Famine changed Ireland forever – but as Ray O’Connor explains, subsistence farming and poverty continued, as the transition to a monetized economy was not easy

Ireland changed dramatically in the wake of the Great Famine. But at the root of the transformative demographic, social, economic and cultural discontinuities that occurred in the post-Famine era were strong elements of continuity.

Throughout the last decades of the 19th century, some farmers and laborers who worked on small, marginal farms remained entrenched in the potato-based subsistence economy. Until the mid-1890s, many features of the pre-Famine period, such as extreme poverty, hunger, and recurring famine conditions, persisted in many rural areas.

Persistence of sustenance

The post-Famine years were characterized by a restructuring of the rural economy. From the 1850s and until the early 1870s, Irish agricultural production increased, the standard of living improved and, with the exception of the years 1859-64, Ireland experienced a period of agricultural prosperity.

Remittances from those who emigrated during and after the Great Famine helped those who remained to engage in a monetized economy. The two decades since the end of the Great Famine saw the emergence in rural Irish society of a stronger middle class comprising farmers, tax collectors, shopkeepers and the Catholic clergy. However, the economic progress of the 1850s and 1860s came to a screeching halt in the 1870s.

From the 1870s, changing international agricultural production practices, advancements in food processing technologies and developments in transport impacted global business models and undermined Ireland’s competitiveness. and Europe.

However, as other European countries have invested in agriculture, improved their competitiveness and increased their market share, Ireland’s production and processing methods have fossilized and its hygiene and quality standards have grown. are deteriorated. Ireland has also been affected by changing consumer tastes which has seen a significant drop in demand in Britain for salted butter.

Changing consumer tastes meant Britain no longer wanted to buy so much Irish salted butter

Economic depression

An economic depression occurred in the mid-1870s when agricultural products, initially originating in the United States (and in the 1880s and 1890s from Ukraine, Australia, Canada, Russia and the Argentina), flooded European markets and caused commodity prices to deflate.

This coincided with a series of crop failures in Ireland and Europe, putting the entire Irish farming system under great pressure. For those farmers who had successfully made the transition to commercial farming, this meant a significant loss of income.

There were more serious consequences, however, for subsistence farmers and farm workers in remote rural areas who lacked cash reserves or access to loans to purchase food in times of scarcity. For them, the potato was still essential for survival and they were extremely vulnerable to the effects of prolonged severe climatic conditions and localized small-scale famines in the late 1870s.

The Land League

Popular movements advocating agrarian agitation take root in areas where food shortages and famines recur. The Mayo Land League was formed in the summer of 1879 as a reaction to widespread famine, evictions and poverty.

Michael davit
Michael Davitt in the early 1890s Photo: Print Collector / Getty Images

Its founder, Michael Davitt, gave voice to a growing wave of support for land reform, and the movement quickly spread, particularly in the west and southwest. Agrarian and political goals aligned in October 1879 with the formation of the Irish National League for Land under the leadership of constitutional nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell.

The extent to which potato-based subsistence farming persisted in Ireland until the late 19th century is evidenced by recurrent localized famines in 1877-1881, 1890-1891, 1894-1895 and 1897 -1898. Each poor potato harvest, each prolonged period of bad weather brought back horrible memories of the devastation caused by the Great Famine and raised fears that food shortages of the same magnitude would recur.

The return of the plague

The reappearance of potato blight in the 1870s was particularly disturbing. When the subsistence economy collapsed, the only recourse for many poor rural people, to whom banks refused to lend, was to access credit from pawn shops or pawn shops.

The infamous “gombeen man”, many of whom also acted as publicans and traders, lived among the population and exploited to the maximum the lack of regulation and supervision governing their activities in remote and isolated rural areas.

This informal lending and operating sector flourished between the 1860s and 1890s, but because extension of credit was not on the books, their locations and scope of operations did not been registered. The only insight into the geography of access to credit during this period is provided by pawn shops.

These regulated companies were generally based in large cities and it is widely believed that they primarily catered to an urban clientele. While this is generally correct, in times of extreme deprivation it is known that people in rural areas frequently traveled up to twenty miles to pledge their few possessions for cash so that they could buy food to survive.

