Ireland’s Great Freeze and Famine, 1739-1741

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The Thames during the Great Frost of 1739 Jan Griffier II (active 1735–1773)
(Image Credit: City of London Corporation)
The Great Freeze 1739-40

In December 1739 an extremely violent storm hit Ireland.  This was followed by a dramatic drop in temperature.  It was so cold that liquids froze indoors (Dickson, 1997, p. 12). A reading of -36°C was taken which far exceeds the lowest reading ever recorded using modern instruments (Hickey, 2010, p. 81). Even allowing for some inaccuracy, this temperature is incredibly low and may have been influenced by a volcanic eruption on the Kamchatka peninsula. 

The Caledonian Mercury (24 January 1740) provides us with an understanding of the impact of this ‘Great Frost’:

Dublin, Jan. 11. The Frost still continues here very severe. Numbers are in Want, the Hardness of the Season not permitting them to work ; and Letters from all Parts of the Country give most melancholy Accounts of its Effects, the Mills being stopt they cannot get their Corn grinded, and the Poor whose chief Support is Potatoes are in extreme Want, they being mostly spoiled in the Ground. All the Rivers in and about Cork in Ireland are so frozen up, that People frequently walk 3 Miles upon the Ice. There are Tables and Forms on the Liffey, at Dublin., for selling Liquors . It was also intended to roaft an Ox upon it: And the Thermometer was many Degrees of Cold more than ever known.

As well as the potato crop being completely ruined, large numbers of sheep and cattle were destroyed by the extreme weather conditions.  Great quantities of fish were reported dead in the northern counties of Ireland (Dickson, 1997, p. 14).

In his 1742 poem ‘The Frosty Winter of Ireland, in the year 1739-40‘ William Dunkin wrote:

…Beneath the glassy gulph
Fishes benumb’d, and lazy sea-calves freeze
In crystal coalition with the deep.

The alliterative lines and long vowel sounds slow down the pace of the poem allowing us to imagine the fish and seals gradually being overcome by the cold.  Later, after the cold has subsided, it is followed by storms. Once more, Dunkin describes the tempestuous seas, the waves seeming to reach the stars themselves. Most striking of all is his suggestion that on touching the frozen rocks, the waves will themselves freeze.

…The long resounding waves
Of naval ocean, whitening into foam
Boil from the nether bottom, and uprol
Successive, fluid mountains to the stars.
Not sandy shores at other times expos’d
More shatter’d prows, or billow-broken keels:
But if the waves had haply roll’d to land
Some, warm with vital motion, and a-broach
With oozy brine, they stiffen at the breath
Of Boreas, marrow-piercing, and adhere
In senseless union, to the frozy rocks.

1740: Rising Prices

The loss of food supplies led to an increase in prices though the Cork Corporation acted quickly ‘to engage in bulk grain and meal purchasing in mid-January with the intention of selling it at subsidized rates in public markets’ (Dickson, 1997, p. 18).  Finally, after seven weeks of severely cold conditions, the thaw finally arrived in February 1740 .

While the thaw arrived, the anticipated spring rains did not, and a drought ensued, putting crops at risk.  Barley, oats and wheat all demanded high prices in the markets (Dickson, 1997, p. 25). This, coupled with poor harvests, led to further price increases, which for many meant starvation.  During the Winter of 1740-41 there were attempts at relief efforts, with food being distributed at a number of locations in Cork, including Bandon, Castlelyons, Clonakilty, Cork and Kinsale (Dickson, 1997, p. 38).

But the weather conditions remained unpredictable.  In December 1740 there were floods, followed by frosts, reaching 5 inches into the ground in Cork.

1741: Bliain an áir (the year of Slaughter)

Towards the end 1740 reports of famine and sickness in Cork started emerging.  The Newcastle Courant (27 December 1740) reported that in Mallow as early as 5 December there was

…an uncommon Mortality among the poor People by Fevers and Fluxes, owing no doubt in a great Measure to their poor Living, the Price of Corn being risen to an excessive Rate…

By 1741, the sickness had reached epidemic proportions, leading to this year being referred to as as Bliain an Áir (the year of the slaugher).  Reports of fever (typhus) and flux (dysentry) became more common and huge numbers of people succumbed to both. This continued through into spring and early summer with Sir Richard Cox writing from West Cork in April 1741 that

…In short, by all I can learn, the dreadfullest civil war, or most raging plague never destroyed so many as this season…  (Cox to ?Harris, 23 Apr. 1741, cited in Dickson, 1997, p. 50)

It was only in June 1741 that the situation improved.  Rain was reported in many areas, and by July grain prices started to reduce as wheat once again started to be sent to market.  While the harvest was mixed, there was at least a recovery compared to the previous year.  The following two years saw bountiful harvests.

The Famine of 1741 decimated the Irish population, and was caused by the unusual weather conditions experienced in Ireland from late 1739.  Prof. David Dickson estimates that up to 20 per cent of Ireland’s population at the time (480,000 people) may have died through cold, starvation and illness during the period 1739-41.


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