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Famine, Disease and the Irish. Medicine, Disease and Society in Britain, 1750-1950. Great Famine in Ireland Impact in Britain Focus on famine and the immediate post-famine years , 1845-early 1850s.

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famine disease and the irish
Famine, Disease and the Irish

Medicine, Disease and Society in Britain, 1750-1950


Great Famine in Ireland

Impact in Britain

Focus on famine and the immediate post-famine years, 1845-early 1850s


On the 27th of last month [July] I passed from Cork to Dublin, and this doomed plant [the potato] bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd instant [of August] I beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless.

Fr. Theobald Mathew, cited in John O’Rourke, History of the Great Irish Famine (McGlashan and Gill, Dublin, 1875), p. 152.


In fields, as the coach passed, he could see cowering wretches, almost naked in the savage weather, endeavouring to grub up roots that had been left in the ground when the crop was dug… In front of cottages you would sometimes see half naked children leaning against the fence – for they were too weak to stand… - their limbs fleshless, and their faces a sickening hue.

Louis J. Walsh, The Next Time: A Story of ‘Forty Eight (M.H. Gill and Sons, Dublin, 1919), pp. 155-6.


Massive humanitarian and demographic implications – turning point in Irish history.

Around 1 million Irish died from starvation and disease during the Great Famine.

2 million Irish left Ireland during and in the immediate aftermath of the Famine.

The population of Ireland dropped by 20-25 per cent between 1845 and 1852.

The Irish population continued to decline, halving between 1841 and 1901 from 8 to 4 million (in the period 1785-1841 it had doubled from 4 million to 8.2 million).


The famine grew more horrible towards the end of December 1846, many were buried without inquest nor coffin. An inquest was held by Dr. Sweetman on three bodies. The first was that of the father of two very young children whose mother had already died of starvation. His death became known only when the two children toddled into the village of Schull. They were crying of hunger and complaining that their father would not speak to them for four days; they told how he was ‘as cold as a flag’. The other bodies on which an inquest were held were those of a mother and child who had both died of starvation. The remains had been gnawed by rats.

Cited Cormac O Gráda, The Great Irish Famine (CUP 1989), p. 35.


The streets of our town present an alarming and lamentable appearance, being literally crowded with famishing and half-naked strangers from the most distressed parts of Ireland… hosts of squalid beings are induced to embark on board filthy hulks, ….suffering from famine and sickness during this tempestuous season, are almost beyond human expression cast as most of them have been, brutally on our shores, emaciated and in many instances diseased…

Bristol Gazette, 25 February 1847.


The air was thick with damp and stench. The vaults were mere subterranean holes, utterly without light. The flicker of the candles showed their grimy walls, reeking with foetid damp,… Beds were huddled in every corner;… In one of these was a man lying dressed, and beside him slept a well-grown calf. Sitting upon another bed was an old man, maudlin drunk, with the saliva running over his chin, making vain efforts to rid himself of his trowsers, and roaring for help…

Morning Chronicle series 1849. Reprinted J. Ginswick (ed.), Labour and the Poor in England and Wales, 1849-1951, vol. 1 (London, 1983), p. 78.