Analysis: the impact of the Great Famine on many people in the capital city was minimal and life for them continued very much as normal
In the summer of 1845, Elizabeth Smith returned to Ireland after a two-year absence. The Scottish born Co Wicklow resident found the city of Dublin bustling with commercial activity. Amongst the city's leading shops were Andrews, Bewleys, Cranefields, Piggots and Pims. Within weeks, however, the arrival of the potato blight would change the face of Dublin, as the new book Dublin and the Great Irish Famine illustrates, making it, in the words of Maurice Craig, "a gigantic refugee camp".
Yet for many people like Smith, the impact of the Famine was minimal, and life continued as normal. Much of this was due to the fact that for Dublin merchants enjoyed considerable trade networks in the pre-Famine decades including Russia, Holland, France, Spain and Portugal. There was also trade with the West Indies centred on Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad.
Trade networks also existed with central Europe, although the circuitous route that goods took often added to their cost. There were also Dublin merchants trading directly with China, primarily in tea, brought back to Ireland via Liverpool. Trade extended to several African countries also, indeed in the same month as the potato blight first appeared Smith remarked that she had been recommended ‘a newly imported African grain as a breakfast’.
But during the early months of the Famine, there was considerable panic and alarm in Dublin which greatly affected trade. Several stockbrokers it was claimed were ‘ruined’ following the crash in railway stock, while a number of merchants who had been encouraged to take part in the scheme were also badly affected. According to Elizabeth Smith, "people were much frightened and this caused a run on the Savings Banks ... the very poorest looking people drawing out their forty’s, fifty’s, hundreds…"
Undoubtedly, there were those who made the most of the times and were happy when there were shortages, provided that they had ample stocks. In those cases, they could charge so-called ‘famine prices’. According to the Freeman's Journal, only in Dublin were sellers able to keep ‘famine price’. Butchers in Dublin were singled out for this behaviour and it was claimed that they were making a ‘small fortune’ as beef stocks were in short supply. Likewise, prices in Dublin fishmongers regularly increased during Lent, when demand was always greatest.
Brewing and distilling were the leading industries in the city and provided widespread employment. These included Jameson's in Bow Street and Marrowbone Lane, Power's in John’s Lane West and Roe's in Bonham Street which were foremost in productivity, supplying a number of Dublin merchants with their products.
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From RTÉ Radio 1's The History Show, Blighted Nation explores how the Great Famine swept through Ireland in the mid 1800s and changed the country forever
This coterie included J. R. Andrew & Company, who also imported cider, champagne and wines from across Europe and stocked Irish ales including those brewed in Drogheda and Castlebellingham. Robert MacDona advertised ‘affordable’ sherry ‘even for family use’ from his premises in Dawson Street, while in Upper Jervis Street, John Gilbert supplied the city and environs with ‘Devonshire Cider’. There were a number of importers of wine including the ‘well known Conolly Brand’ on Camden Street who also boasted marsala and claret wines from Italy and France.
The sale of tea and coffee in Dublin also flourished. John Cassells was amongst the largest distributor of tea and coffee throughout the country with a regional network of shops and distributors almost nationwide. Bewleys had a long established ‘tasting shop’ where customers could sample ‘the finest teas from Canton and Congo’ amongst other places. Bewley’s imports continued during the Famine, and one sale in March 1846 included over 800 casks of ‘middling and fine’ tea.
Likewise, George Marks offered a variety of teas from the Far East, Barbados and St Lucia. Other tea importers in the city included Wilson and Hardy, while ‘The Tea Establishment’ on Dame Street specialised in black tea, gunpowder tea, green tea, coffee and sugars from all over the world.
As the Famine crisis deepened across the country, Dublin shops and merchants continued to provide goods and commodities for those of means. The number of clothing establishments in the city was further evidence of this. These included Moses & Company of Dame Street, who advertised that they had over 40 different varieties of coats in its shop, while Williams’ shop on Lower Bridge Street could boast more than 25,000 yards of cloths and tweeds.
Likewise, the Foreign and British Shawl Emporium had over 3,000 scarfs and ‘productions of the most distinguished French artists’. On College Green, the Dublin Woollen Warehouse offered cloths, summer coatings, scotch tweeds, doeskins, vestings and liveries. The evidence suggests that there were regular customers for such products.
It seems everything could be found in Famine-era Dublin and there was much to attract people to the city. Isaac English on Bachelors Walk advertised the sale of figs, almonds, currants and other ‘French fruit’ and Portuguese oranges, while George Kertland’s shop on Lower Sackville Street was popular for perfumery and eau de cologne. The aptly named Noah’s Ark on Bachelors Walk was a shop that included exotic songbirds, dogs and rabbits and ‘a bit of everything’.
This bustling trade meant that people visiting Dublin had to be accommodated and city hotels catered for a variety of needs. The Wicklow Hotel on Wicklow Street offered a ‘place of amusement’ with the finest cuisine in the city. Fegan’s Commercial Hotel on High Street offered a breakfast with steak or a chop and snacks throughout the day, while The Prince Of Wales Hotel beside the GPO offered the ‘cheapest’ rooms in Dublin.
Restaurants, hotels and others offering lodgings thrived on the variety of entertainment that Dublin offered during the Famine years. Events ranged from exhibitions about African Bosjesmans, or ‘bush people’, at the Rotunda to Italian opera in the Theatre Royal and concerts performed by the celebrated British performer T. P. Cooke.
Crowds flocked to Franconi's Circus in Portobello Gardens where they were enthralled by the ‘grace and daring’ of a Mr Bell. A ventriloquist called Gallaher performed in a number of Dublin venues including the Concert Room in Kingstown (Dun Laoighaire). In the year preceding 1849, almost 65,000 people were recorded as visiting the Royal Zoological Gardens in the Phoenix Park.
Restaurants, hotels and others offering lodgings thrived on the variety of entertainment that Dublin offered during the Famine years
Given all of these luxuries on view, it was inevitable that the poor would turn their attention to the shops of the city and the number of crimes that were brought before Dublin courts reflected this. In January 1847 ‘a large concourse of famished looking country people’ attacked Jeffers’ ‘bread shop’ on Church Street as newspapers reported on the fact that ‘the city is filled with country beggars’.
There were other raids on bread shops on King Street, Pill Lane, Thomas Street, James’ Street and other parts of the Liberties. At the same time, a group calling themselves ‘the hungry mob’ and numbering more than 1,000 paraded through the Liberties stealing bread from shops and causing disturbance. These were crimes of hunger carried out in a world of plenty.
Dublin and the Great Irish Famine is edited by Emily Mark-FitzGerald, Ciarán McCabe and Ciarán Reilly and is published by UCD Press
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