The impact of the Great Famine on the population of County Meath
The most momentous event of nineteenth century Ireland was the Great Famine, 1845-49, which resulted in the deaths of one million people or roughly one eight of the entire population of Ireland. Emigration also contributed to a decline in population with two million people leaving the country in the ten years after the famine.
The famine is often described in general terms. The west and the south were particularly badly hit but how did the famine affect Meath in comparison to the rest of the country? Meath was allegedly one of the counties not seriously affected by the famine.
The population of Ireland in 1851 was one of the highest recorded but while the population had recovered after previous famines, in this instance the population continued to fall. The famine had far reaching effects in particular reinforcing this trend towards a decline in population. Lee outlined six factors which resulted in this decline: the changing rural class structure, rising age at marriage, declining marriage and birth rates, a static death rate and emigration. This assignment examines a number of these factors in relation to the population of county Meath. This long term response to this short term calamity can be illustrated by taking data not just from the 1841-51 period but also from the following decades. This population decline has often been seen as the Famine’s most important legacy.
This study concentrates on the population effects of the famine on county Meath and decline of marriage and birth rates as reflected in the parish registers and illustrates how that decline continued in the decades after the famine.
Using census data the effects of the famine on the various baronies of county Meath will be examined. The northern half of Meath was more affected by the famine than the southern part.
The poor law system, which was introduced to Ireland in 1838, provided some relief from the effects of the famine but the workhouses were not prepared for the famine and numbers in this system continued to be high in the decade after the famine.
The impact of the famine on the population of Meath will be traced using census, parish records and poor law records.
The Famine In Meath
In 1750 the population of Meath was about 80,000, by 1840 it had risen to more than twice that, the famine then occurred and a trend towards a decline in population became established so that by 1951 the population had dwindled to 66,000. Between 1841 and 1851 the population of Meath fell from 183,116 to 140,750, a drop of 23%. This decline continued into the following decades with the population dropping to 95,558 in 1871, a drop of nearly 50% in a thirty year time period. The population was effectively halved in this short time period.
There has been an increased interest in the famine in Meath in recent decades, particularly with the countrywide commemoration of the famine in the late 1990s. Danny Cusack provided an introductory study into the famine in Meath in 1996. Peter Connell’s work concentrated on the pre-famine period and the immediate effects of the famine. Various articles relating to the famine in local areas have appeared in the county historical journal, Riocht na Midhe.
The potato blight was discovered in Meath as early as October 1845. In that year about half the potato crop of Meath was diseased. The first great crisis occurred in the following spring. Meath was less effected by the failure of the potato crop than other counties, as it was not as dependent on the crop for its food supply. In Meath 5% of the land area was used for potatoes in comparison to 21% in Cork.
Blight appeared in the crop again in the summer of 1846 thereby renewing food shortages. The yields in 1847 were high but not a great deal had been planted, as there had been little seed from the previous year. The crop failed again in 1848.
The potato was the main stay of the diet of the agricultural labourer and cottier class and dominated the diet of at least a third of the population. Townlands which had a high percentage of labourers and small holders had the highest levels of death and emigration.
Many died in workhouses or fever hospitals, from diseases such as typhoid, than starvation and were buried in mass graves. Many others died in their homes and were interred in unmarked graves. Approximately 20,000 died in Meath as a result of the famine in the years 1846-51.
The government responded to the famine by providing work relief and charities by supplying food. The poor law system was not permitted to provide food or other relief initially. Meath was one of the eighteen counties to apply for the half-grant scheme for public works by the end of May 1846. In Trim Poor Law Union, the guardians provided outdoor relief in the winter of 1846-47, contravening the 1838 act in their attempts to respond adequately to the suffering in the union. Public works undertaken include the sinking of the Knightsbrook river and the construction of new roads and bridges.
Before the famine there had been some land clearances and a change from tillage to grazing thereby displacing cottiers and reducing the need for labourers. The famine accelerated these trends in the rural economy. There was an influx of dispossessed and poorer people into urban areas with the towns in Meath and the city of Dublin increasing in population during the famine.
