An Gorta Mór

The potato became the principal food of the Irish in the first two decades of the 18th Century. Before this, it was a supplementary food to an older diet consisting of butter, milk, eggs and grain produce. The expansion of acreage under tillage and an expanding economy in the early 18th Century secured the humble spud’s place as the main foodstuff of the Irish. There was very little variety in terms of potato crop in Ireland by the mid to late 18th Century. The Lumper potato thrived in the wet soil of many parts of the country, especially in the west of Ireland where there was the double hindrance of saturated ground and low nutrient content. In several places the Lumper was simply the only potato which would grow in the soil and, hence, a devastating dependence grew upon the waxy tuber.

In the early 1840s a disease of the potato crop emerged in the Toluca Valley, just west of modern day Mexico City. From there, it crept north into Texas and eventually reached the east coast of the United States. The disease, phytophthora infestans, or potato blight as it is more commonly known, reached Europe on board a shipment of seed potatoes from New York destined for Belgium. Throughout the summer of 1845 this ‘first contact’ was added to by dozens of trans-Atlantic crossings which exposed the European crop to the airborne disease which began to take hold in the late summer of 1845 on the continent. The Freeman’s Journal reported that ‘nearly the whole of the growth in the Rheinish provinces (of Germany) is lost’ and that desperate farmers were pleading with their chambers of commerce to stop the export of potatoes due to the low quantity of crops that were being saved.

The blight reached Ireland within weeks of its arrival in Belgium and Germany. Its effects were felt immediately and anywhere from a third to half of the crop was destroyed. Blight took hold on the crop in the first week of September 1845. Agricultural experts were divided on how to tackle the problem; had they anticipated the scale of potato loss in the following year’s crop they may have adopted a less laissez faire attitude to the crisis. A Cork Examiner report from September 1845 encapsulated the desperate state of affairs in Mayo;

The Potato Cholera – We regret to learn that the rot so prevalently complained of in other parts of the country, has broken forth in our neighbourhood. Several persons, residents of Castlebar, have informed us that while digging potatoes in their fields they encountered an intolerable stench, which, after examination, they found to proceed from the putrid state of the esculants they were in the habit of unearthing. Upon enquiry we learn that the disease was not remarked upon by the farmers here until about the 8th of this month, when the weather changed from hot to partial rain, which has since continued to fall at intervals’.[1]

In 1846 over three quarters of the potato crop failed. The knock on effects for the following year were devastating as there was very little potato seeds left for planting. This double blow of crop failure and a lack of seed culminated in the black year of 1847 when starvation became widespread across the island of Ireland.

William Steuart Trench and the Famine in Camross

The story of the Famine in Camross is intrinsically linked to the story of one of Ireland’s finest agriculturalists of the 19th Century, William Steuart Trench. Trench was born in 1808 near Ballybrittas. He was the youngest of the fifteen children of Thomas Trench, the Church of Ireland Dean of Kildare and Mary Weldon, daughter of Walter Weldon MP. He was educated at the Royal School, Armagh, and Trinity College, although he does not seem to have completed his degree. In 1843 he acquired a tract of land in Cardtown. Two years later he resigned his post as Land Agent for the Shirley estates in Monaghan and went to reside in his property in Cardtown. His home was the first concrete built home in the midlands.

[1] Irish Examiner, 19 Sep 1845.

He viewed his holdings in Camross as a kind of agricultural experiment and his theories and plans were viewed in the highest esteem by the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland. His aim was to reclaim the land for agricultural use. Trench outlined in his 1869 book Realities of Irish Life the methods of his reclamation;

My plan of reclaiming was very simple. The land to be acted on consisted generally of rough mountain pasture covered with heather. There were no stones, or few of sufficient size, to impede the course of the plough. The land was first limed with eighty barrels of lime to the Irish acre … spread upon the surface. The land was then ploughed down into what were termed lazy beds … that is, narrow ridges about five feet in width, with a furrow between each ridge. Into these ridges, the seed of the potato was put by merely sticking the spade into the rough ground, and dropping in the seed … the seed remained two or three inches under the surface.[1]

