Why was the famine in West Ireland not foreseen? Why were there no structures for support already in place?
The major reason for the devastation caused by the failure of the potato crops was the lack of alternative resources. Father James (see post below) had pointed out the invidiousness of exporting those alternatives, and the Sligo Champion noted the dependency of a whole class of people upon one foodstuff.
But even earlier in 1845, before the blight had arrived, a Royal Commission had made this description of the working class inhabitants of the County Sligo area:
It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they (the Irish labourer and his family) habitually and silently endure… in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water… their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather… a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury… and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.
Royal Commission: February 1845
Earlier still, as reported in the Census of 1841, housing was divided into four classes – the lowest class consisted of windowless mud cabins of a single room. Nearly half of the families living in the countryside were found to be living in the lowest class of housing.
Perhaps the evidence supplied by John McMahon –a wealthy farmer in Limerick- to the Committee on Agriculture in 1833 suggests what contemporary life may have been like in the villages and farmsteads of County Sligo:
Do the peasantry eat wheaten bread at all? Never except two days in the year.
What are those days? Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.
What do they live upon? Potatoes and milk.
Nothing else? Nothing else.
How is the labourer worse off than he was? In not having work. Many have told me they would be the happiest people that there could be in the world if they could have work six months in the year at eightpence a day.
Have all those labourers little patches of land of their own? Yes.
How much? Generally an acre.
What do they pay? The fortunate man will have to pay from £5 to £8 a year but will have
to sell his pig to pay his rent.
Do they all wear shoes and stockings? They do, most of them, but boys of 15 or 16 years you may see not wearing a shoe or a stocking.
In the hilly or mountain districts is that the case? In the mountain districts there are great numbers of them bare legged, men and women.
Committee on Agriculture, 1833
The scene was set: the fragile balance between poverty and destitution depended upon the success of the potato crop.
And the crop failed.