The Great Famine in Mallow - Cause and Effect



Seventy years before the great famine of 1845-56 Mallow and the country around were in the process of change. Agricultural in the area was based on a twofold system;

- a grass farming economy providing wool, meat and butter for the growing export trade of Cork..

- a subsistence peasant economy based on the potato garden.

"The poor lived entirely on their potatoe garden and on such work as they could find on large farms now mostly given over to livestock. In the lowland areas north of Mallow, an Irish acre under potatoe could support seven or eight people. Wheat, barley and oats were grown in rotation. In the mountainous district to the south, potatoes and oats were the only crops, though there was still a domestic stocking industry to provide employment." (Brookfield, H.C., 1952) In striking contrast to this poverty was the affluence of the "gentry" and some wealthy farmers living in the locality.

In 1773 the Dublin Society "requested from Church of Ireland parish clergy reports detailing their parishes". The subsequent report from Mallow foresaw great want, extreme poverty and a continual drain of emigration unless the policy of putting good land down to pasture was speedily reversed. Rapid increases in population created some change as more land had to be used for the subsistence of peasants and the labouring poor.

Such was the background of the Mallow area when the blight struck in 1845 and the famine with all its horrors started.

In 1846 the Mallow Relief Committee was formed to examine conditions in the Mallow and Rahan areas. In the town itself, they found that labourers were without employment, potatoes, fuel, bedding or any clothes beyond the barest necessities. Few earned more than 5/‑ a week, whilst most families tended to be large. It was not uncommon for a family's every asset to be pledged to a pawnbroker. Work, when available, was only for a few days at a time. When there was no work available labourers "fasted on the idle days". One declared, "Ye must always spare and keep for the belly". Mallow district in 1846 was a place where the poor peasant and labourer suffered near starvation, under-employment, rack‑renting and grinding rural indebtedness to moneylenders and gombeen men.
Mallow Workhouse



The building of Mallow workhouse was first considered in 1839. Buttevant was also proposed as a possible site around the same time. The Poor Law Commission met and Mallow became the chosen site by a one vote majority. Those that voted for Mallow took into account that the greatest poverty was in the Mallow area. The workhouse was built in 1842 and admitted 16 occupants the first day it opened. The workhouse operated in constant financial difficulty and the guardians were often forced to cut back on food and heating. Those who suffered the most as a result of the mismanagement were the very people for whom the workhouse was built (Mallow Field Journal, 1984).

Pauper inmates increased in numbers throughout the famine years; in 1845 there was a total of 196 inmates. this figure increased to 2,134 by 1849. The inmates of the workhouse endured terrible hardships throughout these years due to the inefficiencies of the guardians, who were largely comprised of the rich landlords and public officials of Mallow Union.
Mallow Union & Poor Law Relief

It has often been stated that Mallow did not suffer as much as other towns in county Cork during the famine years. This assumption is based on the fact that there was very little Poor Law Relief distributed in the town. More than half of its population, a very high percentage compared to surrounding unions, was composed of landless labourers who were badly effected by the potatoe failure. In addition, Mallow's small holding class was reduced by three‑fifths during the famine years.

Three factors play a role in explaining why Mallow Union did not receive as much Poor Law Relief as other unions;

1. The landlords within the union needed a relatively large number of agricultural labourers to work their vast holdings.

2. The Great Southern and Western railway was constructed in the Mallow area during the famine years and with it came a strong demand for local labour.

3. The niggardly way in which Mallow guardians discharged their obligations towards the poor kept down the Relief rolls on the one hand, while exacerbating the distress of the labourers and small holders on the other (Connelly, L, 1975).
Population in the Union


The population in the Mallow Union in 1841 was estimated at 64,364. By 1851 this figure had fallen to 42,145 - a decrease of 34.5%. The fall in population can be attributed to three main factors;

- Deaths from starvation, dysentery and cholera.

- Transportation for stealing was a common event.

- Emigration ‑ so great was the demand for state aided emigration by women who entered the workhouse that the scheme had to be suspended.

Deaths from starvation and disease ‑ direct results of the famine ‑ were undeniably the most significant factor in contributing to this decline in population. Consequently, there can be little doubt as to the severity of the effects of the famine within the Mallow Union.



The number of people who perished in the Great Famine will never be known due to a combination of incomplete censusual data before 1841 and the failure to record death rates in the years during the famine. Hundreds died unknown as complete families were eliminated by starvation and disease (Litton, H., 1994). Various estimates place the death toll at between one and one and a half million. Another million people emigrated during the same period, and in the years that followed emigration levels continued to grow and reach new heights. The population of Ireland never fully recovered and to this day has not exceeded pre‑famine figures. The Irish way of life had begun to change and the gulf between Ireland and England had deepened, foretelling of trouble in the years ahead.

However, the Irish famine was not inevitable. Deaths from starvation and disease could had been mitigated, if not avoided, had certain factors been diffirent;

1. There was an over‑dependency amongst the poor on a single source of food i.e. the potato. Under such circumstances, any crop failure was bound to lead to disaster.

2. The response of the British government following the change of Prime Minister in 1846 was slow. The general attitude was that conditions in Ireland were being exaggerated, that the government should not interfere with the free workings of the market and that Irish landlords, on the whole, were a bloated and irresponsible breed (Hoppen, T.K., 1989).

3. Some landlords did their best to help the poor in their areas. A number of them set up work schemes on their estates, allowing labourers to earn money to feed themselves. Some even provided food for the starving in their area. However, a significant proportion of land owners welcomed the opportunity to clear their lands of cottiers and small holders. The worst of these were the large farmers ‑ it was not uncommon for them to with hold plots from those who could not pay in advance, and even wages from those to whom only cash could ensure the most minimal of diets (Connelly, J., 1975).

As in all agrarian disasters, the people who benefited the most from the famine were not the landlords, but the large farmers. If one looks to any of the famine black spots of the world today, one can see many economic and political similarities in them to the events which shaped the Irish Famine of 1845‑49, and even the same scenario.
Authors Note:

The author would like to end this essay on a note of interest. In 1984 Mallow castle was sold to Michael McGinn. Mr. McGinn's ancestors had emigrated from Ireland and settled in America during the years of the Great Irish Famine.


Daly, M, (1981) "A Social and Economic History of Ireland Since 1800".

Daly, M, (1986) " The Famine in Ireland".

Donnelly, L, (1975) "The Land and People of 19th Century Cork".

Edwards and Williams (1956) 'The Great Famine".

Hoppen, K.T., (1989) "1reland Since 1800".

Litton, H, (1994) "The Irish Famine".

Mallow Field Club Journal (1983)

Mallow Field Club Journal (1984)

O'Grada, C, (1989) "The Great Irish Famine".

O'Grada, C, (1993) "1reland Before and After the Famine".