Many Ulster Protestants also died in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s

Dr Frank Costello
Dr Frank Costello

The cataclysm of the potato blight known as the Great Irish Famine also severely struck the whole of Ulster.

While it is well known that over a million on the island of Ireland died and millions more fled as the “boat people”of the time between 1846 and 1851, it is less well known that the famine also afflicted many Protestants by death and large scale emigration.

A void is being filled by grass roots initiatives in building a wider public awareness of the reality of the famine and Ulster.

In Shankill an effort is being led by the Shankill Area Social History Group (SASH).

Working with Buildings Communities Ltd it also emphasises the importance of the Shankill Cemetery during those years when hunger and disease also stalked Belfast and Ulster.

Jim McCauley, Vice Chair of SASH said after a memorial service for the Famine victims buried in Shankill Cemetery this past May the famine as it affected Ulster was “brushed over”.

“We were never taught it in school – we never heard about it in any history. Occasions like this help reconcile people to realise that we all suffered.”

Likewise for the Rev Jack Lamb whose predecessor at the Townshend Street Presbyterian Church, the Rev William Johnston, was stricken by typhus caring for the sick during the famine “there is a growing realisation that the famine was no respector of creed or status”.

Within the Shankill Cemetery lie the remains of hundreds of men, women and children, many buried in large pits: the victims of typhus cholera and dysentery. It now joins in significance the cemeteries at Clifton Street and Friar’s Bush as important famine era burial sites.

Much of the Protestant/Unionist narrative is often presented through the lens of empire and industry.

But it is an incomplete story and goes beyond the ‘Plantation’ of Ulster, the blood sacrifice of the Somme and the construction of the greatest liner ever built – the Titanic.

The Great Famine within Northern Ireland is also part of that narrative.

Evidence both from letters and census returns, shows beyond a doubt that the whole of Ulster suffered throughout the famine.

The evidence is beyond Belfast is plentiful.

The workhouses of north and east Antrim, north Down and Belfast were inundated with people seeking aid from the crop failure.

As the rest of Ireland suffered the effects of hunger-related deaths, the workhouses of Ulster also struggled to cope with the vast numbers which entered their dreaded portals.

In one week in February 1847 the Lurgan workhouse – situated in one of the most dynamic linen production centres of the Province – witnessed 95 deaths. Its mortality figures in 1847 were amongst the worst in Ireland.

Of the 919 men, women and children who perished in the Armagh workhouse in 1847 almost 55 per cent (498) were either members of the Established Church or were Presbyterian.

The huge local workhouse mortality levels in Belfast lead to the rapid expansion of the Shankill Cemetery in May of 1847.

According to one medical officer “fever, dysentery, smallpox [have] presented itself at an alarming extent.

“Famine has been followed by a rapid spread of disease.”

On 26 August 1847 New York’s Albany Journal cited a report that in Belfast ‘typhus of the most malignant character attacked all classes and ages and sexes [with] dysentery very frequent and fatal’.

That comment could have applied then to any workhouse on the island.

‘There was no famine in Ulster’ remains one of the great myths of Irish history.

Local research is playing an important part in debunking it and helping us to realise that the famine offers an opportunity to grasp part of our shared history.

It was also a great human calamity that shaped the history of many other nations.

It is story that affected all the people of Ulster as the people on Shankill Road are pointing out.

• Dr Costello and Dr Gerard MacAtasney are writing a book, the Global Impact of the Great Irish Famine. Dr Costello is Visiting Research Professor at the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University and Dr MacAtasney is a writer and lecturer.

The authors will be giving a joint lecture on the famine and Ulster at the Shankill Library today at 12:30pm. All are welcome. There is no charge