The Famine in Belfast: time the forgotten story was told

11 Nov 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Nov 2022

Dublin's famine memorial on Custom House Quay Pic: Christine Matthews, Wikicommons

Ireland is a place where the past and the present are entwined. In the north grievance and counter-grievance dominate politics and many of those grievances go back centuries.

As a result competing narratives of the past have been constructed. Some are manifestly false. This matters, it matters a lot.  

Paul Mullan, who runs the Heritage Lottery Fund put it rather more eloquently when he told Scope some years back: “Here we are in Northern Ireland, a place where people have looked at history in monolithic terms, single narratives which are unchanging. These single narratives are put up in competition with each other. But the more you look into and understand history the more you realise that it’s more complex than that.  History can often be about manipulation and misunderstanding, seldom about the truth.

“The point about history is that whenever you try to create historical apartheid you end up creating problems more often than not.”

History and our understanding of the past is therefore important and relevant to understanding ourselves and, in a divided society, each other.

In recent years one of the most enduring and spectacular false historical narratives has started to unravel.

It is that Ulster and specifically its Protestant population was relatively unaffected by the Great Irish Famine.

By 1849, two years past the peak year of 1847, the myth was already being circulated. The Newry Telegraph put it like this: “It is true that the potato has failed in Connaught and Munster but it has failed as much in Ulster; therefore if the potato had caused all the distress in the South and West why has it not caused the same misery here? It is because we are a painstaking, industrious, laborious people who desire to work and pay our just debts and the help of the Almighty is upon our labour. If the people of the South had been equally industrious with those of the North, they would not have had so much misery among them.”

This myth of the exceptionalism of hard-working Protestants of the north remained virtually unchallenged for centuries. It is only in recent years that it has been corrected. Historians Christine Kinealy and Gerard MacAtasney have followed up their essay “The Great Hunger in Belfast”, which was carried in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine with another - “They had names too” - in the just-published The First Great Charity of this Town, recently reviewed by Scope.

By the mid 1840s 130 workhouses had been built in Ireland. The Belfast one was on the site of what is now the City Hospital and could hold 1,000.

Meanwhile the potato crop was failing. In 1845 one third of potatoes were lost across Ireland and the following year the entire crop was lost. This was followed by one of the coldest winters on record.

Potatoes were the predominant diet of the rural poor. They were often salted or mixed with seaweed to provide variety from the sheer monotony of a diet based on a single ingredient. But they were incredibly nutritious and easy to grow on a small plot. Consequently, over time, they started to displace other crops like barley, rye and beans.

Therefore a failure of the potato was devastating.

It is important to note that although hunger did kill directly, the vast majority of the estimated 1.1 million who died between 1846 and 1851 in Ireland died from contagious diseases such as typhoid, typhus, dysentery and diarrhea. Two factors were at work, commonly in tandem. One was that starvation weakened the immune system, the second was what might be called “community factors” such as migration and vagrancy with a consequent neglect of personal hygiene.

Relapsing, or road fever, was especially devastating. It was spread by both head and body lice.

Cleanliness was obviously of the highest importance.   

But the wash house at Belfast’s workhouse did not work properly and so clothes could not be washed, fumigated or dried properly.

By November of 1846 it was holding 1,100 people, more than it had room for and already many were sick.

Unheated sheds had to be used and many young children died from cold and damp.

By 1847 the piggery, stable and strawhouse had to be converted to accomodate 800 more paupers.

Meanwhile both the training master and mistress got typhus and the medical attendant, a Dr Coffey, died from it.  

By the beginning of March there were 158 in the adjoining fever hospital 18 of the beds had to be shared to care for them all, two patients to each, spreading disease still further.

By the 9th March there were over 200 cases and 253 by the 23rd March. For a time further admissions were banned, forcing the town’s general hospital to admit fever cases which meant in turn that it could only perform surgeries “in extraordinary circumstances.”

Just as Belfast’s rudimentary health system was on the verge of collapse disaster struck.

