Famine in the Nineteenth Century
In 1841 the population of Ireland was 8.2 million, making Ireland the most densely populated country in Europe. The potato was the staple diet for the majority of these people. On average a working man ate 6.5 kilos and a woman 5 kilos of potatoes a day. The potato is a nutritious food; high in carbohydrates and protein, when mixed with buttermilk it provides a wholesome diet.
The over-dependence of the population on a single crop, the potato, made them vulnerable to any crop failure.
Potato blight first appeared in America in 1843; by the summer of 1845 reports of blight began to appear on the continent. The first report of blight in Ulster was in Fermanagh on 28th August 1845. In that month the Earl of Erne wrote to the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society of Ireland reporting: “many instances of a total failure of the potato crop in County Fermanagh.” By early September blight was reported throughout Ireland. The potato crop was to fail for the next four years.
The blight, correctly named, ‘Phytophthora Infestans', is a fungus which attacks the leaves and tubers of the potato plant. This potato blight was to cause one of the greatest famines ever witnessed. The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mór) brought about a period of unprecedented suffering in Ireland. The scale of the hunger and the loss of life were immense. Fermanagh did not escape the ravages of the famine. The population of the county declined by a quarter in the decade from 1841-1851.
Famine graveyards are scattered throughout Ireland. Such graveyards - paupers’ graves and the memorials which now stand on these sites are a crucial link to this hugely important time in our recent past.
The Workhouse in Ireland
The New Poor Law was introduced in England in 1834 and extended to Ireland in 1838. One of the provisions of the act was the construction of new workhouses in each Poor Law Union. There were three workhouses in County Fermanagh: Enniskillen, Lisnaskea and Lowtherstown (Irvinestown). During the years of famine the workhouses provided relief for those left homeless, starving and destitute. Entering the workhouse was a distressing time; families were strictly segregated on the basis of gender, age and state of health.
Of the 1.2 million lives lost during the famine at least one in five of these deaths occurred in the workhouses. Those who died were buried in what became known as ‘famine pits’ or mass graves. In Enniskillen, locals refer to the graveyard simply as “The Paupers.”