Irish Potato Famine - The Great Hunger - FROM COTTAGES to BOG HOVELS

FROM COTTAGES to BOG HOVELS (Illustration) Famous Historical Events Geography History Social Studies STEM World History Disasters

In 1844 (although some accounts say 1845), Francis William Topham (father of twelve children) created this pencil-and-watercolor painting which depicts a “Cottage Interior, Claddagh, Galway.”  It was the year before the late blight began to infect Ireland’s potato crop and reveals that some of the residents in The Claddagh area were already living in difficult conditions.  The work is now owned by the Ulster Museum. Click on the image for a better view.


Some of the evicted Irish tenant-farmers, with no place to go and little to eat, tried to shelter their families by living in holes dug in the Irish bog. Others constructed scalpeen inside abandoned, roofless houses.

In early 1847, The Illustrated London News published drawings of areas particularly hard-hit by famine in the western part of Ireland.  Its February 13th and 20th issues included stories about how difficult it was for people to cope.

People in the village of Meinies (seen below) were having a particularly hard time. Famine victims were dying but there were insufficient funds to have proper burials. Reporters and artists, trying to gather the facts, had a hard time believing the stories they were hearing.

William Bennett, who made a 6-week visit to Ireland in 1847, writes:

Many of the cabins were holes in the bog, covered with a layer of turves, and not distinguishable as human habitations from the surrounding moor, until close down upon them. The bare sod was about the best material of which any of them were constructed. Doorways, not doors, were usually provided at both sides of the bettermost-back and front- to take advantage of the way of the wind. Windows and chimneys, I think, had no existence. (William Bennett, Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six Weeks in Ireland, 1847, page 25.)

What did Bennett find inside such a cabin? Children so pathetic it made Bennett’s hand tremble as he wrote his account.

My hand trembles while I write. The scenes of human misery and degradation we witnessed still haunt my imagination, with the vividness and power of some horrid and tyrannous delusion, rather than the features of a sober reality. We entered a cabin.

Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible, from the smoke and rags that covered them, were three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs-on removing a portion of the filthy covering - perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stage of actual starvation. Crouched over the turf embers was another form, wild and all but naked, scarcely human in appearance. It stirred not, nor noticed us. (Bennett, page 26.)

Who cared for these suffering children?

On some straw, soddened upon the ground, moaning piteously, was a shriveled old woman, imploring us to give her something, - baring her limbs partly, to show how the skin hung loose from the bones, as soon as she attracted our attention. Above her, on something like a ledge, was a young woman, with sunken cheeks, - a mother I have no doubt,-who scarcely raised her eyes in answer to our enquiries, but pressed her hand upon her forehead, with a look of unutterable anguish and despair.  (Bennett, page 27.)

Unfortunately, Bennett’s first-hand account* does not describe an isolated event. Other primary sources depict many families enduring the same kind of horror. Whole villages of healthy peasants were turned into evicted, starving, rag-clad people for whom death became a relief.

Within a few years, Irish tenant-farmers had gone from living in cottages (which landlords destroyed), to living in hovels, to living in earthen holes. The Illustrated London News published a sketch (in its December 29, 1849 issue), together with these words (from a longer article):

On arriving at the bog of Cahuermore [Cahermore], I alighted at the scalp shown in the Sketch, which Mr. Monsel and his companions discovered to their surprise, and found in it a woman dying of the customary fever which attends on want of food and clothing and the ordinary necessaries of life.

Than this scalp [located not far from the village of Kilmurry, in County Cork, where 604 homes had been deliberately leveled “in the last two years”], nothing could be more wretched. It was placed in a hole, surrounded by pools, and three sides of the scalp (shown in the Sketch) were dripping with water, which ran in small streams over the floor and out by the entrance. Yet, wretched as this hole is, the poor inhabitants said they would be thankful and content if the landlord would leave them there, and the Almighty would spare their lives.

*  While William Bennett was preparing his letters for publication as a book, during the summer of 1847, another work (in three volumes) was being readied for release in October of the same year.  Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë -  a novel which explores still-relevant issues (like bullying) and topics (like becoming independent despite class and gender discrimination) - remains popular with modern readers, movie-goers and television-watchers.      

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jan 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Mar 17, 2016

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"FROM COTTAGES to BOG HOVELS" AwesomeStories.com. Jan 01, 2002. May 31, 2020.
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