By Johnny Burke
The early years of the Irish Free State were full of turmoil, beginning with the conflict between Pro- and Anti-Treaty factions which we know as the Civil War. After the cessation of hostilities in May of 1923, the country was in a ruinous state, with many roads and bridges blown up and in general disrepair. Cumann na nGaedheal was the party in government, with only the Labour Party in opposition due to the abstention of Sinn F\’ein. The financial situation was also dire, and the Government responded with austerity; cutting the old age pension by 10%, introducing a 7 day working week and slashing the wages of farm labourers by 16%. This latter tactic highlighted an objective of the Government which was to support the big farmers, with the aim that agricultural production would be the driving force behind economic recovery.
By 1925, reports were coming in of severe food shortages in West Donegal, Connemara, West Clare and parts of Kerry. These areas were known as the Congested Districts. Two years of extremely wet weather in 1923 and 1924 had severely damaged the potato crop, while leaving turf unsalvageable in the bogs. As early as 1923, the Irish Independent of 22 December carried an astonishing report of starvation in Gweedore, West Donegal:
‘Chronic unemployment and the absence of means to obtain even the barest necessaries for existence are held responsible for the death of one woman whose husband and six young children have been conveyed to the county home Stranorlar, weak and emaciated from hunger’.
With unemployment high across the country, the extreme West began to suffer from a shortage of food, which was heightened by a lack of fuel for people to keep warm in their homes. Local and national newspapers carried reports of famine. The following headline from the Connacht Tribune of 7 February 1925 read: `Deaths from starvation in Connemara’. The report stated that the combined effects of two wet years and the failure of kelp and fishing industries was disastrous in westernmost districts. The report added: `These poor people conceal their poverty, sometimes even from one another.’ The Irish Independent of 6 February 1925 gave the high incidence of winter storms as the reason for the lack of fish. The paper also highlighted the lack of turf as a major economic disaster for the region because the people there normally sold turf to make a living.
However, despite the government response, there appears to have been an attempt by politicians to cover up this tragic event. Two things appear to have caused a shift in government thinking. The first, a report from the Manchester Guardian in February 1925 which reported famine conditions in the West of Ireland. The second, a telegram from the editor of the Boston Globe seeking Government clarification on whether a famine existed in Ireland seems to have sent shockwaves through the political and business classes. So much so, that on 13 February 1925, the Minister for Land and Agriculture Patrick J Hogan stood up in Dáil Éireann and said:
`There is no abnormal distress in the West this year. I say that definitely and deliberately. There is always distress in the West […] the distress this year is not, taking the whole congested districts into account, particularly unique […] and there was no failure of potatoes this year, except in one or two limited areas’.
Hogan was a native of Cloonmain, Loughrea in County Galway, so how could he deny the severity of the distress in newspaper reports? This seems all the more incredible when the Minister’s own departmental secretary F.J. Merrick described the 1924 potato crop as `practically a complete failure’. Looking at attitudes of that time, it could be argued that there was a class distinction in evidence. In a letter written in 1921 about the poor of Irish society, the then Minister for Local Government of the Provisional Government, W.T. Cosgrave stated:
‘People reared in workhouses […] are no great acquisition to the community and they have no ideas whatsoever of civic responsibilities. As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently, it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate. When they go abroad they are thrown on their own responsibilities and have to work whether they like it or not.’
Cosgrave would go on to become leader of Cumann na nGaedheal and of the Irish Free State from 1922-32. Meanwhile, the Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe warned that the use of the word famine `will do great harm to our credit in every way unless it is immediately countered’. It would appear that the headlines from overseas were embarrassing for the new Government who were attempting to establish the principle that the Irish could not only govern themselves, but could look after its own people.
It could also be argued that the 1925 hunger was used as a political football by Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson. The secretary of Workers International Relief (WIR) Helen Crawford, who had been providing food and clothing to the worst hit areas, appealed to Johnson to aid the relief effort. He refused, comparing the actions of the WIR to that of ”souperism”. Ironically, it appears that Johnson was distancing himself from a socialist organisation.
The Government did respond with a total relief package of approximately £500,000 which included relief works schemes, seed potatoes, fuel and clothing. Private relief was dispensed by the aforementioned WIR, by the Lady Dudley Nursing association, United Irishwomen and Save the Children, while donations were sent from America and elsewhere. The hunger crisis was ended by good weather in the summer of 1925, with a plentiful harvest, but unemployment and the struggle for survival remained on the western seaboard.
Sources & Further Reading:
- Connacht Tribune
- Irish Independent
- Fin Dwyer, ‘1925 – Ireland’s Forgotten Famine’ in Irish History Podcast – https://irishhistorypodcast.ie/1925-irelands-forgotten-famine/
- Una Newell, The West Must Wait: County Galway and the Irish Free State 1922-32 (Manchester, 2013)
- Timothy P. O’Neill, Minor Famines and Relief in County Galway, 1815-1925 in Gerard Moran and Raymond Gillespie (eds), Galway: History & Society (Dublin, 1996) pp. 445-78.
- Adrian Grant, “‘Workers to the rescue’: Workers’ International Relief in Ireland, 1925” in History Ireland – https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/workers-to-the-rescueworkers-international-relief-in-ireland-1925/
- Dáil Éireann Debates, Friday, 13 February 1925 Vol. 10, No. 3 – https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/1925-02-13/19/\#spk\_89
Note: This article originally appeared in our Winter 2018 Newsletter.