Meath’s population decline in the 1841 to 1851 decade of 23% reflected the national decline of 20%. This decline of 23% was the fifth highest in Leinster. The lowest loss of population during the same period among the provinces was Leinster. Between 1841 and 1851 Leinster’s population dropped by 15%, Munster’s by 22%, Ulster’s by 16% and Connacht’s by 29%. Poverty was greatest in the south and west of Ireland. The death toll ranged from one quarter of the population in some western counties to much smaller changes in the northeast. Counties such as Tipperary, Galway and Mayo had population declines in excess of 100,000 while county Cork’s population declined by more than 200,000. These are substantial declines in comparison to the decline in Meath of 43,080. These areas would have been more heavily populated than Meath with a population density in Mayo of 475 people per square mile, in Clare, 377 and in Meath it was only 208.
In the next decade 1851-61 Meath’s decline of 22% was twice the national average of 11%. This trend continued in the following decade with a decline of 13% in the population of Meath while the national population declined by 7%.
Between 1841 and 1871 the population of Ireland declined by 34% while Meath’s population declined by 48% during the same time span. This decline makes it the fifth worst affected county in the country as far as percentage population decline is concerned during the period 1841-71.
To examine the effect the famine had on baptisms and marriages a number of parishes were selected from representative parts of the county. Parishes which had records of sufficient quality to allow meaningful data to be extracted were selected. A limiting factor was that the parish selected had to have entries for all years within the period under study. Two of the major urban centres, Navan and Trim, do not have complete registers for the period and so had to be excluded from the selection. The parishes have no record for burial during the period. Less than 20% of parishes in the country have any records of burials.
|Table 1 Baptisms and marriages 1830-69|
Source: NLI, Roman Catholic Parish Registers 1830-69 from the parishes of Ardcath, Beauparc, Lobinstown, Moynalty, Ratoath and Summerhill
The number of baptisms increased from the early 1830s, reaching a peak in the ten years before the famine. A decline began in 1847, which continued to the end of the period with baptisms in the period 1865-69 being less than 50% of the baptisms in 1835-39.
The number of marriages similarly experienced a similar decline. The large number of marriages in the 1830s resulted in an increased birth-rate and thereby an increased number of baptisms.
Table 2 Population by barony 1841-71
|Population in 1841||Population in 1851||%drop 1841-51||Population in 1861||Population in 1871||%drop 1841-71|
|Total for county||183116||140750||-23.14%||110373||95558||-47.82%|
Source: Census of Ireland 1851, 1861, and 1871.
The worst areas to be affected by the famine were the areas in the north of the county. The census commissioners employed the barony as one of the units for organising the census data. Baronies were ancient sub-divisions of counties, established from the Anglo-Norman conquest of Meath in the twelfth century. Baronies vary in size so a direct comparison between different baronies would not serve to illustrate decline but analysing the figures for each individual barony over the period 1841-71 illustrates that the decline was much worst in the northern half of the county.
Whole areas of southeast Meath had very low population densities – Deece Lower, Deece Upper, Dunboyne and Ratoath. The north and west had higher densities. Morgallion, Slane Lower and Kells Lower show particularly high depopulation in the period 1841-51 while the south and southeast baronies such as Dunboyne, Duleek Lower and Ratoath Lower show much smaller changes.
Great grazing farms had been created in the southern baronies and tillage was concentrated in the more eastern parts of the county. In the northern baronies smallholdings continued to be the mainstay for land management. Those baronies worst hit by the famine such as Morgallion and Kells Lower continued to lose population at the same rate in the following decades.
The neighbouring counties in the north also experienced a high decline in population with Cavan recording a decline of 28.4% and Monaghan a decline of 29.2% in the period 1841-51.
The famine resulted in emigration on a massive scale. Two million people emigrated between 1848 and 1855 and another three and a half million left by 1914. Most of those who emigrated relied on their own resources. Small farmers could raise a crop and sell it for cash then not pay the rent and use the money to pay for a ticket and many from Meath and Cavan did so in 1848. Some landlords, such as James L.W. Napier of Loughcrew, assisted the poor to emigrate. There was also assisted emigration to Australia of female orphans between 1848 and 1850. Before the famine it was mainly the labouring and small farmer classes that emigrated but during and after the famine these classes were joined by the middle-class that left for better prospects rather than being forced to go.
