While Dublin was less affected by the famine than almost any other region or county in Ireland, this is not to suggest that they escaped the ravages of the tragedy that struck Ireland after 1845. In addition to dealing with the local poor thousands more from rural Ireland poured into the city seeking relief or work, while thousands more went there as a first step in the process of emigration, many travelling to Liverpool in the north of England, from there to seek the cheapest passages to North American embarkation to Liverpool This influx of poor put a pressure on the resources of the city, and in particular on the local workhouses.
The workhouse system had been introduced to Ireland in 1838. In total, there were 138 workhouses spread throughout the country, which were each financed by local "poor rates." Dublin had two workhouses, one on each side of the River Liffey. Even before 1845, relief in the workhouses had been spartan, but the increase in numbers after 1845 meant the quality and amount of relief became even more frugal. In addition, over-crowding facilitated the spread of disease and resulted in an inevitable increase in mortality, with dysentery and diarrhea being particularly commonplace. The fact that many of the poor entered the workhouses in a state of extreme need also meant that they were more likely to succumb to disease while in there. An estimated 25 per cent of people who entered the Dublin workhouses in 1847 (remembered as Black ’47) died within two weeks of doing so.
The Dublin workhouses had each been designed to accommodate 2,000 paupers, but by the end of 1846 the Dublin workhouses, similar to workhouses throughout the country, were experiencing a sharp increase in inmates. By February 1847, the North Dublin workhouse was accommodating 2,506 inmates, while the South Dublin Union contained 2,246; by the end of April the numbers were 2,838 and 2,258, respectively. The North Dublin Union, responded to sustained pressure, increased its capacity to 4,000, by the summer of 1847. By that stage also, government soup kitchens had been opened in Dublin, the soup recipe famously having been created a "celebrity" French chef, Alexis Soyer.
Private charity played a role in providing the poor with sustenance. The Society of Friends had established a central relief committee in Dublin in November 1846, in the wake of the second, and more serious, failure of the potato crop. Initially, they had focused their efforts in the west of Ireland, but it soon became obvious that no part of Ireland was free from suffering so, at the beginning of 1847, they opened soup kitchens in Dublin, with Quaker women playing a major role in supervising the distribution of relief. Another woman involved in providing relief in the city was an American Abolitionist, Asenath Nicholson. Using money sent by her friends in New York, she distributed rations of food every morning in Cook Street, near Christ Church Cathedral, until her supplies were exhausted. One of the most poignant donations received by Nicholson had been sent by an orphanage in New York, the children there sending her a number of barrels of meal. In her words, the orphans’ "willing hearts and ready hands had gathered from their scanty comforts a few pounds without solicitation, and begged the privilege to send it to me."
In the space of six years, Ireland lost 25 per cent of its population, making it one of the lethal famines in modern history. The major urban centres, however, including Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Galway, recorded an increase in population. These statistics do not mean an absence of famine or mortality, but result from an influx of famine victims from the countryside.
Today, there are a number of memorials to the Great Hunger in Dublin. The most powerful of these is Rowan Gillespie’s "Famine," which depicts skeletal figures walking towards an emigrant ship. It is located at the Custom House Quay in Dublin's Docklands.
Professor Christine Kinealy, Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, is author of "Charity and the Great Hunger. The Kindness of Strangers" (Bloomsbury, 2013).