Famines and the environment:
The case of the Great Irish Famine


T. G. Fewer

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A famine is always a human tragedy, but its often overlooked impact on the environment can be just as devastating. For example, the food crisis suffered by refugees fleeing the Rwandan civil war in 1993 has resulted in the partial or complete deforestation of parts of Virunga National Park in Zaïre, prompting fears for the safety of endangered animal species living in the park (Miller, 1993; Pearce, 1994). Those endangered species already known to have been subjected to poaching in this park include mountain gorillas, hippopotamuses and buffaloes. Meanwhile, Rwanda's national park at Akagera has also suffered badly since Tutsi revolutionaries took power in Rwanda. Needing land to support the revolutionaries' herd of 650,000 to 2 million Ankole cattle, they occupied the park to use it as pasture land. The new government of Rwanda then sent troops into the park to hunt down lions that attacked the cattle and slaughtered large numbers of wild herd animals because these might transmit diseases to the cattle (Wolanski, 1996). However, famine and civil war may be a mixed blessing for wildlife as Laura Spinney (1996) has suggested for Sudan. Although the number of large animals in that country has been greatly depleted by poaching and over-hunting, and some species, such as the northern white rhino, may have become extinct there as a result, others may be able to thrive in areas of no-man's-land between rival factions.

In order to better protect endangered species, scientists must be able to accurately predict the impact of a possible famine or civil war on a vulnerable habitat. Research therefore needs to be done on the impact of historical famines on the natural environment at the local or regional level. Subsequent syntheses of research could then be used to create theoretical models on which to base suitable plans of action for a given park or habitat should a famine or civil war ever threaten it. A particular advantage in studying historical famines is that their long-term impact can be assessed, thereby allowing conclusions to be reached on the possibility of restoring highly damaged habitats. Conservationists might also use this data to help them decide what features of a habitat under threat need the most urgent attention during a crisis.

The Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850, the 150th anniversary commemorations of which commenced in 1995, is one example of an historical famine that may be worth studying from the perspective of the ecologist or the conservationist. Following the arrival of the potato blight in Ireland in 1845 and the consequent failure of the national potato crop (the staple food of the poor) in that year and in 1846, an estimated one million people perished from starvation and disease. Throughout the period of the famine in Ireland, much farm produce and livestock was stolen and consumed by those in need. Turnip stealing was reported in counties as far apart as Cork (in the south-west), Donegal (in the north-west) and Wexford (in the south-east) (Donnelly, 1975; Bardon, 1992: 283; Kinsella, 1995). According to James S. Donnelly, jr (1975: 87) the situation was so serious in parts of County Cork, that some farmers took to shooting at these half-starved thieves. With little apparent concern for turnip stealing in other areas of Ireland such as on the Duke of Devonshire's County Waterford estate in 1847 - due, no doubt, to the predominance of oat cultivation as a cash crop there (Fewer, 1995: 71) - regional variation in such survival strategies of the starving, and consequently in the famine's effect on wildlife as an alternative resource, must have occurred. Sheep stealing, particularly in mountainous areas (Crawford, 1995: 65), was another grim aspect of the famine where, in the words of Anne Kinsella (1995: 55), the sheep "carcasses were ripped open and carried away leaving the head and skin in the field". Since the stolen crops or livestock were private property, thefts like these are well documented - a distinction not usually enjoyed by wild plants and animals.

Folkloric accounts collected mainly from the children or grandchildren of Famine survivors in the 1930s and 1940s indicate the kind of devastation wrought on domestic livestock. Goats, which had been plentiful on the mountainsides in Mayo, had been 'practically wiped out for food', while pigs that 'were reared on a small scale ... disappeared altogether [in the same county] when the potatoes failed' (Póirtéir, 1995: 64). Prior to the Famine, pigs were usually fed on potatoes and potato peel. Pets could also be consumed, such as one family's dogs in County Wicklow which were turned into soup while another woman in the same county was said to have died from fever after she ate her diseased cat (Póirtéir, 1995: 60-1). Once the stocks of sheep and other livestock became exhausted, however, the starving took to eating carrion "with little thought about the diseased state of carcasses" (Crawford, 1995). Folklore evidence indicates that the corpses of diseased farm animals were sometimes dug up and fed upon by the starving (Póirtéir, 1995: 61, 62).

