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Chapter 4 – Economic Geography

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – stave #5

Chapter 4 – Economic Geography.

The export of food and other produce requires ready access to sea ports. This, in turn, requires an inland transport infrastructure. As will be seen in later chapters, the major cities and population centres of Ireland developed around ports. Detailed accounts of the development of Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick in the two centuries preceding the famine will be found in Chapter 5. Londonderry, Drogheda, Dundalk and Waterford are also ports that form historically important centres of population growth based on international commerce.

In his book Ireland 1800-1850, the historian Desmond Keenan defines three types of economy practiced in Ireland in those years¹. Firstly, the commercial economy, generally centred around these ports and covering their hinterlands up to 30 or so miles inland. Secondly the subsistence economy characterised by “a reasonably abundant production of the necessaries of life, rough clothing, plain food, abundant but poor quality whiskey and beer, rough furniture, adequate but poorly finished housing.” Third comes “the cottier economy … to be found in the remoter parts of the west and south especially where subdivision of property was unchecked.”

The first consisted of the production and export of crops such as wheat, flax, salted butter, wool and leather and the import of fuel, timber, raw sugar, wines, spirits and tobacco, and manufactured goods. Cash and credit were used resulting in the creation of a prosperous merchant class who were able to support the construction of magnificent town houses and spectacular country mansions.

In the second, found most commonly in the Midlands, markets were less well developed. Local brewers and millers purchased and processed the grain produced on small to medium sized farms. As the transport infrastructure was developed, with canals, metaled roads and, from the 1830s onward, the railways, so the boundary between the first and second extended inland and became blurred. The live export of cattle was feasible only if the animals were driven from these inland farms to holdings close to the ports were they could be fattened.

Life for the cottiers was reduced to the barest essentials. They tended to marry very young and parents and neighbours would construct a rough cabin for the newlyweds who would then share the land with the parents, unless they were able to reclaim an adjacent area of bog. In Keenan’s words, “Few attempts were made to improve (or even clean) the dwellings which resulted in accusations of laziness being made.” In a later chapter we shall explore a possible scientific explanation for this lassitude.

Whilst cottiers were to be found in all parts of Ireland, it was only in the West and South West that they formed the bulk of the population. Travelers were often astonished by the open display of such abject poverty but, so long as the potato lasted the population seemed contented. They have acquired a significance in the mythology of the famine in some quarters, but it would be wrong to suppose that they were typical of pre-Famine Ireland.

It would be wrong, too, to suppose that economic development was confined to the coastal ports. There were significant centres of trade inland also, with an important wool market in Mulingar and Sheep markets in Balinasloe. As trade continued to develop in the early years of the nineteenth century other towns saw growth in prosperity and some hamlets became towns. Despite – arguably because of – the increase in population, gross domestic product increased at a faster rate. Standards of living increased everywhere except among the cottiers where the subdivision of land to provide homes for young couples continued unabated.

Counties Limerick and Clare, home to Mary Marrinan and her landlord Colonel Vandeleur, were the worst affected by such congestion, leading to intense pressure from such men as Vandeleur and Francis Spaight, to encourage emigration in order to clear the land and introduce more efficient forms of cultivation. Francis Spaight became notorious during the famine for welcoming the failure of the potato crop.

A long time advocate of emigration he appears to have made the claim, at the height of the famine, “the failure of the potato crop [is] the greatest possible value in one respect in enabling us to carry out the emigration system.” ². As the owner of at least half a dozen emigrant ships it was very much in his interest to maintain the transatlantic traffic on which he depended, bringing cargoes of timber from North America and transporting human cargoes in inadequate accommodation on the return leg.

The name Francis Spaight is notorious for another reason. One of his ships that bore his name was struck by a storm in December 1835. She had sailed from New Brunswick on 25th November. The storm struck on the night of 3rd Of December. Lloyds Register records that at least 20 vessels came to grief that night. The Francis Spaight hove to in order to ride out the storm. Nevertheless she was upended. Four members of the crew were lost overboard, along with most of her provisions. Thirteen of the fifteen remaining crew members survived until discovered by a US registered brig Angenora on 23 December.

One can only begin to imagine the parlous state of those men and boys after almost three weeks at sea in mid-winter without food and having only such water as they were able to collect from rainfall. What makes the story notorious is the fact that they had resorted to cannibalism in their desperation, a member of the Angenora‘s crew stating that on the 18th December, “when finding it impossible to sustain themselves any longer without food, they came to the dreadful resolution of drawing lots which should be killed to sustain the survivors. One poor fellow was eventually killed, and the survivors fed on him until the 20th., when another became deranged and he shared the same fate on the 22nd.”³


  1. Keenan, Desmond: Ireland 1800-1850, Xlibris, 2002.
  2. Delaney, P.J.: The tragic sinking of the Francis Spaight,, 2015 (Original source not provided)
  3. Various newspapers reported the incident during 1836, including accounts from various crew members of the Angenora.

Continue to Chapter 5

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