The Great Hunger in Ireland “An Gorta Mor” and Kilmainham Goal

Kilmainham Goal located in Dublin, Ireland was built in 1796. A prison for hardened criminals. Murderers and robbers. It was touted as one of the most modern prisons in Ireland. In 1821, two women, 19 and 21 years old, were hung for their crimes. The last public execution was in 1865. The prison closed in 1925. It is now one of the five most visited sites in Dublin. The prison is used in movie scenes and documentaries.

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The main floor of Kilmainham Goal

From 1845–1850 the prison filled with men, women, and children charged with begging and stealing. “The Great Famine” referred to by the Irish as “The Great Hunger” began to rise. The jail cells swelled to capacity. The Vagrancy Act of 1847 allowed for anyone found in a public place caught begging or “gathering alms” to be sentenced to hard labor for one month. A man who deserted his wife and children could be sentenced up to three months of hard labor. There was more food in the prisons than at home. Prisoners were not segregated. Men, women, and children were incarcerated in the same cells. Five people were confined to a cell measuring twenty-eight square meters. The prison gave everyone a candle. The prisoners needed to make the candle last for at least two weeks.It was their only means of light and heat. Male prisoners slept on iron bed stands. Women and children slept with straw mats on the floor.

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A jail cell

The prison was built with the Victorian belief that architecture was crucial to reform the minds of the prisoners. The prisoners were separated from their families and not allowed to communicate with each other. They were supposed to use their time reading the Bible, contemplating their sins, and repenting their crimes. How can you repent a crime that you committed to help feed your family?

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The prison chapel

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A painting done by a woman confined to this cell

How did the famine begin? Was it the fault of the Irish? The English accused the Irish of two things: overpopulation and laziness. Irish families were big Catholic units. Many of the Irish produced children to help on their farms. The women didn’t practice birth control. The Irish culture is laid back. They like to have fun drinking, dancing, and singing. The English looked at this lifestyle as wasteful.

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The exit gate of the prison. Men were given fifteen minutes each day to clear the rocks and stones.

The English dominated the Irish. In 1801 The Act of Union brought the country of Ireland under the control of England. The English created “Penal Laws”. The Catholic Church was outlawed. Their native language, Gaelic, was banned. The English forbade any export trade. These new laws destroyed Irish commerce and industry. The Irish could pretend not to be Catholics or leave the church completely. Some of the Irish were forced to practice their religion in secrecy.

In 1600 Protestants owned 10% of Irish land. In 1778 they owned 95%. The Penal laws prevented Catholics from buying land, getting an education, entering a profession, holding political office, and living within five miles of town. They were not allowed to fish or hunt.The only employment left for the Catholics was farming. They were allowed to have small plots owned by landlords. They had to pay rent. The landlords were absent. They spent most of their time in England. Many of the tenant farmers had poor living standards. There was no money for medicine, clothes, nor adequate shelter. Landlords were not required to make improvements on their dwellings. The potato was the only crop to produce a sufficient yield on limited acreage. In 1840, 50% of Ireland was dependent on the potato.

In 1835, 75% of Irish workers were without regular work and turned to begging and stealing. Irish farmers became desperate. They were not getting the help they needed. Without work or money, some of them decided to enter workhouses. Workhouses provided shelter and food for hard labor. The Irish farmer who had more than 1/4 of an acre was forced to give up his land before acceptance into a workhouse. This meant that their wives and children would have no food or shelter. It was the workhouse or prison.

The Great Potato Famine has been debated for years. Was it the fault of the Irish or the English? Was the potato the root of the problem?

In 1846 the Prime Minister of England, Charles Trevelyan, banned all food distribution to Ireland. The English exported grain based alcohol, wool, flax, wheat, oats, barley, butter, eggs, and beef from Ireland to England. These were products being produced in Ireland but not available to the Irish citizen. Did the English create the Famine? Food was being taken out of Ireland away from the poor Irish citizens.

The solution for many of the Irish was to get out of Ireland. With the help of some sympathetic landlords, the Irish were sent to other countries by boat. Some of them went to England. The English didn’t want them because the Irish immigrants were being paid lower salaries and undercutting theirs. They were sent to the USA and Canada. Many of them arriving with various diseases and dying before they hit land. Canada and the USA were being inundated with Irishmen. The Irish were farmers and didn’t know how to operate the equipment to work in factories. Irish Catholic Charities helped to make them more comfortable and ease them into a new lifestyle.

There are now more Irish living in the city of Boston than in Ireland. Irish descendants living around the world can now become Irish citizens if they obtain the birth certificate of their Irish ancestors. This will allow you to have an Irish passport and a US passport. You will be able to buy a house in Ireland. Only those who have Irish passports can buy land in Ireland.

I would like to conclude with my final thoughts. No one should have to go to prison for lack of food. Famine is not brought on by the people, but by governments who control the food and goods going in and out of the country. Could the The Great Hunger of Ireland have been avoided? Can this happen again? I leave you with these questions.

Written by

I am a retired ESL instructor. I am on a journey which includes writing, blogging, taking photos, and getting to know other cultures.

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