The rise and fall of pawn shops

Tracing the expansion and contraction of pawn shop activity in the second half of the 19th century provides insight into the engagement of the lower classes in the monetized economy.

The virtual elimination of the cottier class during the famine along with the arrival of remittances from abroad and a long period of economic prosperity precipitated the spread of pawn shops across the country from the 1850s. Pawn shops were for-profit business ventures.

People line up at a pawnshop in the 1870s
The pawn’s office at Merthyr-Tydfil, Wales, 1875, as seen in The Illustrated London News, (February 20, 1875). The Irish flocked to pawn shops during the post-Famine years, peaking in the 1870s. Source: The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images

The expansion in the number and distribution of pawn shops from 439 in 117 locations in 1846, to 616 in 162 locations in 1870, demonstrated a sharp increase in demand for their services. It also demonstrates increasing levels of engagement with the monetized economy in the two decades immediately following the Great Famine.

By 1870, the presence of pawn shops in all the counties of Ireland and their spread through the hierarchy of settlements to small towns and villages signaled the beginning of a move away from total subsistence. Pawn shops established in settlements where they perceived a market for their services existed and operated in those areas only as long as it was profitable.

The demand for pawn shop services declined with the onset of the economic depression in the 1870s and by 1893 the number of pawn shops was reduced to 420, less than there had been in 1846. This decline between 1870 and 1893 represented a withdrawal of pawn shops from forty-two of the small towns.

In Munster, County Cork, the number of pawn shops increased from eighty-four operating in twenty localities in 1870 to forty-six in fourteen localities in 1893; in Limerick the number of pawn shops has grown from thirty-four operating in seven locations to twenty in four locations and in Waterford the number has grown from twenty-six to nine.

In Ulster, County Down, the number of pawn shops increased from thirty-three in thirteen locations in 1870 to twelve in seven locations in 1893 and in Armagh from twenty-four in seven locations to ten in three locations . In each of the counties of Galway, Sligo and Roscommon, the number of pawn shops halved between 1870 and 1893.

Distribution of pawn shops in Ireland in 1847. For a closer look, click on here.

The rise and fall of hard cash

This reduction in the number of pawn shops illustrates the contraction of the monetized economy, as small farmers, unable to access other sources of credit, have returned to subsistence farming.

The two decades following the Great Famine saw higher levels of engagement in the monetized economy among lower social classes. The spread of pawn shops to smaller settlements between 1846 and 1870 was indicative of these regions’ shift to a more hybrid subsistence economy that involved more frequent cash transactions.

Therefore, the increase in the number of pawn shops until 1870 and the expansion of the locations in which they operated testify to a decline in exclusively subsistence practices.

Impoverishment, subsistence and the threat of famine

The impact of the economic recession of the 1870s was profound. It was a decade of misery and impoverishment and much of the progress made by the lower social classes to integrate into the monetized economy has been lost.

A family in front of the ruins of their house in 1888
A family in the ruins of their home in Killarney, 1888 in a private collection. Photo: Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

The famine conditions of 1877-81 could only have happened in a cashless subsistence economy. While the subsistence economy of the potato had never completely disappeared, the fact that the conditions of famine reappeared in 1890-1891, 1894-1895 and 1897-1898 testifies to the degree to which the subsistence economy has. reappeared and persisted.

The contraction of pawn shops in small colonies between 1870 and 1893 reflected the decline of the monetized economy. In fifteen counties (including the six counties of Munster and all of Connacht counties except Mayo) there were fewer pawn shops operating in fewer places in 1893 than there had been. in 1846.

The changing geography of pawn shops illustrates not only the persistence, but the re-emergence of the subsistence economy, the largely ignored levels of misery and impoverishment, and the recurring threat of famine in the closing decades of the 19th century.

Sources: Slater’s National Business Directory of Ireland (1846); Report of the Special Committee on Pawnbrokers; as well as the deliberations of the committee, the minutes of testimony and the appendix (July 1870); Pawnbrokers (Ireland), Return to an Order of the Honorable The House of Commons, (February 20, 1893)

This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the great Irish famine. Its content does not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.

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