the public expense of aiding the very poorest families. Prior to this relief was administered through the local Grand Juries since the role of central government was limited to providing funds at a local level for national schools and the constabulary (police). Grand Juries traditionally provided work for the poor through public works projects like building roads. Over the next few years the Workhouses would become a primary means of supporting pauper families in Kilkenny and across Ireland.

County Kilkenny was divided among five Poor Law Unions in order to fund and administer the Workhouses. Each Union was made up of several townlands, and their boundaries usually crossed county borders. The unions within the Kilkenny originally included Callan, Carrick on Suir, Kilkenny, New Ross, and Waterford (see map), all but Kilkenny Union extending beyond county borders. By 1842 the Workhouses were operational in Kilkenny, with each designed to accommodate from 600 to 1300 people. The Workhouse was built of stone, with stone floors, unplastered walls. and bare rafter ceilings. The steep and narrow stairways were made of stone and not suited for the old, weak or frail. Heating was by open turf fires, one for each room. The eating area consisted of long wooden forms and bare tables in a dark depressed setting. The conditions of the Workhouse were designed that only dire necessity could drive a person to seek admission.

A whole family had to enter the workhouse to qualify for relief. Each inmate in the workhouse was expected to work for room and board, and for no pay. Male inmates were given a coat, trousers, shirt, cap, brogues and stockings. Females were provided a striped jerkin, petticoat, cap, shift, shoes and stockings. Children over two years of age were sent to separate wards within the Workhouse, along with the sick and informed, and were not given shoes or stockings. Meals largely consisted of potatoes, bread and milk.

The Blight brings Starvation, Disease and Death

First introduced in Europe in the late 16th century, the potato was very suitable for the wet climate of Ireland. Over time the potato became the staple food in Ireland. At the beginning of the 19th century, a Dublin Society survey recorded at least a dozen varieties of potato cultivated in the county of Kilkenny alone. Then, adults could still remember when most of the poor raised oats, barley, or rye, along with beans and other green vegetables. According to sources this diversity had largely disappeared by the 1840s, and many were growing a single variety of potato, the Lumper.

By 1845, well over half of the population in Ireland were completely or largely dependent on the potato for food and money. This included all landless labourers and all tenants with less than 20 acres. At that time the "Lumper" was the predominant type of potato grown since it needed little manure and gave the heaviest crop. It however had a poorer flavor and provided less nourishment than some of the other types of potato, and it had no resistance to blight. The main potato crop in 1845 was planted during April and May and was not ready for harvest until October, there were no early potatoes. Since a previous year's potato crop was unfit for use by July of the next year the month's after July were known as the "meal months" because no potatoes were available. Oatmeal became the staple food when it could be afforded.

In the autumn of 1845 blight struck the potato crop across Ireland. In Kilkenny about one-third of the crop was affected, and upwards to one-half of the crop was destroyed in some parts of Ireland. This was a new type of blight in Ireland, Phytophthora infestans, an air-born fungus which turns both planted and stored potatoes into inedible rot. As a result Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, set up a relief commission for Ireland at the end of 1845, whose members were to organize local committees to raise money for food and to encourage landlords to set up employment schemes, of which the government would pay 50%. The national Board of Works was authorized to construct new roads and piers to give employment. In opposition to the "Corn Laws", restricting import of corn to Ireland, Peel had earlier set up a policy to import a small quantity of Indian meal into Ireland to help keep the inflated price of grain down.

The winter of 1845 was mild but the spring of 1846 was wet. In mid June there was a heat wave and by early August the blight had spread to a point that 90% or more of the Irish potato crop of 1846 was destroyed. The new Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, followed a strict policy of laissez-faire where the government would leave affairs to private enterprise. There was to be no interference with the food trade and the import of Indian meal was to be discontinued. Owing to the scarcity of food, prices increased sharply. This benefited a small number of large farmers but devastated a large proportion of the population, too poor to afford food. A second phase of government relief began in September 1846 with the Public Works scheme. Local relief committees were appointed for most parishes to encourage agricultural improvement and to provide local employment, consisting mainly of road works. This scheme was largely ineffective providing little help for the poorer classes. Wages paid on public works were no match for the increased price of food. Recorded deaths at the Workhouses, as well as in the countryside, reached a high-point during the winter and spring of 1846/1847. In January, 1847, the Callan Workhouse in Kilkenny/Tipperary reported a 10-fold increase in deaths from the previous October - from 5 deaths to 50, chiefly due to dysentery.