On 17 March 1847 the emigrant ship the Swatara docked in the town with 296 passengers on board, typhoid was rife amongst them.

The hospital admitted 35 then ran out of funds. That is when typhoid broke out and spread rapidly in the town.

As it did up to four were now sharing beds in the Belfast workhouse, whose hospital was crammed with by 503 patients by the end of April. All classes were affected.

The News Letter reported: “Something of the misery which haunts the cottage of the poor is forcing its way into the castle of the rich.”

And the Rev William Johnston from the town’s soup kitchen committee reported on living conditions in Belfast: “In one house there were lying ill of contagious diseases four persons in one small room. The poor afflicted people had no straw to lie down on only a piece of dirty sackcloth. On this miserable bed nine persons, including the fever patients were obliged to sleep every night … In another part of the same room resided another family of seven people.

Awful things were happening on the streets.

A mother with a small emaciated child was reported to have slumped down under a shop window on High Street at noon and the child died in her arms five minutes later;

A woman from Lisburn lay down in the footpath in Chichester Street and died beside her husband and child;  

A beggar was found dead at the corner of Matier Street, Shankill Road. At the same time a two year old child died in his mother’s arms at May’s Bridge.

With deaths mounting the city’s cemeteries – already overcrowded – could not cope.

Unclaimed pauper bodies dying around the town at first went to workhouse grounds for burial, but the Poor Law Commissioners objected as it was “open to abuse”

At the Friar’s Bush graveyard staff had to dig square pits to hold 40 coffins.

And the Rev Richard Oulton described the extent of the crisis faced by Shankhill graveyard: “Coffins are heaped upon coffins until the last one is not more than two inches underground.”

He said if the matter is neglected any further “such scenes as are witnessed at Skibbereen will be brought to our doors”

His fellow cleric, a Dr Drew, again at Shankill Cemetery wrote: “A few days since I turned away in disgust when I observed the manner in which bones and skulls were thrown about and in which the spade was stuck into the coffins and dead bodies which had seemingly been but a very short time deposited.”

Not all corpses made it that far. Some were left in houses until the authorities paid for burial.  

Ulster did not suffer as much as Connacht or Munster. 

Two factors helped. It had high levels of literacy – 58% compared for instance with Munster at 36% and Connacht 27%. This meant that the poor could read Poor Law and other notices (like ship-sailings).

It also had higher levels of industrialization which meant more were waged and therefore more familiar with having money and buying things (unlike many in the poverty-stricken West)

But there was still terrible suffering. According to the 1841 census two thirds of population of Ulster were classed as labourers, smallholders and other persons of no capital.

During the famine period more than 300,000 emigrated and 150,000 to 170,000 died of famine related disease.  

Landlords cashed in: 20% of Ireland’s legally enforced evictions were in Ulster, leaving 120,000 family members put out on the road.

All religious groups were affected, especially Presbyterians. According to the Atlas of the Great Famine, north Armagh was as badly affected as the southwest of Ireland and communities around Maghera and in mid Antrim lost a third of their population between 1841 and 1851.

In Bangor the soup kitchen served one fifth of the population, around 600 people. And in nearby Ards the queues for soup were full of emaciated people, many without sufficient clothes.  

As elsewhere in Ireland there were scenes of unimaginable horror. A report from the Christian Friends of England describes a poor cabin in Portadown where first a man, then his wife, then their daughter died. Later that week at the same house the writer found a “young man about 14 or 15 on the cold dark floor, off the rubbish, dead without a single vestige of clothing, the eyes sunk, the mouth wide open, the flesh shriveled up, the bones all visible, so small around the waist that I could span him with my hand.”

And in Ederney, Fermanagh “a woman was seen in the street seeking charity with two children, one dead on her back and the other dying in her arms.”

The famine was a terrible tragedy that is part of our collective heritage. It affected the entire country and laid waste to unionists and nationalists and people of all faiths and none.

The forgotten victims in the north need to be mourned as well.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.