Bilain an Áir (Year of Slaughter) – Irish Famine of 1740-1741

The Irish Famine of 1740–1741 – Bliain an Áir (Year of Slaughter) – in Ireland was perhaps of similar magnitude to the better-known Great Hunger of 1845–1852. The Great Hunger where more than a million died in misery, was caused in part by a fungal infection in the potato crop and, more specifically, the British Government committed genocide on a long fuse (a fuse lit in the 17th century). The Famine of 1740–41 was due to extremely cold and rainy weather in successive years, resulting in a series of poor harvests. Hunger compounded a range of fatal diseases and the effects of the cold extended across Europe. It is now seen to be the last serious cold period at the end of the Little Ice Age of about 1400–1800.

‘The Great Frost’ struck Ireland and the rest of Europe between December 1739 and September 1741, after a decade of relatively mild winters. Its cause remains unknown, charting its course sharply illuminates the connectivity between climate change, famine, epidemic disease, economies, energy sources, and politics. The crisis of 1740-1741 should not be confused with the annihilating Án Gorta Mór of 1845-1852.

Indoor values during January 1740 were as low as −12 °C (10 °F). This kind of weather was ‘quite outside the Irish experience,’ noted by David Dickson, author of ‘Arctic Ireland: The Extraordinary Story of the Great Frost and Forgotten Famine of 1740-41’.

During the ramp up to the crisis in January 1740, the winds and terrible cold intensified, yet barely any snow fell. Ireland was locked into a stable and vast high-pressure system which affected most of Europe, from Scandinavia and Russia to northern Italy, in a broadly similar way. Rivers, lakes, and waterfalls froze and fish died in these first weeks of the Great Frost. People tried to avoid hypothermia without using up winter fuel reserves in a matter of days. People who lived in the country were probably better off than city dwellers, because the former lived in cabins that lay against turf stacks, while the latter, especially the poor, dwelt in freezing basements and garret dwellings.

Coal dealers and shippers during normal times ferried coal from Cumbria and south Wales to east and south-coast ports in Ireland, but the ice-bound quays and frozen coal yards temporarily froze trade. In late January 1740, the traffic across the Irish Sea resumed and retail prices for coal soared. Desperate people stripped bare hedges, fine trees, and nurseries around Dublin to obtain substitute fuel. Also affected by the Frost were the pre-industrial town mill-wheels, which froze; water powered the machinery, which ground wheat for the bakers, tucked cloth for the weavers, pulped rags for the printers. As a result, the abrupt weather change disrupted craft employment and food processing. The intense cold even snuffed out the oil lamps lighting the streets of Dublin, plunging it into darkness.

In spring 1740, the expected rain did not come, and though the Frost dissipated, the temperatures remained low and the northerly winds fierce. The drought killed off animals, particularly sheep in Connacht and black cattle in the south, and struck farmers, by the end of April, by destroying much of the tillage crops sown the previous autumn (wheat and barley). Grains were so scarce that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church allowed Catholics to eat meat four days a week during Lent. The potato crisis caused an increase in grain prices, which resulted in smaller loaves of bread for the old price. Dickson explains that the “wholesale rise in the price of wheat, oats and barley reflected not just the current supply position, but the dealers’ assessment as to the state of things later in the year.”

By summer 1740, the Frost had decimated the potatoes and the drought had decimated the grain harvest, herds of cattle and sheep. Starving rural dwellers started a “mass vagrancy” towards the better-supplied towns, such as Cork, where beggars lined the streets by mid-June 1740.

In autumn 1740, a meagre harvest commenced and prices in the towns started to fall. Cattle began to recover, but in the dairying districts, cows had been so weak after the Frost that at least a third of them had failed to “take bull”. This meant that fewer calves, less milk, and less butter were future realities.

To make matters worse, blizzards swept along the east coast in late October 1740 depositing snow, returning several times in November. A massive rain downpour occurred on 9 December 1740, causing widespread flooding. A day after the floods, the temperature plummeted, snow fell, and rivers and other bodies of water froze. Warm temperatures followed the cold snap, which lasted about ten days. Great chunks of ice careened down the River Liffey through the heart of Dublin, overturning light vessels and causing larger vessels to break anchor.

The strange autumn of 1740 pushed food prices back up, e.g., Dublin wheat prices on 20 December were at an all-time high.

In the first week of July 1741, grain prices at last decreased and old hoarded wheat suddenly flooded the market. Five vessels loaded with grain, presumably from America, reached Galway in June 1741. The quality of the Autumn harvest of 1741 was mixed. The food crisis was over, however, and seasons of rare plenty followed for the next two years.

Documentation of deaths was poor during the Great Frost. Cemeteries provide fragmentary information, e.g., during February and March 1740, 47 children were buried in St. Catherine’s parish. The normal death rate tripled in January and February 1740, and burials averaged out about 50% higher during the twenty-one-month crisis than for the years 1737–1739, according to Dickson. Summing up all his sources, Dickson suggests two estimates: 1) that 38% of the Irish population died during the crisis, and 2) that between 13–20% excess mortality occurred for 1740–1741. Based on contemporary accounts and burial parish records, famine-related deaths may have totaled 300,000-480,000 in Ireland, with rates highest in the south and east of the country. This was a proportionately greater toll than during the most severe years of the Great Hunger (Án Gorta Mór) (1845–52), was unique in “cause, scale, timing, oppression” persisting over several years.

The year 1741, during which the famine was at its worst and mortality was greatest, was known in folk memory as the Bliain an Áir (Year of the Slaughter).

Photo: In Celbridge, Co Kildare, Katherine, the widow of William Conolly, commissioned construction of the Conolly Folly in 1740 to give employment to local workers. In 1743 she had ‘The Wonderful Barn’ built nearby as a food store in case of further famines.


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