With no native industry to absorb the agricultural labouring surplus many turned to the USA and Britain where there were growing demands for labour. By 1851 there were more than one million people of Irish birth in the United States. Labourers would have had a difficulty raising the finance necessary for a ticket to emigrate. When the famine ended the labourers received increased wages and so were in a better position to be able to save to emigrate.
The scale of emigration was unprecedented in the history of international migration. Emigration was greater in the five years following the famine than during the famine itself. The patterns established during the famine were perpetuated.
There are no detailed records of emigration for the period of the famine and the decades preceding it. Systematic recording of emigration began in 1851. The flow declined after the mid-1850s but fluctuated in accordance with the relative prosperity of America and Ireland. In 1851-3 emigration from Meath was in excess of 4000 per annum but this fell to 698 in 1861 and 1862 before rising again. Following the bad harvest in 1863 and 1864 numbers of emigrants from Ireland rose but then fell again which is reflected in the data for Meath. The year 1851 would have been one of the peak years for emigration. In that year and the following two years in excess of 4000 people are recorded as emigrating from Meath. Emigration accounted for a drop of 40556 in the population of the county between 1851 and 1871. It has been suggested that emigration was a viable option for the people of Meath during the famine while it was more difficult for those residing in other counties in Ireland with more difficult access to ports.
Emigration became a permanent feature of Irish society with money sent back by relatives to finance the next ticket to America. The Irish outflow of population was greatest during the famine and declined gradually thereafter.
There are no figures available for internal migration within Ireland. With the proximity of the city of Dublin to Meath it is possible that people from Meath moved to Dublin for better opportunities. Dublin city’s population increased by 4% in the period 1841-71.
Dunshaughlin workhouse was the first to open in county Meath in May 1841. Trim guardians acquired a six acres site near Trim town and erected a workhouse, with a capacity for 500, which opened in October 1841. The Board of Guardians met weekly in the boardroom of the workhouse. Each week the number of residents of the workhouse was recorded.
An act to provide for a support system for the poor of Ireland was passed in the British parliament in 1838. This led to the formation of poor law unions and the election of boards of guardians. County Meath was divided into five unions namely Navan, Kells, Trim, Dunshaughlin and Oldcastle, each of which were to provided a workhouse for the destitute poor of their area. Some portions of the county were also served by workhouses in adjoining counties.
|Table 3 Inmates in Trim Workhouse 1842-52|
|Year||Average per month|
|Source: Board of Guardian minute books Trim Union 1841-52|
Note: Average number of inmates per month based on the number of inmates recorded in the first week of each month.
The system for poor relief provided relief for the destitute but not the starving. When the famine struck the workhouse system was perceived as a subsidiary to the government’s specially introduced relief schemes but after 1847 it became the main organ for famine relief. The workhouse system was not designed to cope with such a catastrophe as the famine.
By mid-1846 the workhouses were still only half full. In December 1846 the Trim guardians were directed to obtain additional workhouse accommodation. It was in that month that the number of Trim inmates exceeded the 500-person capacity of the workhouse. A similar situation existed in the neighbouring union of Dunshaughlin.
An additional workhouse was required for Trim as was also the case in the adjoining unions of Kells and Navan. At the beginning of 1849 almost one million people were in receipt of workhouse relief.
As can be seen from table 3 the numbers resident in the workhouse from 1842 to 1846 was in the region of 200 but this increased to twice that in 1847 and in 1849 average numbers increased to nearly 700 inmates. The number inmates continued at a high figure in excess of 600 in 1850 and 1851 but beginning to drop in 1852.
Kinealy concluded that the numbers seeking workhouse relief remained high long after the Famine had been declared officially over. The figures and table for Trim workhouse clearly supports this and it was not until late 1852 that numbers of inmates began to decline.
Average number of inmates per month based on the number of inmates recorded in the first week of each month.
The famine affected Meath in a similar fashion to the rest of the country with Meath’s population decline in the 1841 to 1851 period reflecting the national decline but in the decades after the famine Meath population declined at twice the rate of the national figures. By 1871 Meath’s population had half of the 1841 level. While Meath may not have lost the numbers of people that other counties did, the county had the fifth greatest decline of any county in the period 1841 to 1871.
The decline was reflected in the baptism and marriage rate, both of which peaked in the 1830s but began a serious decline in the middle of the famine period. This decline of population was much worst in the northern half of the county.
