Tuesday, March 22, 2011

1739-40 Arctic Ireland. Our little ice age and The Forgotten Famine.

Bad weather hits Ireland.

Modern Ireland has experienced two of the greatest famines in European history. Everyone has heard of The Great Famine of 1845-1850 and its place in the annals of history is forever secured. The other famine, that of 1740-41 although more intense and infinitely more deadly has become known as The Forgotten Famine, and although often attributed to “natural causes” a closer look reveals the suffering could have been alleviated.

On the last day of 1739, Ireland awoke to find itself in the grip of a mini Ice Age. Rivers froze, mills seized up, and houses could not be heated above freezing point. Some people were enchanted by the novelty of it all. Carnivals, dances and sheep-roasting were held on the ice. It was reported at the time that a hurling match was played on the frozen Shannon River, while a fair was held on the frozen Lee River in Cork, one of the most southerly rivers in Ireland. It was said that it was so cold that alcohol froze and birds dropped from the sky, frozen in mid flight.

However the euphoria was not to last for in its wake came drought, flood, fire, famine and plague that have had few parallels in the recorded history of this island. Fuel prices rocketed and the poor began to freeze to death. However, a greater tragedy was unfolding, in early 1740 as the cold conditions continued the potato crop began to die and with it the seedlings that should have ensured a future crop. Even the cattle and sheep perished. This cold lasted into February and was not followed by the usual rains.

In January 1740, nature itself seemed to turn against the people. A winter of terrible coldness fell across the country. The temperatures fell so much that the ports were blocked by ice and coal could not be brought in from Britain. In the 1700s, without central heating, electricity, rail or reliable road transport, coal, the most common means of heating, was brought by boat. The frozen harbours and rivers meant that it could not be delivered to many towns. This had the effect of causing coal prices to soar. As a result hedges, trees, and nurseries around Dublin were stripped bare as desperate people searched for substitute fuel.

By April people were beginning to fear the worse. Whatever farm animals that survived the heavy frosts now had nothing to graze upon. The corn, which had been planted in the hope that the rain would come, failed to grow in the fields. The price of corn more than doubled which led to disturbances. In Drogheda a corn ship was boarded by the mob and its load removed, in Dublin mobs attacked bakeries in the search for bread. The drought caused mill streams to dry up thus preventing corn mills from making the flour. It also caused the timbers of houses to dry out and many fires took hold in diverse towns and villages.

As people starved that winter, the new year of 1741 saw the outbreak of typhus and dysentery. With a population already severely weakened by starvation, 1741 became known as “The Year of The Slaughter”. In many ways it had become the perfect storm within which starvation and disease decimated the population.

In September 1741, the bad weather returned in the form of violent gales which were followed by heavy blizzards in October. Then in November two terrible storms hit the country and these brought snow and frost. On the 9th December there was severe flooding throughout the country and the very next day the frost returned.

Exact figures of the number of people who died are unknown but most historians accept a figure somewhere around 400,000 from a population of about 3 million. This event did not have the same impact upon the mind of the populace as the famine a century later largely because it did not spark the large-scale emigration that followed the famine of 1845.

The causes of such freak weather remain poorly understood. However, it has been suggested that it was precipitated by volcanic eruptions on the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia which sent thousands of tons of dust into the upper atmosphere blocking out the rays of the sun.

It is interesting to note that Mount Tarumae in Japan experienced a major volcanic eruption, as did Mount Asahi, Japan’s tallest mountain, in 1739.

In 1783 and 86 we experienced two successive severe winters both attributed to an Icelandic volcanic eruption.

In 1816, known as the year without summer, snow fell late and the summer never really materialised. The winter proceeding it was also severe.

A volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, greatly disrupted wind patterns and temperatures.

In 2010 the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland caused enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe over a period of six days in April 2010. Additional localised disruption continued into May 2010.

Is there a connection between volcanic activity and our unusual Irish weather?

Could it happen again?

Well we are certainly experiencing colder and more prolonged winters. Climate change is a fact. Volcanic action is projected and we are witnessing drastic changes in weather patterns.

So stock up on warm clothing, gather your winter fuel through the summer, then draw comfort from the fact we have been through it before and we are still here to tell the tale.

There is a brilliant little book called: Arctic Ireland written by David Dickson that covers this episode in Irish history for those who may wish to learn more and it would make a nice addition to your library.


  1. Hi Silent Owl, How're you doing. Haven't heard about this mini ice-age before, but your post was really interesting and I definitely want to read more. I like to collect books on Ireland, Irish culture and Ireland's history and other Irish subjects, so I will definitely look this one up on Amazon - hope you're having a good day. Congrats again on a splendid post. Radders

  2. Hi Radders, I'm grand thank you. How's yourself? Glad you found the post interesting. Funny thing about the 1739-40 I have found that although most people (certainly Irish people) have heard about The Great Famine of 1845-1848 (although the affects were felt for a lot longer). I thought I'd mention this as it is called The Forgotten Famine just to let people know it did happen. This is not to say that the effects were felt any less in the rest of Europe but I'm mainly concerned with Ireland. Thank you for your kind words. Silent Owl.

  3. Thanks Silent Owl, how're you today. I looked up the book on Amazon and it looks great, very interesting and a very reasonably priced little gem. Will definitely be ordering over the weekend, thanks for pointing me in its direction. Hope you are well and are you having beautifully sunny weather over with you? Radders xx

  4. I'm mighty, thank you, and how's yerself. The book is as you rightly say "A little gem" and very cheap. The weather here on the west coast is gorgeous today, not a cloud in the sky and the Reek is crystal clear. Only problem is, I've been in college for nine hours (five doing research on linear woodland and four having lectures). I enjoy doing my research and it will all help in May (final exams). Having this weekend off, going to join up with some friends in the midlands for the equinox (ritual).
    Have Fun and keep smiling. Silent Owl.