Much of Trench’s success in Cardtown could be put down to the utilisation of a substance which was transforming the way in which crops were grown the world over; guano. The history of the guano craze of the mid-19th century is a fascinating story in of itself. Guano, essentially old bird droppings, completely revitalized the ground upon which it was spread upon. Crop yields would increase threefold after a treatment. The substance worked as a fertiliser as it was packed with nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium nitrate. Areas where seabirds had congregated for centuries were packed with guano; as Bill Bryson pointed out, many South Pacific islands, where deposits were as deep as 150 feet, were essentially nothing but guano. Several speculative men became guano barons; they purchased tiny, Pacific islands and made a fortune out of exporting the substance to the world and feeding European farms’ insatiable appetite for growth. Guano deposits took centuries to accumulate but only years to squander. One island off the African coast which had an estimated 200,000 tons of guano had its entire deposit scraped up in only a year.[2]

[1] William Steuart Trench, Realities of Irish Life (Dublin, 1868), pp 98-99.

[2] Bill Bryson, At Home: A short history of private life (London, 2010), p. 401.

Trench describes how he utilised guano and how the reclamation project in Cardtown was turning previously poor land into very arable soil;

Guano, six hundredweight to the acre, was then scattered over the ridges, care being taken that the guano should not come into immediate contact either with the seed or with the lime. And this being done, the furrows were dug, the clay shovelled over the ridges, and the whole made up into lazy beds, rough underneath where heather and sods lay rudely massed together, but when covered up with the fresh dug soil from the furrows, presenting a neat and finished appearance above. The potato grew to perfection in this rude description of tillage; and whilst it was growing, the heather rotted under the influence of the lime, and, together with the other superabundant vegetable matter, was turned by the action of the lime into a most valuable manure. The guano stimulated an enormous and luxuriant growth, and when the potatoes were in course of being dug out, the act of digging mixed the lime, manure, and the several soils together into an even texture, leaving the land which had hitherto been scarcely worth one shilling per acre, in excellent order for sowing corn crops or grass seeds, and permanently worth at least one pound per acre.[1]

Trench had used this method of reclamation in other estates which he had managed in Monaghan before his success in Camross and he was confident that he would see a return in the investment in labour and guano in Cardtown and Baunreigh in only one year. He hoped to make the bulk of his money back in the sale of one harvest of potatoes and following this he would be left with land between ten and twenty times its original value. In 1846 Trench planted 100 acres of potatoes. By July of that year, the crop was said to be the wonder of the locality. Trench was adding significant extensions to his home. Furthermore, his success was being noted by the most intellectual agriculturalists in the Kingdom; he won both a silver and gold medal from the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland ‘for the best report on the largest quantity of wasteland reclaimed in Ireland’.

Trench’s project was proving to be a huge success but, as he described, the great calamity that was taking hold in Ireland led to the ruin of the Happy Valley;

Many people thought, and I was myself amongst the number, that at last one of the great difficulties of Ireland at that day — namely, the reclamation of her waste lands, and the profitable employment of her superabundant labour — was about to be solved by this hitherto successful experiment … I had not less than two hundred labourers, employed constantly at those works, draining, levelling, liming, and the heavy work of sowing and digging out again enormous quantities of potatoes. A more cheering sight it was scarcely possible to conceive than to witness these numerous labourers, employed at good wages themselves, collected from all quarters where labour was abundant, producing food for thousands of people whilst reclaiming one of the wastes of Ireland. But all this passed away like a dream on the sudden failure of the potato, and ' the happy valley,' as the sloping sides of my mountain property of Baureigh, with a clear trout stream running in the hollow, was frequently called by those who visited the works, was by that fearful calamity turned into a valley of woe.

On August 1st of that calamitous year, 1846, I was startled by hearing a sudden and strange rumour that all the potato fields in the district were blighted; and that a stench had arisen emanating from their decaying stalks. I immediately rode up to visit my crop, and test the truth of this report; but I found it as luxuriant as ever, in full blossom, the stalks matted across each other with richness, and promising a splendid produce, without any unpleasant smell whatever.

On coming down from the mountain, I rode into the lowland country, and there I found the report to be but too true. The leaves of the potatoes on many fields I passed were quite withered, and a strange stench, such as I had never smelt before, but which became a well-known feature in the blight for years after, filled the atmosphere adjoining each field of potatoes.

The next day I made further enquiries, and I found the disease was fast extending, and on rooting up some of the potato bulbs under the withered stalks, I found that decay had set in, and that the potato was rapidly blackening and melting away. In fields having a luxuriant crop, the stench was generally the first indication of disease, and the withered leaf followed in a day or two afterwards. Much alarm now prevailed in the country; people looked blank enough, as they asked each other if they had seen this new and formidable disease. Those, like me, who had staked a large amount of capital on the crop, hitherto almost a certainty, and at least as sure as the crop of wheat or turnips or any other agricultural produce, became extremely un-easy; whilst the poorer farmers looked on helplessly and with feelings of dire dismay at the total disappearance of all they had counted on for food.

Each day, from the time I first heard of the disease, I went regularly to visit my splendid mountain crop, and each day saw it apparently further advanced in course of arriving at a healthy and abundant maturity.

On August 6, 1 846 — I shall not readily forget the day — I rode up as usual to my mountain property, and my feelings may be imagined when before I saw the crop, I smelt the fearful stench, now so well-known and recognised as the death-sign of each field of potatoes. I was dismayed indeed, but I rode on ; and as I wound down the newly engineered road, running through the heart of the farm, and which forms the regular approach to the steward's house, I could scarcely bear the fearful and strange smell, which came up so rank from the luxuriant crop then growing all around ; no perceptible change, except the smell, had as yet come upon the apparent prosperity of the deceitfully luxuriant slicks, but the experience of the past few days taught me that all was gone, and the crop was utterly worthless.

I need not tell how bitterly I was disappointed, overthrown as all my anticipations of profitable results were by this great calamity. Not only did I foresee the loss of my £3,000, no small sum to a man who had just surrendered an agency of £1,000 per annum; but I felt also that the hopes of future success, on which I had expended a large capital, and much time and thought for years, were gone — that it would be madness ever to venture on the trial of such a crop again, and that all my labour and patient experiments, which had hitherto turned out so completely successful, were - by this new and fearful calamity, sent by the special hand of God, and the like of which had never appeared in nature before — utterly blasted.

But upon this I will not dwell ... It is enough to say that the luxuriant stalks soon withered, the leaves decayed, the disease extended to the tubers, and the stench from the rotting of such an immense amount of rich vegetable matter became almost intolerable. I saw my splendid crop fast disappearing and melting away under this fatal disease. I tried to dig the potatoes rapidly, in the hope of saving something; and, in accordance with the advice of Sir Robert Kane and others, I set up a temporary machine for the conversion of the tubers into starch. But the final result was, that the produce of the entire crop yielded about forty pounds in starch, whilst the cost of grinding the pulp, and erecting machinery, amounted to about twice that sum! My plans, my labour, my £3,000, and all hopes of future profit by these means, were gone!

But my own losses and disappointments, deeply as I felt them, were soon merged in the general desolation, misery, and starvation which now rapidly affected the poorer classes around me and throughout Ireland. It is true that in the more cultivated districts of the Queen's County and the midland counties generally, not many deaths occurred from actual starvation. I mean, that people were not found dead on the roads or in the fields from sudden deprivation of food ; but they sank gradually from impure and insufficient diet ; and fever, dysentery, the crowding in the work-house or hardship on the relief works, carried thousands to a premature grave. The crop of all crops on which they depended for food, had suddenly melted away, and no adequate arrangements had been made to meet this calamity, — the extent of which was so sudden and so terrible that no one had appreciated it in time — and thus thousands perished almost without an effort to save themselves.[2]

As Trench alluded to, the level of death and misery around Camross was not comparable to other areas of Ireland, especially in the west. However, the population of Camross dropped from 5,627 in 1841 to 4,093 in 1851. The population of the county dropped from 153,930 in 1841 to 111,623. The stark trend of a falling population continued on for the next 130 years until the population fall was finally arrested by the early 1980s.

[1] Trench, Realities of Irish Life, p. 99.

[2] Trench, Realities of Irish Life, pp 99-103.