Whenever domestic animals and produce were not available, there are frequent references in the historical literature to starving people eating a wide range of wild plants in an effort to survive. In October 1846, it was reported that people were living Nettleson nettles and weeds in County Fermanagh while the hungry ate boiled cabbage leaves in parts of counties Cork and Roscommon (Woodham-Smith, 1962: 136-7). One folklore respondent from County Cork remarked that 'Poor people could be seen crawling along the ditches looking for herbs, and their mouths were green from the leaves they were eating' (Póirtéir, 1995: 66). Wild plants might be gathered so intensively that little or nothing was left unpicked. For example, a contemporary newspaper reported that "There is no nettle, or a bit of water cress to be found near Dungarvan [County Waterford], as the starving strangers [wandering beggars] consumed them all" (quoted in Broderick, 1995: 162). Did such clearances lead to the localised extinction of animal species such as tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies whose caterpillars feed on nettles? Indeed, nettles were commonly sought after as food during the Famine (Póirtéir, 1995: 59, 66). In one case in County Limerick, a woman was even found to be picking nettles in a graveyard during the night so that she could feed her starving children. She claimed that because the nettles grew so well in the graveyard, she picked them at night unnoticed (Póirtéir, 1995: 66-7).

SorrelCrawford(1995: 66) states that charlock, a weed of corn fields, was extensively eaten in western Ireland, while Woodham-Smith (1962: 125) reports that in September 1846, people in Clashmore, County Waterford, sustained themselves on a diet of blackberries. In County Wicklow, people were even said to have 'fought and killed each other over the blackberries before they were ripe' (Póirtéir, 1995: 59). Also drawing on folklore records, Thomas Gallagher(1985: 12-13) adds chickweed, sorrel, pignuts, mushrooms, the roots of dandelion or fern, "the leaves and barks of certain trees, and the fruits of holly, beech, crab apple, and laurel trees" to the list of plants consumed. Others included docks, mangels, red clover, heather blossoms and elderberry - the latter used to make wine (Póirtéir, 1995: 59, 61, 64). By way of comparison, David Blundyand Paul Vallely (1985: 35 [plate]) noted the importance of wild nuts and berries as food in the village of Bogoya (in Burkina Faso) at a time of dwindling grain reserves during the drought of 1985.

Wild animals negatively affected by the Famine included (according to folklore accounts) rabbits, hares, grouse, plover, crows, wood pigeons, frogs, snails and mice. There is even one tale of a man who regularly stole eggs and carrion from the nest of a golden eagle in County Mayo (Póirtéir, 1995: 60-4).

In Irish coastal areas, fishing was rarely possible during the harsh winters of the late 1840s and, in any case, many fisher folk had pawned their nets to buy provisions. The high prices demanded for fish during the Famine also precluded the poor from buying any for themselves, according to Crawford(1995: 65). This is despite the fact that fish were tragically plentiful, hake being particularly common (Póirtéir, 1995: 56), although some species, such as herring and mackerel, could only be netted on a seasonal basis and so were not available throughout the year (Ward, 1996). On the other hand, freshwater fish had become scarce - possibly due to over-fishing - in rivers such as Aughrim, County Wicklow, forcing the hungry to scavenge for grubs instead at the bottoms of streams (Póirtéir, 1995: 59). Nevertheless, much food could be gathered along the shoreline. Seabirds were hunted and their eggs collected along cliffs and occasionally on offshore rocks and islands around the coast (Póirtéir, 1995: 55-6). In December 1846, the inhabitants of Arranmore Island, off the coast of Donegal, were reported to be living on seaweed (Bardon, 1992: 285). A number of seaweed varieties were eaten in Ireland, particularly carrageen moss and dulse. Consequently, the diversity of foreshore life must have been deeply affected, when (in Crawford's words) "beaches were stripped bare of the tidal crop". Furthermore, limpets, another important sea food, could be so intensively harvested, "that rocks were picked clean" (Crawford, 1995: 65). Unfortunately, many people who fed upon seaweed and shellfish (as well as improperly-cooked Indian meal) subsequently suffered from bouts of dysentery, such as in the coastal districts around Schull and Ballydehob in County Cork where the disease was more prevalent than other famine-related illnesses such as typhus (Daly, 1986: 103; Geary, 1995: 84; Hickey, 1993: 902).

