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IRISH HISTORY - Background

We do not know the circumstances of our Gallagher and Mulrooney family in Ireland, however here is a summary of Ireland at the time of the Potatoe famine from sources found on the internet.

2013 10 29 Irish House

Typical Irish Crofters House

In order to understand the impact of the famine we need to understand a little of the reasons for mass emigration from Ireland at that time. Emigration to North America had begun in earnest in the early 1700s. However, during the rule of The Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland - Oliver Cromwell - in the mid 1600's - over 100,000 Irish people were deported for petty crime, trouble making and as 'enemies of the state'. This steady flow of people from Ireland has, in effect, lasted for over 350 years.
By 1850 the residents of New York were 26% Irish. It is estimated that over the last three centuries or more, 7 million have left Ireland for America and that the Irish Diaspora in that country alone probably accounts for approximately 40 million.

Ireland's history is that of a proud but oppressed nation. For seven hundred years before the famine the lands of the Irish were confiscated by supporting foreign armies of warring chieftains and given to their noblemen leaders as reward. During the time of Cromwell and his invading armies the Irish were dispossessed, the monasteries sacked and the evicted people then became tenants working the land for the 'planted' owners. Many of the landowners were absentee landlords, extracting rent from their tenants, and placing agents in positions of authority. The enactment of the Penal Laws in 1695 forbade Irish Catholics from practicing their faith and the vast majority of wealthy Catholics were stripped of their wealth, their positions, their estates and their homes, leaving them virtually paupers.

No Irish Catholic could own land, have a vote, hold office, own a sword, keep a gun or own a horse of any worth. Education of Catholics was forbidden and, where priests had been providing the education, there then appeared the famous 'hedge schools' which secretly provided an education for those who dared attend. Catholic religious ceremonies were forbidden and the countryside is now dotted with Mass rocks where the people met secretly in fields in order to continue to attend Mass.
Produce from Ireland's rich agricultural countryside was harvested, transported east and the larger amounts shipped to Britain for the absentee landlords and the British markets. The Irish, many of them as tenant farmers on what used to be their own land, were allowed only to raise a small crop of potatoes, turnips and cabbage, their main diet. What little they had was shared with friends and neighbours.

The Penal Laws imposed a tax on every Irish person and the ability to pay was impossible as the Irish, in their own country, had nothing. Eventually this tax was passed on to the landowners for every one of their tenants. With no rents coming in from the poverty stricken Irish and evictions taking place on a daily basis many landowners found the cheapest solution was to buy passage out of the country for their tenants. Some landlords paid as little as was necessary to get their starving tenants away from Ireland and, for most, this passage was in the foulest of the foul of conditions. Is it any wonder the ships were fever-ridden?
There were famine years before the Great Famine but this was on a scale as never before. The clamour of the people to get away from their beloved Erin in the years 1845 - 1851, rather then remain and die of starvation or live under the rule of tyranny, saw the need to increase sailings by the shipping lines.
This resulted in an increase from the normal sailings of the time in spring and summer to include the severe autumn and winter months. Ships normally equipped to carry 150 passengers or so increased their capacity almost two-fold making conditions deplorable.

In 1800, some four and one-half million people lived in Ireland. By the autumn of 1845, when the Great Famine struck Ireland, there were more than eight million. This was the largest increase in the population of Ireland in its history, an increase estimated at 172%. By the time of the Famine, Ireland's population of poor was very high, and its population of landlords was very low (est. 5000).

The "white" potato, known today as the Irish potato, originated in the Andean Mountains. In 1532 the Spanish arrived in north Peru and it is speculated that they brought the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. By 1800, the potato had taken root and ninety percent of the Irish population was dependent on the potato as an export crop and more importantly as a means of feeding the population of the poor for their primary calorific intake.

In September of 1845, a fungus called Phytophthora infestans was infecting Ireland's potato crops and led to a devastation of the potato crops, no food and no seeds. About half the Irish potato crop failed in 1845 and led to the event generally known as ‘The Great Famine’ in Ireland.

The next year, 1846, the crop was destroyed again. By 1847 (Black '47) the impact of the famine spelled doom for Ireland. Although a great number of the people fled the country between 1846 and 1851 a large proportion of the population died from disease or starvation. This event is well noted as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 19th century. The blight provided the catalyst for the famine, the calamity was essentially man-made, a poison of blind politics, scientific ignorance, rural suppression, and the enforced poverty of the people.

Many Irish and indeed English landlords exported badly needed grain to England for profit, instead of retaining it for the poorer classes (cottiers and labourers). Without crops or employment the tenants could no longer pay rent, so many lost the lands they rented and their landlords exported grain and cattle to offset their losses. The effect of this was multiplied by the fact that the English parliament was reluctant to send any food to Ireland. One official declared in 1846, "It is not the intention to import food for the use of the people of Ireland."

This would seem to indicate that our family ancestors were poor, Gaelic speaking and lived through the period when the potato crops failed and the profitable export of grain and cattle from Ireland to the UK was allowed to continue. As wealthy farmers and landowners profited, their tenants starved to death. London was widely accused of doing too little too late by way of relief. Ireland lost a quarter of its eight million population in six years. In Sligo, 29% of the population emigrated in the years 1841 – 1851.

The overall impacts of the Famine included:

  • The decline of the Irish language and customs (in 1835, the number of native Irish speakers was estimated at four million -- in 1851, only 2 million spoke Irish as their first language)
  • The devastation of the landless labourer class and small tenant farmer.
  • A treeless landscape in many parts of Ireland.
  • The shells of homes and "mud" cabins that were rendered uninhabitable.
  • A treeless landscape in many parts of Ireland.
  • The shells of homes and "mud" cabins that were rendered uninhabitable.
  • a massive decrease in farms of 15 acres and less. The 1841 census showed that 45% of land holdings were less than five acres. In 1851 this was 15%.
  • Irish emigrants scattered around the globe
  • Irish emigrants scattered around the globe


Today there are over 5 million people in Ireland, while it is estimated there are upwards of 70 million people of Irish descent throughout the world.

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