In April 1847 the government decided to discontinue the public works schemes, and changed its policy of providing outdoor relief (see The Poor Law above) and food depots were set up to provide cooked food, mostly soup, to the destitute population and at a low price to others. Unfortunately, the establishment of soup kitchens took time and many people had already died. It was June before the Callan Workhouse reported a decline in the number of deaths. By July, 1847, 3 million people in Ireland were provided for daily by soup kitchens.

The potato blight did not strike in August, 1847, but the crop was relatively small due to seed potatoes being consumed the previous year. In August 1847 the soup kitchens were closed and an Irish Poor Law Commission was established. The government decided to return to the use of the Workhouse to provide all relief, both indoor and outdoor. Outdoor relief was now confined to the able-bodied only in the most severe circumstances. According to the Gregory clause of June 1847, those who applied for a place in a Workhouse (any person occupying more than a quarter statute acre) now had to give up their small patches of land to enter. At a time when large numbers of people had been discharged from public works schemes, thousands of poorer people died from starvation-related disease rather than giving up what little land they had. Thousands more emigrated, not being able to keep up with their rents. Due to the Poor Law tax system, and the Gregory clause, landlords were often better off evicting tenants or assisting them in emigrating to other countries. Unscrupulous landlords forced tenants off their estates by insisting that tenants, who applied for relief, surrender their cabins and land in addition to the main landholding.

The winter and spring of 1847/1848 saw another increase in disease, death and emigration as the period known as the "Great Famine" continued. In July 1848 the dreaded potato blight returned and official estimates estimated that roughly half of the crop was lost, with the crop failure even worse in the West of Ireland. By August outdoor relief programs were again put into place in Kilkenny. In September, 1848, the total numbers on outdoor relief included 15,058 for Kilkenny Poor Law Union, 17,058 for Callan Union, and 7,872 for New Ross. The numbers on relief continued to increase through the first half of 1849, impacting as much as one-quarter of the population in parts of Kilkenny.

The cost of providing relief on such a vast scale, by way of the Poor Rate (Poor Law tax) proved disastrous for many landlords as since 1848, landlords were responsible for all Poor Rates, including those tenants rated at 4 pounds or under, whether the rent was paid or not. In 1849, the Encumbered Estates Act was introduced to make the sale and transfer of estates of impoverished and ruined landlords easier. In the years following the famine it is estimated that one-quarter of all arable land in Ireland changed hands. A vast majority of Encumbered Estates were purchased by native Irish landholders who were either "strong" farmers or large tenant farmers.

In 1849 the Poor Law Unions in Kilkenny were restructured to include the additional Unions of Thomastown, Urlingford and Castlecomer (see map), bringing the total from five to eight districts.

By 1850 the worst of the Famine was coming to an end. Yet, the 1851 census still recorded a total of 4,718 persons in public institutions (Workhouses, Gaols and Hospitals) in Kilkenny City, and another 2,270 persons within the rest of the County. The former total represented 23.6% of the population of the City while the latter represent 1.6% of the population of the remaining County.

One of the outcomes of the famine period was the large numbers of people who immigrated from County Kilkeny, perhaps upwards of 20% of the population between 1845 and 1851 alone. But the migration did not end here. From May 1st to December 31st 1851, a total of 4,899 emigrants are recorded for County Kilkenny. In 1852 the emigration total was 6,513, in 1853 it was 6,394, in 1854 it was 4,438, and in 1856 it was 2,756. Even following the worst of the Famine this total represented an emigration of 15% of the 1851 population base.

