An unknown disease had attacked the potato crops in the Eastern United States, ruining the harvests during the years 1843 and 1844. The likelihood is that some diseased potatoes from these crops were shipped to a few European ports. The Potato Blight had a devastating effect on the economy and the people of Ireland over the next six years, but it was hardly noticed at first. The initial stages of the disease were first reported in Sligo by the Autumn of 1845.
One or two Anglo-Irish agriculturalists had spotted the strain during the spring and summer of 1845, identifying the tell-tale signs of “finely sprinkled soot” upon the leaves and stalk, the rapid decomposition of the potato and the pungent odour, but the spring harvest had been unusually good and, at least at first, optimism prevailed.
The County Inspector had been duly warned, however, of possible trouble ahead, and in this early account (20th September 1845), J.S.Stewart, a sub-Inspector at Tubbercurry, reports back his findings to Captain Lawson, the County Inspector at Sligo.
“There has been a small failure in a few instances but it is of a very trifling nature. The general opinion in the country is that there has not been so good a crop of potatoes for some years.”
20th September 1845. J.S.Stewart, Tubbercurry Constabulary Report
RLFC2/ Z. 13210
Stewart’s optimism was profoundly misplaced. Just over a month later, Pilsworth Whelan Esquire, who was serving as the Residential Magistrate, wrote in great detail to Richard Pennefather.
“Ten days back the tops rapidly faded and dried, particularly on high ground and soon after small patches of brown colour appeared on the potatoes…These progressively spread on the outsides of the potato, the part affected became tainted and rotten as the disease advanced and if in this state the crop was put into a pit, both good and bad became alike rotten. The farmers put the diseased potatoes aside and only pitted the sound ones. The potato disease is universal throughout this district…. The alarm amongst all classes is considerable and at the requisition of Mr Cooper of Markrea Castle, a meeting of the principal gentry of the county took place today at the Meldan Hotel in the town of Sligo…It was admitted by all that the disease was universal.”
Thursday 23rd October 1845. Pilsworth Whelan RM to Richard Pennefather
Whelan’s notes are significant. He notes the progressive nature of the disease and its contagiousness. He also indicates a local swing of perception –in just four weeks- from a general optimism to a universal despondency. As befitted his important position in a county town, he was among the very first to call for some measure of government intervention. As his letter continued, he shrewdly pointed out two factors that were to become pivotal as the situation worsened: the fluctuation in the price of potatoes –or rather the risk of a price inflation- and the possibility of the substitution of oatmeal.
Whelan also mentions the proactive stance of “Mr Cooper of Markrea Castle”. Edward Cooper was a landowner of considerable means and a large estate which to this day-even as a hotel, Markrea Castle is pretty impressive- bears testimony to his local prominence. He was one of the leading “movers and shakers” in the Collooney area, and his input into the unfolding catastrophe was also to prove significant.
Whelan feels bound to point out, finally in his letter, that “The actual loss in the potato crop is not yet material.” The “Not yet,” here, while true enough, was to sound ominous within days.
The Parish Priest at Bunnimadden, (Bunnanadden, near Tobercurry) James Henry, wrote to the Sligo Champion on Monday 17th November 1845 in far less dispassionate tone.
“We regret we must confirm the rumour of a very general failure of the potato crop in this county…one third of the crop is entirely lost…From all quarters the accounts are most disheartening and yet the grain is leaving the country as fast as it can be exported, in order to enable the tenants to meet the demands of the landlords. All this is very distressing…”
A new thought begins to surface in Father James’s letter, which was to gather momentum as the disaster unfolded: that the economic crisis lay at the mercy of a political rationale. That is, the grain which could have afforded relief was bound for export. The landlords had a legal right to their own property, of course, but, in many instances, they had interests and estates in England and their “legal right” derived from an English government. Whilst many landlords –like Cooper above- attempted to meet the problem head-on, many did not understand the local situation at all. The problem of “absentee landlords” was to accentuate the distress of local tenants who felt disempowered, unrepresented and at the mercy of the local agents. As for the agents, their very jobs depended on their ability to force the demands of the landlords. Father James’s terms “disheartening” and “distressing” intimate that a legal right was not the same as a moral one.
“I attended the meeting of the Poor Law Guardians of the Sligo Union. They are of the opinion that the central part of the county will not have a sufficient supply of potatoes for the winter and spring. …The necessity of organizing committees in particular districts [deferred until]…absolutely necessary [since it may]… unsettle the minds of the people.”
Thursday 27th November 1845. Francis Knox Gore to Sir Thomas Freemantle
Even as the extent of the crisis began to be realised, the leaders of the town seemed unwilling to take positive action. Knox Gore’s fear was that the formation of relief committees might worry the locals unduly. Perhaps this was the last gasp of an optimism that the situation might turn itself around. Clearly he anticipated what was later actualized: the development of food banks and resource centres to prevent absolute destitution.
His letter continued with the useful suggestion that mills at strategic points across the county might be used for the conversion of potatoes into farina (potato meal) to ensure minimum loss. The processing of the potatoes in this way would be unpopular (farina was used for cattle and pigs) but it was edible and it stemmed the wastage of good potatoes mixed with the bad.
A final piece written during that first Autumn of the Potato Famine summarized the rapid spread of difficulties in the Sligo region and suggested methods of redress:
“That the potato disease has prevailed and continues to progress… that numbers of the poorest classes, totally dependent on their conacre potato crops which have particularly suffered, must be driven to the markets for food which it will be impossible for them to purchase unless afforded early, special and continued employment …that depots or stores of provisions should be established to supply food on reasonable terms…that we apprehend the worst results unless prompt and adequate measures be adopted…”
Wednesday 10th December 1845. Resolution of Sligo Board of Guardians
RLFC 2/ Z.17842
After only four months, the recognition is made that it would be the poorest who would suffer, and that to counterbalance that, relief work projects would need to be put in hand to ensure that they were able to pay for their own subsistence. The report also stipulates that -whether or not it unsettled people,- the setting up of district food stores was now urgent and essential. All in all, the resolution calls for an intensive government intervention of “prompt and adequate measures”.
What could not be foreseen at this stage was how bad things were about to get.