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The Misery That Was Ireland: The Potato Famine
W. Stewart Trench

In the mid-1840s the Irish potato crop was struck by the potato blight, a plant disease that wiped out the crop. Famine ensued in Ireland, hard times were felt in England, and a general economic recession followed on the Continent, which would spark the Revolutions of 1848. In many ways, the Great Famine was the result of centuries-long English policies in Ireland that had resulted in an impoverished peasantry wholly dependent upon one food crop, the potato. The British government barely intervened, leaving the Irish to their fate and to what private charity could provide, which was precious little. Millions perished and millions more emigrated to England and the United States. This selection is an eyewitness account of conditions in Ireland in 1847.

Questions to Consider
  • Characterize the conditions described in this document. How can we account for the British government's minimal response to this disaster?

  • Why do you think the writer concentrated his report on children?

I did not see a child playing in the streets or on the roads; no children are to be seen outside the doors but a few sick and dying children. In the districts which are now being depopulated by starvation, coffins are only used for the more wealthy. The majority were taken to the grave without any coffin, and buried in their rags: in some instances even the rags are taken from the corpse to cover some still living body.

On arriving at Cappagh, in the first house I saw a dead child lying in a corner of the house, and two children, pale as death, with their heads hanging down upon their breasts sitting by a small fire. The father had died on the road coming home from work. One of the children, a lad seventeen years of age, had been found, in the absence of his mother, who was looking for food, lying dead, with his legs held out of the fire by the little child which I then saw lying dead. Two other children had also died. The mother and the two children still alive had lived on one dish of barley for the last four days. On entering another house the doctor said, "Look there, Sir, you can't tell whether they are boys or girls." Taking up a skeleton child, he said, "Here is the way it is with them all; their legs swing and rock like the legs of a doll, they have the smell of mice."

Source: W. Stewart Trench, Realities of Irish Life (London: Longmans, Green, 1847).