Some of the Statistics

Population in Poor Law Unions - County Kilkenny only
Poor Law Union Population in 1841 Population in 1851 Percentage Decease
Callan (part of) 23,843 19,576 -18%
Carrick-on-Suir (part of) 11,211 8,933 -20%
Castlecomer 27,312 18,472 -32%
Kilkenny 53,384 46,710 -12%
New Ross (part of) 10,086 7,437 -26%
Thomastown 37,283 27,298 -27%
Urlingford (part of) 19,195 12,898 -33%
Waterford 20,106 17,422 -13%
Totals 202,420 158,746 -22%

Recorded Deaths 1841
(208 days)
1842 1843 1844 1845 1846 1847 1848 1849 1850 1851
(89 days)
Kilkenny City 78 333 406 397 489 698 2138 1095 1660 948 365 8607
Kilkenny 355 1699 1834 1954 2122 2701 4348 3892 4055 3931 949 27840

In the 1841 Irish census, nearly 80% of the population was employed chiefly in Agricultural pursuits.

In 1841 the following illiteracy rates (those who could not read or write) were recorded in Kilkenny: Freshford (45.1%), Callan (46.2%), Thomastown (42.7%), Kilkenny City (40.7%), Graiguenamanagh (36.8%). In the County the overall illiteracy rate is recorded at 51% for 1841, with 30.9% occupying the lowest (4th) class housing, 58.5% depending on their own manual labor. By 1851 these percentages changed to 46%, 16.9% and 47.3% respectively. Other statistics, also taken directly from the census of Ireland, show that in 1841 there was 36.9% occupying 4th class housing in Kilkenny city, and 31.5% in the rest of the county. In 1851 the percentages changed to 29.6% and 17.1% respectively.

The 1851 census gives the following statistics for the "use of land": a total 509,732 statute acres, with 38.22% under crops, another 49.58% under grass, 5.94% bog or waste, 2.98% fallow, 2.45% woods or plantations, .60% water, and .23% consisting of towns with populations over 2,000.

The 1831 census for County Kilkenny records an estimated population of 193,024 (in 1659 this was cited at 18,427). In 1841 the census listed the population in the County at 202,420. At a growth rate of 4.87% between the 1831 and 1841 census the population in the 1851 County Kilkenny census might be expected to have been over 212,000 people. Instead, the population in 1851 was recorded at 158,748 or a decline in expected population of 25.2%. If one can envision a loss of almost 50,000 inhabitants within County Kilkenny in the 10 years ending in 1851, most of this occurring in a five year period, then one can only imagine the dire conditions leading to the emigration or death of perhaps one-quarter of its people. This short article is but a very small testament to all those who remained in County Kilkenny, to those who moved on, and to those who were buried.


Gairdín an Ghorta - is a beautiful garden commemorating the victims of the Great Famine. It is situated on the outskirts of Newmarket village in County Kilkenny. It was commemorated October 15, 1999 when Mary MacAlese, President of Ireland, came for the opening ceremonies. The contemplative garden has more than 3,000 trees and plants. There are four different gardens:The sally garden ,The potato garden, The rose garden and the garden of plenty. (photos)

County Kilkenny Famine Reference:

Callan Heritage Society (1998). "The Famine in the Kilkenny/Tipperary Region", printed by Modern Printers Ltd., Kilkenny.

Fewer, Thomas Gregory (1995). "Famine mortality in South Kilkenny: a parochial microcosm", Old Kilkenny Review, 47.

O’Neill, T.P. (1958). "The Famine in Kilkenny", Old Kilkenny Review 10, pp. 1-5.

O'Dwyer, Michael (1995). "The Famine in Kilkenny, as reported in the Kilkenny Journal newspaper September 1845 to March 1848". In Old Kilkenny Review 47, pp. 114-26.

Patterson, Tony (1996). "‘Illegal Outdoor Relief in Kilkenny Workhouse", Old Kilkenny Review, 48.

County Kilkenny Ejectment Books for 1847-1849, source: County Indexes of the Circuit Court at the National Archives, Bishop St, Dublin.

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