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Ireland's Famine Museum

Denise Silvester-Carr introduces the new Famine Museum at Strokestown, County Roscommon.

The greatest social catastrophe of nineteenth-century Europe happened in Ireland 150 years ago. The failure of the potato crop in successive harsh winters saw a huge fall in a population conservatively calculated at 8,175,124 in the in the 1841 census. As no record was kept of deaths, it is estimated that between 1845 and 1850 almost 1.5 million people died of hunger or of diseases brought on by famine, and a similar number emigrated. The loss decimated an entire rural class – the landless labourer – and by 1881 just over 4 million people were left. In one town alone, Strokestown, in the western county of Roscommon, a population of 11,958 was reduced by a staggering 88 per cent.

It is particularly appropriate that Ireland’s recently opened Famine Museum should occupy the newly-extended stable block of Strokesdown Park House, and that some of the displays, exhibits and audio-visual presentations should focus on the fate of the impoverished land labourers of Roscommon. The thousands who died in the workhouses, bog-holes, ditches and on the ‘coffin’ ships bound for North America left no records, but letters, documents and eye-witness accounts of survivors and emigrants have been used to recreate a painful, yet riveting, picture of the appalling conditions that prevailed.

To appreciate the effect of the Great Famine, it is important to understand that Ireland was one of the most densely populated countries in Europe in the early nineteenth century. Since 1780 there had been a population increase of 175 per cent, and the Poor Inquiry of 1832 found that more than 3 million existed at poverty level. The majority were casual farm labourers who rented small tracts of land from their employers, usually prosperous farmers. These farmers, known as ‘middlemen’, made vast profits by sub-letting land that they had leased at fixed low rents from landlords who mostly resided in England.

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