By the middle of the 18th century, Ireland had settled down to life under the Ascendency Government. It was a land of great contrasts.
On the one hand the rich landowners, an elite composed mostly of Church of Ireland members, were flaunting their wealth by erecting great houses and palaces and laying out parks and gardens. They held parties and laid bets worth fortunes. On the other hand the peasantry were sunk into extreme poverty. They did have their champions, men such as Oliver Swift the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and George Berkely the Church of Ireland bishop of Cloyne. Both of these men angered by the attitude of the ruling classes towards the poor, led a ferocious and robust campaign lambasting and castigating the rich. They were not the only ones but the voices of charity did little to remove the intolerable excesses of those in charge.
Bad weather hits Ireland
In January 1740, nature itself seemed to turn against the people. A winter of terrible coldness fell across the country. The temperatures fell so much that the ports were blocked by ice and coal could not be brought in from Britain. The trees, the wild life, even the cattle and sheep perished, the potatoes, which were by now the mainstay of the Irish diet, were turned to mush in the ground. This coldness lasted into February and was not followed by the usual rains. By April people were beginning to fear. Whatever farm animals that survived the heavy frosts now had nothing to graze upon. The corn, which had been planted in the hope that rain would come, failed to grow in the fields. The price of corn more than doubled which led to disturbances. In Drogheda a corn ship was boarded by the mob and its load removed, in Dublin mobs attacked bakeries in the search for bread. The drought caused mill streams to dry up thus preventing corn mills from making the flour. It also caused the timbers of houses to dry out and many fires took hold in diverse towns and villages.
In September 1741, the bad weather returned in the form of violent gales which were followed by heavy blizzards in October. In November two terrible storms hit the country and these brought snow and frost. On the 9th December there was severe flooding throughout the country and the very next day the frost returned.
Ireland is struck by Famine
The outcome of all this was that the people faced a famine. Oliver Swift, George Berkely and Lord Justice Hugh Butler the archbishop of Armagh all set up schemes to feed the poor. The hunger was accompanied by smallpox and dysentery. Typhus was also prevalent. These diseases also took the lives of many of the wealthy classes. Dublin and its hospitals were swamped by hungry and disease ridden refugees from the countryside. In an effort to raise money to eleviate the suffering, the Viceroy of Ireland, the Duke of Devonshire invited George Frideric Handel to give a concert in Dublin. He agreed to do so and on the 8th of April he performed his “Messiah” at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street. This performance raised a sum of £400. He then repeated this performance on the 3rd of June.
It is estimated that out of a population of approximately 2,500,000 there were up to 450,000 deaths. Whilst all Europe suffered famine in 1741 only Norway suffered as much as Ireland.
This article was first published on 05-05-2011 and last modified on 21-03-2017.