In 1800 the population of Ireland was 5 million and by the time the Great Famine struck Ireland it had increased to 8 million. In the 19th century Connemara had a large and vigorous population. The native culture was rich in history and tradition and the Irish language was widely spoken. The vast majority of the people lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity. No one owned the land they worked on and could be evicted on a whim. Housing was very poor -thatched cottages or one roomed huts made of stone and turf roofed with branches or more turf. Some had no windows with just a hole in the roof for smoke to escape. However visitors to Ireland commented on how healthy and vigorous the population was the average Irish man was 2 inches taller than his British counterpart.
The reason for this healthy large population was the potato introduced to Ireland in 1509 it grew in the poorest conditions and needed very little labour. An acre and a half of potatoes would feed five or six people for six months. About one third of the crop was used to feed pigs and other livestock. Anything else that was produced on the farm was sold for money to pay rent or buy other necessities.
This over reliance on the potato crop would lead to great devastation In 1845 a fungal disease called 'blight' (phythophthora infestans) began to affect the potato crop and led to the failure of the potato crop several years in succession. The British government was slow to react and this led to mass starvation and disease. Relief schemes were introduced but these were too late to have any great impact on the situation Grain continued to be exported and in one incident grain was left to rot in Clifden port while the population starved.
Hundreds of people left from Clifden Quay for England, America and Australia. Many of the ships reached port having lost nearly a third of their passengers to hunger and disease. Others too weak to leave ended their days in the Clifden workhouse. The Quakers did much to help in the area and founded 'soup kitchens' in an effort to alleviate the poverty and suffering. The result of the famine was that the social and cultural structure of Connemara was changed forever. Landlords were bankrupted, small farms amalgamated and the Irish language had begun to disappear.
|Connemara Heritage Centre, Lettershea, Clifden, Connemara. Tel: +353 95 21808 Fax: +353 95 22098 Email: email@example.com|