Between the years of 1845 and 1852, Ireland’s population was reduced by about 20% due to the impacts of the Potato Famine, also known as The Great Famine or in our native language ‘An Gorta Mór.’ It is estimated that about one million people died from starvation during this period and another million emigrated to America and other countries. It is no surprise therefore that the potato famine has left its mark on the country and remnants of this poignant period in Irish history remain evident to this day.
In this post we will provide you with the names and information of some of the best places that can be visited today in Ireland where you can learn more about the history of the great famine in Ireland.
Strokestown Park Famine Museum
Strokestown Park is an 18th century Palladian mansion, and home of the Packenham Mahon family from 1653 until 1979. The Famine Museum is located in the stable yard and was established when an archive of papers relating to the management of the estate during the 1840s was discovered. This collection is now regarded as the best archive on the Great Famine in Ireland and all documents are on display in the museum. The mansion house may also be visited and this gives a sense of what life was like for the richer, more fortunate people of this time.
Workhouses had an important part to play during the famine times in Ireland. These were the places that the completely destitute went as a last resort, when the only alternative was to die of starvation. Families typically ended up here if they were evicted from their homes due to non-payment of rent. Once families entered a workhouse they were split up, oftentimes never seeing their loved ones again. There are two great museums in Ireland that tell the story of the workhouse in authentic buildings that once served as workhouses for their communities; The Dunfanaghy Workhouse in County Donegal and the Irish Workhouse Centre in County Galway.
The first inmates of the Dunfanaghy workhouse were admitted in 1845 and parts of the building were restored and converted to exhibition space in the 1990’s to tell the story of the famine in the area. This story is told through the Wee Hannah Exhibition, which details the life of local girl Hannah Herrity as she struggled through the famine years and lived for a while in Dunfanaghy Workhouse.
The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna is one of the most complete workhouses left in Ireland. The best way to see this exhibition is by guided tour where guides take you through every aspect of workhouse life from entry to the waiting hall to the girls and boys dormitories and laundry rooms. Discover what life was like for the inmates in what many refer to as the most feared and hated institutions ever established in Ireland.
The ships that carried the emigrants escaping to North America and other countries were often referred to as Coffin ships due to the high mortality rate amongst lower class travellers. These ships were often overcrowded and disease ridden with shortages of food and water a common occurrence. Two of this type of ship can be seen in Ireland today, the Dunbrody in New Ross & the Jeannie Johnston in Dublin.
Situated close to the Famine Memorial (pictured with the introduction) in Dublin’s Custom House Quay, the Jeanie Johnston made 16 emigrant journeys to America between 1847 and 1855, it carried more than 2,500 people with no loss of life which is unusual for a ship of this kind. Your tour guide will show you the ships main features and tell you stories about some stories of the passengers that travelled upon it giving a sense of what the arduous journey to America from Ireland would have been like at that time.
The Dunbrody is a similar type of ship moored at New Ross in county Wexford. Here you discover what life was like on board through guided tour with costumed performers and detailed exhibition models. Listen to accounts from a steerage and 1st class passenger as they explain the harsh realities of life aboard the ship. As well as the ship tour, at Dunbrody you can visit the Irish America Hall of Fame which details the contributions of Irish men and women to the history of the United States.
Skibbereen was very badly affected by the great famine, losing about a third of its population to starvation, disease and emigration to America. The heritage centre in Skibbereen has a great exhibition commemorating the Great Famine in Skibbereen. The Exhibition depicts the potato Famine through primary source accounts given at the time showing government policies and how they impacted the community. Reports from the relief committee and their efforts to lessen the suffering of local people are presented alongside reports of how the global community responded to the crisis.
Cobh Heritage Centre
The port of Cobh was the most important port of Emigration from Ireland during the mass exodus between 1848 and 1950. Cobh Heritage centre details this exodus through informative exhibitions and several short films. The main attraction is a replica of cross sections of an emigrant’s ship showing what life was like for the various classes on board; the passengers cramped in steerage quarters, the comfortable first class cabins and even prisoner’s quarters where those who were being transported to Australia for their crimes were held. This exhibition tells you about the Irish famine and its causes and helps you to understand why so many people felt they had to leave their friends and family in Ireland for ever.
On the grounds of Bunratty Castle you will find Bunratty Folk Park, a reconstructed village which includes shops, streets and houses that reflect the social status of their occupants, from the poorest one roomed dwelling not unlike those lived in by tenants during the famine period to a fine example of a Georgian Residence built for the Studdart Family in 1804. What’s great about Bunratty Folk Park is that reconstructed cottages from different areas of Ireland can be explored and their subtle differences encountered.
The National Museum of Country Life is located near Castlebar, Co. Mayo. The Museum houses the National Folk-life Collection and portrays the lives of ordinary people in the hundred years between the Great Famine and the end of the 1950s.Here you will see the clothes that people typically wore during these times, their culture and traditions. See how people worked the land and sea and discover the trades essential for the survival of the community including the blacksmith, carpenter, thatcher, and cobbler.
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