1800-1859 | Famine


Uniform of the First Royal Dragoons, c. 1839 - public domain via Wikimedia.
Uniform of the First Royal Dragoons, c. 1839 – public domain via Wikimedia.

28 September 1846

On 28 September 1846, during the height of the Irish potato famine, forty mounted soldiers of the First Royal Dragoons were called out to deal with a large crowd of up to twelve thousand starving peasants and labourers. They had converged on the coastal port of Dungarvan, until the town was ‘literally black with people,’ scavenging for food and demanding an immediate halt to exports of corn and other agricultural produce.1

The local magistrate arrested two of their leaders and threw them in jail, but this only further incited the impatience of the remainder.   They begged for bread from several bakers and broke into one bakery who’s owner, a Mr. Fisher, refused to open his doors. The hungry crowd refused to leave the town’s streets unless they were promised the immediate release of their imprisoned leaders as well as jobs and wages on public works which might save them from starvation. ‘A written paper,’ according to a report in the Derry Journal, ‘was handed from the people to the magistrates requiring that their wages should be one shilling per day, and that they should be supplied with Indian meal at a corresponding price by the stone, to enable them to give sustenance to their families.’2 Not enough for long term survival, but enough that they might have hope to survive for a few weeks.

The magistrates expressed sympathy with their desperate demands, but insisted that any such agreement needed approval from the British government. The people, however, were not persuaded, and  even when Captain Sibthorp, commanding the Dragoons, read the Riot Act, they still refused to leave.  Sibthorp then ordered his men to charge the crowd but when this show of force also failed to disperse the demonstration, the troops fired a volley of twenty six shots, killing two and wounding many.3

Some of the hungry considered the dead lucky. A correspondent of the Waterford Freeman reported that he had heard several declare that ‘they would not return home to their families without some food to sustain life – that it would be better for them to be shot than to continue as they were.’4  These comments went unreported by newspapers in London which preferred to focus on the ‘commendable forbearance of the military’ and blame instead ‘grievance mongers’ who persuaded an ‘ill-informed… (and) deluded peasantry’, that ‘nothing is doing for them,’ goading them to ‘rush madly and hopelessly on an immeasurably superior force.’5

The market square at Dungarvan – photo c. 1870 –
National Library of Ireland via Flickr.


  1. The Waterford Chronicle cited in ‘The Dungarvan Disturbances,’ The Cork Examiner, 2 October 1846, p. 3
  2. ‘Food Riots in Dungarvan,’ The Derry Journal, 7 October 1846, p. 1
  3. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London, 1991 p125 and ‘Rioting and Bloodshed at Dungarvan’, The Illustrated London News, 3 October 1846, p. 7
  4. The Waterford Freeman cited in ‘Outbreak in Dungarvan – Firing on the People,’ The Limerick Reporter, 2 October 1846, p. 3.
  5. First citation from ‘Rioting and Bloodshed at Dungarvan’, the Illustrated London News, 3 October 1846 p. 7 and subsequent citations from ‘Food Riots in Ireland,’ the London Pictorial Times, 10 October 1846 and an editorial in the London Daily News, 5 October 1846, p. 2.

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