Irish Famine of 1739

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter XXXIV. ...continued

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George I. died at Osnaburg, in Germany, on the 10th of June, 1727. On the accession of his successor, the Catholics offered an address expressing their loyalty, but the Lords Justices took care that it should never reach England. The next events of importance were the efforts made by Dr. Boulter, the Protestant Primate, to establish Charter Schools, where Catholic children might be educated; and his equally zealous efforts to prevent Catholics, who had conformed exteriorly to the State religion, from being admitted to practise at the Bar. It may be observed in passing, that these men could scarcely have been as degraded in habits and intellect as some historians have been pleased to represent them, when they could at once become fit for forensic honours, and evinced such ability as to excite the fears of the Protestant party. It should be remarked that their "conversion" was manifestly insincere, otherwise there would have been no cause for apprehension.

The country was suffering at this period from the most fearful distress. There were many causes for this state of destitution, which were quite obvious to all but those who were interested in maintaining it. The poorer classes, being almost exclusively Catholics, had been deprived of every means of support. Trade was crushed, so that they could not become traders; agriculture was not permitted, so that they could not become agriculturists. There was, in fact, no resource for the majority but to emigrate, to steal, or to starve.

To a people whose religion always had a preponderating influence on their moral conduct, the last alternative only was available, as there was not the same facilities for emigration then as now. The cultivation of the potato had already become general; it was, indeed, the only way of obtaining food left to these unfortunates. They were easily planted, easily reared; and to men liable at any moment to be driven from their miserable holdings, if they attempted to effect "improvements," or to plant such crops as might attract the rapacity of their landlords, they were an invaluable resource. The man might live who eat nothing but potatoes all the year round, but he could scarcely be envied or ejected for his wealth. In 1739 a severe frost destroyed the entire crop, and a frightful famine ensued, in which it was estimated that 400,000 persons perished of starvation.

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