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Ireland and The Great Hunger. A Timeline.


The Parliament in Westminster passed an Act of Union formally uniting Ireland with Britain and abolished the Irish parliament. The Act of Union entailed the loss of legislative independence of Ireland. It became effective on January 1, 1801. Catholics could not vote in the Westminster parliament.


The first Christian Brother School was opened in Waterford.


July 23, Irish patriots throughout the country rebelled against Union with Great Britain. Robert Emmet led the insurrection in Dublin.  Emmet was executed on September 20.


Commencement of the War of 1812 when the United States declared war against Great Britain and Ireland.


Police Force established in Ireland (it subsequently became the Irish Constabulary). 


Daniel O'Connell, a Catholic barrister, helped found the Catholic Association.  It sought to bring about ‘Catholic Emancipation’, that is, giving Catholics the right to sit in the Westminster parliament.


Catherine McAuley (1787-1841), founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin. 


Daniel O’Connell was elected in a by-election in County Clare. As a Catholic, he could not take his seat in parliament.


O’Connell ‘s electoral success resulted in the granting of Catholic Emancipation, giving Catholics throughout the United Kingdom the right to sit in the Westminster parliament.  O’Connell’s achievement was celebrated by the Catholic throughout the world. He then turned his attention to repealing the Union with Britain. Increasingly, nationalist sentiments became identified mainly with Catholics.


Victoria accedes to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland.


A Poor Law, based on the English model, was introduced to Ireland. The country was divided into 130 Poor Law ‘unions’, each with its own workhouse.


Daniel O’Connell founded the Loyal National Repeal Association, which aimed to overturn the Act of Union of 1800.


A General Election in the United Kingdom gives Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative Party a majority in the House of Commons.


A group of supporters of O’Connell establish a newspaper, the Nation, which promotes cultural nationalism. The group was referred to as ‘Young Ireland’.


O’Connell announced that this would be ‘Repeal Year’, that is, the year that the Act of Union would be overturned. But the year ended disastrously and O’Connell was briefly imprisoned in the following year.


In August, the Irish potato crop was attacked by a previously unknown fungus, Phytophthora infestans. It was first noticed in counties Dublin and Fermanagh.  The disease blackened the potato leaves and caused the tubers in the ground to putrefy. In this year, approximately  40 per cent of the crop was infected.  The British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, introduces a number of measures (public works, financial grants, opening relief depots, importing food), which proved to be successful. Nobody died in the first year of shortages.


The British Prime Minister, Peel, uses the appearance of blight in Ireland to repeal the Corn Laws.  The Corn Laws had taxed imported oats, wheat and barley, and so kept prices artificially high.  Many members of the Conservative Party did not support Peel and in June 1846, he resigned as Premier.

The blight returned to Ireland, but it appeared earlier in the harvest season and was far more destructive than in the previous year. As Ireland’s potato crop was consumed by blight. The nation’s peasants, who relied on the potato as their primary food source, starved. The famine took as many as one million lives from hunger and disease and caused mass emigration. After 1846, the British government responded to the calamity too late and with too little aid, even though eyewitnesses reported the suffering in the press and government officials kept politicians and civil servants informed about the unfolding tragedy and the consequent mortality.

Young Ireland leave O’Connell’s Repeal Association
June 27, Charles Stewart Parnell (d.1891), Irish nationalist leader, was born.


The public works are closed down and replaced by government soup kitchens. At harvest, the Poor Law is made responsible for providing all relief. This change confirms the principle that Irish taxes should pay for Irish distress.  A Vagrancy Act was also introduced to combat begging as famine swept Ireland.

May – O’Connell died in Genoa, Italy, en route to see the Pope. Although there was little blight on the potato, the crop was small.

November -  Dennis Mahon, a landowner in  Strokestown, County Roscommon, was shot dead in an ambush. He had thrown thousands of poor farmers off the land during the famine and had paid to have some 1000 small farmers shipped to North America so he could establish larger farms. Many died en route. His murder caused outrage in Britain.   


Over one million people were dependent on the Poor Law for relief, demonstrating that the Famine was far from over.

John Mitchel, a radical member of Young Ireland, was transported to Bermuda. He blamed the British government for the suffering of the Irish people.

July 29 A small rebellion against British rule was put down in County Tipperary.  It was led by William Smith O'Brien of Young Ireland. The leaders were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, although in the following year, this was commuted to transportation.


A ‘rate-in-aid’ tax was introduced into Ireland: a tax was levied on each Poor Law Union in Ireland and then re-distributed to the poorest unions by the British Treasury.


Lady (Isabella Augusta) Gregory, Irish playwright, was born. She helped found the Abbey Theatre. Her husband, William Gregory, had been responsible for the 1847 ‘Gregory Clause’ that had stipulated that any person who occupied more than one quarter of an acre of land could not receive relief.


October 16, the writer Oscar Wilde was born (as Fingal O'Flahertie Wills). His mother, Lady Jane (Speranza) Wilde, also a gifted writer, had been a member of Young Ireland. Her harrowing poem, ‘The Famine Year’, was published in the Nation in 1847.


