1800-1859 | Famine

A bleak famine Christmas under British rule in Ireland

Desperate famine victims at the gate of a workhouse. From J. Ridpath’s ‘Ridpath’s History of the World,’ via Wikimedia.
Desperate famine victims at the gate of a workhouse.
From J. Ridpath’s ‘Ridpath’s History of the World,’ via Wikimedia

25 December 1847

Historians refer to the year as ‘Black 47,’ the most terrible of the ‘Great Hunger’ in Ireland with hundreds of thousands succumbing to famine and disease. At the same time, tens of thousands of tenants, who could no longer pay their rents, faced mass evictions from landlords, who often relied on the backing of British troops.  In June 1847, parliament passed the Poor Law Extension Act, placing the entire cost of famine relief on Irish property and restricting shelter and food aid to the workhouses, which admitted only small numbers under what were at best austere circumstances.1  John Dean, a Poor Law inspector, described conditions at Clifden workhouse in County Galway on Christmas Day.

‘There is an insufficient supply of bedding and clothing. The rain pours down through the ventilating turrets into the rooms and the paupers are thus subjected to increased liability of infection.  On visiting the house a few days ago I was disgusted at learning that the dormitories (particularly those for children) are not supplied with night buckets. I forbear to describe the abominations consequent to this… Doctor Bodkin’s brother who accompanied him to the workhouse hospital about a week since, for the purpose of assisting him in his medical duties, died today of malignant typhus fever. Within the last week the weather has been most inclement and has brought with it a vast increase of disease and misery.’2

The Cork Examiner noted that the inmates at a typical English workhouse in Dartmouth would be enjoying beef, cheese and bread for their festive meal, but that Irish inmates were not to be allowed any such generosity.3 The Dublin based Freeman’s Journal, Ireland’s oldest nationalist newspaper, reflected that the destitute would be gathering ‘poor shivering things, around the grim grating of the workhouse fire, and think of what they were… There will be no merry Christmas… The whistling wind, as it rounds every gable, comes laden with gaunt spectres, the victims of English rule, who as they move sadly around the festive board, point to their green graves and uncoffined corpses, and bid mirth away.’4 The Dublin weekly The Nation was similarly outraged by the ‘wide and universal suffering, which covers the whole land like a plague,’ explaining why it wasn’t wishing a merry Christmas to its readers,  ‘We cannot utter idle wishes, or the greetings that used to belong to the season; the best wish we can offer for Ireland today is, that no future Christmas shall ever find her so abject, so miserable, so enslaved as this.’5


  1. Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave Macmillan, London, p. 163 and John Dean cited in Fin Dwyer, Eyewitness Account of Great Hunger Workhouse on Christmas Day 1847, IrishCentral.com accessed online at url https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/eyewitness-account-great-hunger-workhouse-christmas-1847
  2. John Dean Op. cit.
  3. ‘Workhouse Fare,’ The Cork Examiner, 20 December 1847, p. 2
  4. ‘Christmas Day,’ The Freeman’s Journal, 27 December 1847, p. 2
  5. ‘Christmas Times,’ The Nation, 18 December 1847, p. 8.

Please feel welcome to post comments below.  If you have any questions please email alisdare@gmail.com

© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *