1741, “The Year of Slaughter” (Bliadhain an Air) was one of the most tragic events in post-medieval Irish history. Although this famine has been overshadowed by the famine of 1845-1851 it was equally destructive. In fact it killed a greater percentage of the population in a shorter period of time. Although often attributed to “natural causes” a closer look reveals the suffering could have been alleviated.
The “natural causes”
The events of 1740-1 had their immediate roots in the previous winter. Late 1739 was shockingly cold (see graph) . This caused all sorts of unusual climatic conditions. People of the time initially appear to have marveled in these natural wonders. Apparently a hurling match was played on the frozen Shannon River, while a fair was held on the frozen Lee river in Cork, one of the most southerly rivers in Ireland.
For the vast majority of the population of Ireland the novelty wore off very quickly as fuel prices rocketed and the poor began to freeze to death. A greater tragedy was unfolding in early 1740 as the cold conditions continued, killing the potato crop as it lay in the ground and destroying seedlings.
“The Human touch”
The potato was not native to Ireland had been recently imported to Ireland with the aim of feeding the peasant population cheaply. By 1740 this had been largely accomplished as the potato was the main diet in large parts of the South and West.
In Spring and Summer 1740 potatoes became scarce as early crops had been killed by the frost,. The price sky rocketed in an uncontrolled market, reaching six times their normal price. This priced many people out of their staple diet and starvation set in.
The executive of the English government – the Privy Council, did intervene and stopped all exports of food from as early as January 1740. This intervention it seems was motivated through a desire to help markets in Britain rather than an attempt at food provision.
Indeed a pamphlet from the year “The Lords Protest of 1740” shows the greatest considerations amongst the English Ruling class was with the price of food rather than millions of starving people. The pamphlet only gives a few lines to food provision as it argues against an embargo on exports. There was little attempts to import food from the Americas to meet the shortage.
From Bad to Worse
The poor climate continued into the summer of 1740 which then gave way to an early cold autumn which decimated harvests. As people starved that winter, the new year of 1741 saw the outbreak of typhus and dysentery. With a population already severely weakened by starvation, 1741 became known as “the year of slaughter” as a perfect storm of starvation and disease decimated the population.
Exact figures of the number of people who died is unknown but most historians accept a figure somewhere around 400,000 from a population of about 3 million*. This event did not have the same impact as the famine a century later largely because it did not spark the large-scale emigration that followed the famine of 1845.
*Population growth and agrarian change an historical perspective Grigg, D (1980)