Presumably, many privately owned woods in Ireland were subject to trespass and degradation by poachers or people in need of fuel during the famine. This is a major problem faced today by the national parks in Rwanda and Zaïre where large expanses of virgin forests have been felled in just a few months (Wolanski, 1996). The need for fuel during the Irish famine was especially urgent during the winter of 1846-1847 which was widely regarded at the time as being the coldest and longest in living memory. Snowfall was so great in parts of Donegal (between six and eight inches of snow were reported to have fallen in the county by early December 1846), that the implementation of relief works to provide employment for the poor there was delayed and communication with mountainous areas came to be out of the question (Bardon, 1992: 284). At the other end of the country, in Wexford, snow, hail and sleet was accompanied by hurricanes making conditions in the county's northern uplands unbearable (Kinsella, 1995: 35). Hurricanes, storms and heavy rain were reported for other parts of Ireland, resulting in the considerable damage or flooding of various workhouses (Fewer, 1997). The cold wet weather also made turf difficult to harvest, while the lack of clothing worn by many of the poor only exacerbated their condition. This was a consequence of their need to sell off a lot of their clothes for cash in order to buy food (Daly, 1986: 104). However, the famine's impact on woodland is not generally mentioned in the historical literature, though the Duke of Devonshire's County Waterford agent did appoint a caretaker to look after a wood on his estate in 1847 (Fewer, 1995: 85). Moors and bogs, many of them common land (and rent-free to squatters), came to be intensively settled by labourers during the Irish population explosion of the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. By the 1840s, as historical geographer J. H. Andrews (1987: 19) puts it, "what had once been the emptiest places in rural Ireland had now emerged among the fullest". Since much of this land was of poor agricultural quality and used primarily for potato cultivation, the destruction wrought by blight on the potato crop in 1845 and 1846 made continued settlement in such areas difficult, if not impossible. As whole communities of labourer families succumbed to emigration or starvation, many plots of land on mountains and bogs were abandoned, allowing wild plants and animals to return to them. The ridges and furrows of early nineteenth-century lazy-bed cultivation still survive in many districts of Ireland on land which has since been agriculturally abandoned or given over primarily to rough grazing.

At the height of the Irish famine in early 1847, a correspondent of The Times referred to the bodies of adults and children lying on the road or in their cabins near Schull, County Cork, a situation echoed in the countryside about Dungarvan, County Waterford (Donnelly, 1975: 86; Fraher, 1995: 146). Elsewhere, the overcrowding of cemeteries led to the interment of the dead into increasingly shallow graves (Fewer, 1997), risking exposure of the corpses to predation by animals following heavy rainfall when much of the overlying soil would have been washed away. Indeed, as both Donnelly (1975: 86) and Woodham-Smith (1962: 182) note, and echoing Laura Spinney's comment mentioned earlier, some species of animal, notably the rat, fed on the corpses of people who had succumbed to starvation or to disease during the Irish famine. However, rats could, in turn, be a bounty for some famine victims, as in the case of a County Wicklow man who was said to have killed a rat that he had found feeding on a human corpse and subsequently ate it (Póirtéir, 1995: 60). Since cats and dogs were also reported to have fed on human corpses (Woodham-Smith, 1962: 182-3; Kinealy, 1996: 34), it seems likely that other scavengers such as foxes and a variety of birds would likewise have benefited from famine fatalities.

