A travel blog of Ireland, Europe, and New Zealand


While still in Skibbereen we visited the Heritage Centre which is a memorial to those who died in the potato famine of the 1840s. They have a moving series of audio-visual displays which go into much detail about the famine and the lives of those who lived and died through it. There is no way that we can represent in a few words here the sheer awfulness of life in rural Ireland at that time but a couple of observations may be helpful.

The famine was caused by a potato blight which spread rapidly and destroyed most of the crop over several years. For a more indepth description, see this site which includes the following extract:

Starving Irish peasants tried to eat the rotten potatoes and fell ill to cholera and typhus and whole villages were struck down. Many landlords evicted the starving tenants who could be found dying on sides of roads with mouths green from eating grass to fill their bellies. Other families were sent to workhouses where the overcrowding and poor conditions led to more starvation, sickness, and ultimately death.

Potatoes were the staple diet for most people because they were the only crop that could be grown on small parcels of land and still feed a family. The average adult labourer ate about 6kg of potatoes a day, a family with four children would eat in total about 24kg per day. The wealthier landowners were still able to grow grain on their more extensive landholdings but most of this continued to be exported because they could get higher prices in Britain…

In 1841 the population of Ireland was 8.5 million. By the end of the decade, 1 to 2 million had emigrated and 1 million had starved to death. Skibbereen alone, not a large town, has a mass grave of between 8,000 and 10,000 people who died between 1845 and 1848.

In the decade after the famine, Skibbereen resident Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa founded the Phoenix Society which later evolved into the Irish Republican Brotherhood who orchestrated the Easter Rising. It’s therefore not that fanciful to cite the existence of the famine as one of the seeds (an ironic metaphor if ever there was one) of the creation of the modern Irish State.

Photos did not seem to be appropriate at this time.

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