The dramatist George Bernard Shaw was born.  His play, Man and Superman (1903) he refers to the years of suffering:

VIOLET. The Famine?  
MALONE [with smouldering passion] No, the starvation. When a country is full o food, and exporting it, there can be no famine. Me father was starved dead; and I was starved out to America in me mother’s arms. English rule drove me and mine out of Ireland.


March 17 - the Fenian Brotherhood, a brigade of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret revolutionary group, was founded in Dublin by James Stephens. John O'Mahony headed the IRB's American wing, popularly known as the Fenian Brotherhood, which was composed of immigrants and Irish Americans whose ultimate goal was to free Ireland from British rule and establish a republic.

August 5, Cyrus W. Field, an American entrepreneur, completed the first transatlantic cable. It linked Newfoundland to County Kerry in Ireland. The cable burned out after several weeks of use.


September 1, Roger David Casement, Irish nationalist (Easter Rising, 1916), was born.


June 13, William Butler Yeats (d.1939), Irish poet and playwright, was born. 

Maude Gonne, a militant Irish nationalist (the Irish Joan of Arc), was born.  An article, entitled ‘the Famine Queen’,  in which she criticized Queen Victoria for her heartlessness during the Famine, was banned in 1900 but it proved to be an enduring epitaph for the British monarch. 


June 2 - renegade Irish Fenians surrendered to US forces.


March -  an abortive Fenian uprising against British rule took place in Ireland. The unsuccessful rebellion by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, better known as the Fenians, gave Australia its final generation of transported  convicts.         

The ‘Manchester Martyrs’, three Fenian sympathizers, were executed in England, following an unsuccessful raid on Chester Castle.                

A.E. (George William Russell), Irish poet and mystic, was born.


April 7, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Irish patriot, author and former Young Irelander, was assassinated in Ottawa, Canada. Patrick J. Whelan, a Fenian sympathizer, was convicted and hanged for the crime.

May 26, Michael Barrett of Fermanagh, a Fenian, was executed in the last British public execution.


The Anglican Church in Ireland was disestablished, thus losing its special privileges.


Home Government Association was founded, which evolved into  the Home Rule movement.
British politician, William Gladstone, introduces the first Land Act, which improves conditions for the tenantry.


John Millington Synge, dramatist, poet, and author of Playboy of the Western World, was born.


Charles Stewart Parnell elected MP for County Meath.


The potato crop is poor leading to the threat of famine.  This results in an increase in evictions.

Land League founded.


The Land War. This period of passive resistance against evictions was master-minded by Michael Davitt, whose family had been evicted in 1846 from County Mayo.  The Parnell sisters played a key role also.


Irish tenant farmers, seeking rent cuts after poor harvests, staged a protest and refused to respond to eviction notices from estate manager Charles Boycott.  Boycott was an English land agent in Ireland, died in England. His tenants ‘boycotted’ him into poverty. The tactic of boycotting gave us the word whose last name became part of the English language.

Sean O'Casey, Irish playwright, was born: ‘It is my rule never to lose me temper till it would be detrimental to keep it’.


Gladstone's second Land Act.

Parnell imprisoned for his opposition to the Land Act.


The Kilmainham ‘Treaty’ was agreed between Gladstone and Parnell. It promised to improve the condition of tenants.  It was signed in Kilmainham Jail, where Parnell had been imprisoned.

Parnell's release from jail.

The Phoenix Park murders, when the Chief Secretary and the Permanent Under Secretary for Ireland were murdered in the Phoenix Park caused widespread outrage. The murder was carried out by a break-away republican group known as the Invincibles.

February 2, James Joyce, Irish novelist and poet, was born near Dublin. 

October 14, Éamon De Valera, survivor of the 1916 Rising and Taoiseach and President of Ireland, was born in New York.


The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded in Ireland to promote traditional Irish sports.


The first Home Rule Bill was introduced by Gladstone into the British parliament. It was defeated.

The Unionist Party, which opposed Home Rule for Ireland, was founded.


Barry Fitzgerald, actor, was born in Dublin.


Michael Collins, Irish republican and survivor of the 1916 Rising, was born in County Cork.

The Irish Nationalist Party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell, was set back when his long-term love affair with Katherine O’Shea was revealed in the London Times.


Parnell lost three by-elections in Ireland.  He died in England. He had been leader of the Irish nationalists in the British House of Commons from 1880 to 1890. Parnell’s popularity in Ireland was so great that he was called ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’.


The second Home Rule Bill was introduced into the British parliament but was defeated.

Gaelic League founded.


Liam O’Flaherty, Irish novelist, was born.

Bewley’s Oriental Cafes opened a shop on Westmoreland Street in Dublin, Ireland. It later became a hangout for James Joyce. 


Elizabeth Bowen, novelist and short story writer, was born in Dublin.


Queen Victoria, aged 82, visited Ireland for the fourth and last time. Her visit infuriated ‘advanced’ nationalists, such as Maud Gonne, and socialists, like James Connolly.