Emigration was one of the major causes for the decline in population with 40556 people emigrating between 1851 and 1871 while the population of Meath declined by 45192, a difference of less than 5000 people, during the same period. Emigration was the safety valve for the overpopulated areas of the north of the county.
The workhouse system provided relief to the poor and starving. It was not until the end of the second year of the famine that the system came under pressure and numbers continued to be high even after the worst of the famine had passed.
The famine was a major demographic disaster for Meath. While it did not lose the numbers that other counties lost through death and emigration proportionally it was one of the worst affected by the famine over a long-term period. .
Meath County Library
Trim Board of Guardians Minute Books July 1839 to December 1852
Parish Registers (National Library of Ireland Microfilm)
Ardcath baptism and marriage register 1830-72, microfilm p. 4180
Beauparc baptism and marriage register 1830-72, microfilm p. 4180
Lobinstown baptism and marriage register 1830-72, microfilm p. 4182
Moynalty baptism and marriage register 1830-72, microfilm p. 4187
Ratoath baptism and Marriage register 1830-72, microfilm p. 4177
Summerhill baptism and marriage records 1830-72, microfilm p. 4178
ACTS OF PARLIAMENT
The Act for the more effectual relief of the destitute poor in Ireland 1 & 2 Vic. c. 56 [G.B.] (31 July 1838).
CENSUSES OF IRELAND
The census of Ireland for the year 1851
part i Showing the area, population and number of houses by townlands and electoral divisions, vol. i, Province of Leinster, H.C. 1852-3, [1465, 1553, 1481, 1486, 1488, 1492, 1503,, 1496, 1502, 1564, 1527, 1544], xci; vol. ii, Province of Munster, H.C. 1852-3 [1552,1550, 1551, 1543, 1554, 1549, 1545, 1546], xci; vol. iii, Province of Ulster, H.C. 1852-3 [1565,1547, 1563, 1567, 1570, 1574, 1571, 1575, 1579], xcii; vol. iv, Province of Connaught, H.C. 1852-3 [1557, 1548, 1542, 1555, 1560], xcii.
The census of Ireland for the year 1861
part i Showing the area, population and number of houses by townlands and electoral divisions, vol. i, Province of Leinster, H.C. 1863, , liv; Province of Munster, H.C. 1863 , liv; vol. iii, Province of Ulster, H.C. 1863 , lv; vol. iv, Province of Connaught, H.C. 1863 , lv.
The census of Ireland for the year 1871
part i Area, houses and population; also the ages, civil condition, occupations, birthplaces, religion and education of the people, vol. i, Province of Leinster, with summary tables and index, H.C. 1872 [C. 662-i to xiii].lxvii; Province of Munster, H.C. 1873 [C. 873-I to vii], lxxii; vol. iii, Province of Ulster, H.C. 1874 [C.964-I to X], lxxiv; vol. iv, Province of Connaught, H.C. 1874 [C.1106-I to VII], lxxiv.
Gleeson, John Martin, ‘The Famine in Kells and Dunshaughlin Poor Law Unions’ (M.A. thesis, University College, Dublin, 1996)
Barrett, Rachel, ‘Dunshaughlin Workhouse 1838-1849: part one’ in Ríocht na Midhe vol. xvi (2005), pp 105-119
Barrett, Rachel, ‘Dunshaughlin Workhouse 1838-1849: part two’ in Ríocht na Midhe vol. xvii (2006), pp 203-222
Clarke, Eamonn, ‘The impact of the Famine on Kells Poor Law Union’ in Ríocht na Midhe vol. ix, no.4 (1998) pp 121-148
Connell, Peter, ‘Famine and the local economy co. Meath 1845-55’ in Ríocht na Midhe vol.vii no.4 (1985-6) pp 114 –125
Connell, Peter, The land and people of county Meath, 1750-1850 (Dublin, 2004)
Corish, Patrick J. & David C. Sheehy, Records of the Irish Catholic Church (Dublin, 2001)
Cusack, Danny, The Great Famine in county Meath (Navan, 1996)
Cusack, Danny, ‘The Famine in and around Kells’ in Ríocht na Midhe vol. ix no.2 (1996) pp 97-123
Fitzpatrick, David, ‘Emigration, 1801-70’ in W.E. Vaughan (ed) A new history of Ireland, v: Ireland under the Union, I, 1801-70 (Oxford, 1989) pp 562-616
Fitzpatrick, David, ‘Flight from famine’ in Cathal Póirtéir The Great Irish Famine (Cork, 1995), pp 174-84
Kinealy, Christine, This great calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52 (Dublin, 1994)
Kinealy, Christine, ‘The role of the Poor Law during the Famine’ in Cathal Póirtéir The Great Irish Famine (Cork, 1995), pp 104-122
Lee, Joseph, The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 (Dublin, 1973)
Ó Grada, Cormac, The Great Irish Famine (Dublin, 1989)
Vaughan W.E. and A.J. Fitzpatrick (eds), Irish historical statistics population, 1821-1971 (Dublin, 1978)
 Joseph Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 (Dublin, 1973), p. 1.
 Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, p. 1.
 Cormac Ó Grada, The Great Irish Famine (Dublin, 1989), p. 61.
 Danny Cusack, The Great Famine in county Meath (Navan, 1996), p. 13.
 Peter Connell, The land and people of county Meath, 1750-1850 (Dublin, 2004), p. 11.
 Cusack, The Great Famine in county Meath.
 Connell, The land and people of county Meath.
 Meath Herald 11 Oct. 1845.
 Connell, The land and people of county Meath, p. 177.
 John Martin Gleeson, ‘The Famine in Kells and Dunshaughlin Poor Law unions’ (M.A. thesis, University College, Dublin, 1996) p. 24.
 Drogheda Argus 14 Aug. 1847.
 Peter Connell, ‘Famine and the local economy co. Meath 1845-55’ in Ríocht na Midhe vii no.4 (1985-6), p. 114.
 W.E. Vaughan & A.J. Fitzpatrick, Irish historical statistics population, 1821-1971 (Dublin, 1978), pp 15-16.
 The Census of Ireland 1851 General Report H.C. 1856, (2134), xxxi, p xii.
 Patrick J. Corish & David C. Sheehy, Records of the Irish Catholic Church (Dublin, 2001) p. 38.
 Connell, The land and people of county Meath, pp 161-62.
 Connell, The land and people of county Meath, p. 11.
 Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society, p. 6.
 Meath Herald 5 Jan. 1848.
 Meath Herald 15 Sept. 1849.
 David Fitzpatrick, ‘Flight from famine’ in Cathal Póirtéir The Great Irish Famine (Cork, 1995), p. 177.
 Eamonn Clarke, ‘The impact of the Famine on Kells Poor Law Union’ in Ríocht na Midhe ix, no.4 (1998), p.146.
 David Fitzpatrick, ‘Flight from famine’, p. 174.
 David Fitzpatrick ‘Flight from famine’, p. 175.
 David Fitzpatrick ‘Flight from famine’, p. 175.
 Vaughan & Fitzpatrick Irish historical statistics population pp xvi-xvii.
 David Fitzpatrick ‘Emigration, 1801-70’ in W.E. Vaughan (ed) A new history of Ireland, v: Ireland under the Union, I, 1801-70 (Oxford, 1989) pp 565-66.
 Census of Ireland for the year 1871
 Gleeson, ‘The Famine in Kells and Dunshaughlin Poor Law unions’ pp 113-14.
 Ó Grada, The Great Irish Famine, p. 62.
 1 & 2 Vic. c. 56 [G.B.] (31 July 1838).
 Rachel Barrett, ‘Dunshaughlin Workhouse 1838-1849: part one’ in Ríocht na Midhe xvi (2005), p. 110.
 Christine Kinealy ‘The role of the Poor Law during the Famine’ in Cathal Póirtéir The Great Irish Famine (Cork, 1995), p. 104.
 Kinealy ‘The role of the Poor Law during the Famine’, p. 109.
Rachel Barrett, ‘Dunshaughlin Workhouse 1838-1849: part two’ in Ríocht na Midhe xvii (2006), p. 211.
 Barrett, ‘Dunshaughlin Workhouse 1838-1849: part two’, p. 216.
 Kinealy ‘The role of the Poor Law during the Famine’, p. 118.
 Kinealy ‘The role of the Poor Law during the Famine’, p. 119.