The Irish famine of 1740-41 (in Gaelic Bliain an Áir, which could be translated as “The year of slaughter”) was possibly similar in magnitude to the famine of 1845-49. Unlike the latter, whose causes were, on the one hand, a fungal infection of the potato crop and, on the other, the application of economic measures by England that aggravated the situation; the famine of 1740-41 was due to a climatology in which extreme cold and humidity combined, affecting not only crops, but also livestock, fisheries and supplies of all kinds. This unfavorable weather affected the whole of Europe and is today seen as the last episode of the Little Ice Age.
In 1740, Ireland had approximately 2.4 million inhabitants. Most of them depended on cereals for their food, mainly oats, but also wheat, barley and rye, which, together with potatoes, constituted the staple diet. These cereals, together with potatoes, constituted the staple diet, with many people surviving on porridge, buttermilk and potatoes alone. Depending on the place and economic possibilities, some supplemented this diet with fish, especially herring, and small game, mainly wild duck.
Social protection was basically provided by the parishes or, to a lesser extent, by the municipalities. There was no organization above the municipal level.
“The Great Frost” was a phenomenon of extraordinarily intense cold that developed in the Kingdom of Ireland and the rest of Europe between December 1739 and September 1741, after a decade of relatively mild winters. It was accompanied by strong winds, which increased the effects of the cold to limits “far beyond those experienced by the Irish population”.
No temperature data have come down to us from Ireland, but from neighboring England. The thermometer had been invented 25 years earlier by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit. We have readings made by English citizens inside their homes in January 1740 of 10ºF (-12ºC) and outside of -32ºF (-35ºC).
The situation in January 1740 was dramatic, with high winds. It hardly snowed, as Ireland was under a stable system of high pressure that affected almost all of Europe, from Scandinavia and Russia to northern Italy. Rivers and lakes froze, and fish died.
People living in the countryside were in better conditions than city dwellers, for while the former piled grass against their dwellings as insulation, the latter, especially the poorer ones, who rented basements and attics, were more exposed to low temperatures.
Cargoes of coal regularly arrived from Cumbria and South Wales to ports in the east and southeast of Ireland. Due to the ice, the docks were inaccessible and many port facilities unusable. In January 1740 shipping traffic across the Irish Sea was reduced to a minimum, and coal prices rose. The situation led people to cut hedges, trees and even plants from nurseries around Dublin for fuel.
The ice also paralyzed the water-powered mills that supplied the cities not only with flour, but also with yarn for weavers and pulp for printers. As a consequence, many jobs were lost and food production was affected. The lamps that lit the streets of Dublin at night also ceased to be powered, plunging the city into darkness.
According to Dickson, “natural disasters strain the administrative structures and social networks of any society,” and Ireland, in 1740 “by Western European standards, was weakly governed, materially poor and socially polarized.”
The ruling class that owned the land was Protestant, and distrusted the Catholic rural majority for their poor loyalty and their “apparent lack of enthusiasm for farm innovations that promised to increase property values.”
However, the local rulers, mostly large merchants and members of the Protestant gentry and petty nobility, paid attention to the situation of rural artisans and small merchants, on whose influence on the economy the landowners depended.
Homeowners began to make up for shortages of fuel materials and food after two weeks of frost. Church of Ireland clergy solicited donations, which parishes distributed. A total of 80 tons of coal and 10 tons of food were distributed after the fourth week of frost.
The Duke of Devonshire, representing the government, prohibited, on January 19, 1740, the export of grain out of Ireland, with the exception of grain destined for other parts of the United Kingdom. It was an unprecedented measure that had positive results. It was taken at the request of the municipality of Cork, where the events of eleven years earlier, in which four people died in riots caused by food shortages, were still fresh in the memory.
Shortages led to famine and, in addition to demographic consequences (morbidity and mortality), triggered all kinds of social conflicts and increased criminality. There were outbreaks of infanticide.
In Celbridge, County Kildare, the so-called Conolly Folly was erected in 1740 on the initiative of Catherine Conolly, widow of William Conolly to provide work for the unemployed. In 1743 she also ordered the construction of the nearby The Wonderful Barn as a food store in anticipation of future famines.
The big frost affected the potato crops. Potatoes and oats were the staple foods of rural Ireland. Potatoes left as seed the previous autumn (1739) froze, rendering them unusable. “Richard Purcell, a witness to the crisis in the rural environment, wrote in February 1740 that, had it not been for the frost, there would have been enough potatoes in his district to feed the entire population of Ireland until August. “But both roots and stalks…are everywhere destroyed,” except for “a few which were stored.” This interruption of the agricultural cycle aggravated the situation when winter came again in 1740.
In the spring of 1740 temperatures rose above zero degrees, although they remained lower than normal and, above all, the expected rains did not occur. Instead, the north wind continued to blow. The drought killed farm animals, especially sheep in the Connacht region in the northwest and cows in the south.
By the end of April most of the wheat and barley crops on the farms were also destroyed. Cereal was so scarce that the Irish Catholic Church allowed meat to be eaten four days a week during Lent. Cereal prices rose. One consequence of this was that the loaves on sale did not increase in price, but decreased in size. According to Dickson, the increase in the price of wheat, oats and barley did not reflect the supply situation, but rather the middlemen”s assessment of what the situation would be like in the immediate future.
In the summer of 1740, the cold weather had decimated potato production and the drought had decimated cereal production and the cattle and sheep herds. The rural population, starving, flocked to the cities, which were better supplied. This was the case in Cork, in the south, where beggars filled the streets in mid-June 1740.
Rising food prices eventually led to unrest, as the municipal authorities feared. Hungry people vented their anger against food traders, especially grain traders, and bakers, attacking markets and warehouses.
The first riot broke out in Drogheda, north of Dublin, in mid-April 1740. A group of citizens boarded a ship loaded with oats bound for Scotland. The ship”s rudder and sails were removed. To prevent further incidents, the authorities in Drogheda, as well as in Cork, prohibited the departure of foodstuffs to Scotland.
But riots broke out in Dublin at the end of May, when people believed the bakers were resisting bread making. They broke into their stores at the weekend and started selling bread, giving the bakers the money. Other people simply appropriated the bread. On the third day (Monday), the mob stormed the mills near the city and sold flour at below market prices. Army troops tried to restore order, killing several assailants. The authorities tried to pursue the grain hoarders and supervise the food markets, but prices remained stubbornly high throughout the summer.
Similar situations were experienced in different cities in Ireland during the summer of 1740. The international situation made matters worse, as Spanish ships captured vessels carrying grain destined for Ireland. Ireland”s main exports (cloth, beef and butter) suffered as a result of the conflict with Spain.
The fall harvest of 1740 began and, although meager, resulted in a decline in prices. Cattle experienced a slight recovery, except in the dairy areas. There, a third fewer calves were born due to weak animals, which meant less milk and less butter.
To make matters worse, in late October the east coast suffered a series of snow blizzards, which were repeated during November. On December 9, a rain front caused widespread flooding. The next day temperatures dropped considerably, it snowed and rivers and lakes froze. This cold snap lasted about ten days. After it, temperatures rose again. The River Liffey, which flows through Dublin, carried large chunks of ice, which overturned small boats and caused the moorings of large boats to break.
The strange autumn of 1740 caused prices to rise again. Flour prices in Dublin on December 20 reached record highs. The situation prompted people who stored food to conserve it. The shortage led to new riots, and everything suggested that famine and epidemics would become widespread.
The autumn harvest of 1741 was relatively good. This, together with the arrival of five ships loaded with grain in Galway harbor, presumably from America, constituted the end of the food crisis.