As we have seen, the natural world can be either harmed or benefited by human famines. Much of the damage caused by encroachments on wildlife as food or fuel may be mitigated by the temporary nature of their effects. For example, common plants and animals can eventually return to habitats damaged or even destroyed by humans during a famine, but endangered species risk extinction if subjected to over-hunting and habitat destruction. In this article, incidental references to the environmental effects of the Great Irish Famine appearing in the historical literature have been presented here to indicate the potential for a more detailed interdisciplinary study involving historians, geographers, archaeologists, botanists, zoologists and wildlife conservationists.

By comparing a variety of maps and government land surveys that pre-date and post-date the period of the Great Irish Famine, it should be possible to show whether natural woodland and other uncultivated habitats were encroached upon during the late 1840s. Folklore relating specifically to the impact of the Famine on wildlife could be searched for in archive collections or collected from districts that maintain local traditions of the disaster. Similarly, contemporary newspaper articles could be intensively searched for any references to environmental degradation (for example, reports of poachers tried for stealing game). Furthermore, botanical and zoological data could also be provided by archaeologists engaged in excavating Irish sites dating from the time of the Famine, such as at Gorttoose, County Roscommon, where excavations of the traces of tenant farms are ongoing (Orser, 1996; 1997). Plant and animal remains recovered in such excavations might indicate the extent to which wildlife was utilised by rural farming and labouring communities in Ireland during the 1840s. Related dietary data could also be extracted from the abdominal regions of human skeletal remains in the mass graves of Irish famine victims and in the cess pits of contemporary workhouses and fever hospitals, while some human bones might bear indications, such as gnaw marks, of predation by other animals (Fewer, 1997). Finally, a comparison of pre-Famine lists of the flora and fauna compiled by botanists and zoologists for particular districts could be made with later inventories to see what changes might have occurred in the intervening years. By synthesising such local studies, any changes detected in each locality could be plotted on graphs and distribution maps from which statistical models could then be developed. After this, the synthesis of the Irish experience could be compared with similar work carried out for other historical famines such as that experienced in Bengal in the early 1940s.

The advantage of studying a famine that (in this case) occurred 150 years ago is that both its short and long term environmental impacts can be assessed. The effects of recent and ongoing famines cannot obviously be subjected to such analysis until far in the future. Even their ongoing impact is difficult to assess if only because the priority should be to provide food and medical attention to the people currently afflicted by starvation and disease. Therefore, the models constructed from long term studies of historical famines have the potential to inform scientists and conservationists not only in anticipating the effects of possible future famines, but also in developing ways of protecting vulnerable habitats should disaster arise again. Armed with such models, scientists and conservationists could be well placed to concentrate more effort on ending famines sooner and at less cost to the environment as well as to human life. Perhaps, famines could even be prevented from happening at all by applying the knowledge gained from studying historical examples in helping to encourage more sustainable exploitation of the natural environment.

About the author
T. G. FewerT. G. Fewer holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the National University of Ireland, Cork. A freelance archaeologist and historian with an interest in environmental issues, he lectures part-time in Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland.


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Want to read more about the Great Irish Famine? Then why not take a visit to The Irish Potato Famine Page (http://www.toad.net/~sticker/nosurrender/PotatCom.html)? (This link was added on 25 May 1998)

Note: A slightly expanded version of this article appears as 'The ecological impact of famines: Ireland's mid-nineteenth-century experience', in Michael Howlett & Shane Kilcommins, eds (1999) Humanities in Waterford Institute of Technology: essays in honour of Tony Scott (Waterford: Waterford Institute of Technology), pp. 80-7. [This note was added on 8 December 1999 & URL was changed on 13 October 2001.]

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