Global Warming or historical repetition?

Vol. 6 No. 2 - 1991

Global Warming or historical repetition?

by Francis X McCorry

Unwelcome climatic changes are by no means new phenomena. The chaos and hardship generated in many regions by the excessive rains of late-October and early-November in 2000, prompted a renewed look at the local effects of similar and even worse conditions over the six-year period, 1859-64.

This was a crucial and formative period in the course of events in local rural areas. In the socio-economic sphere, the important linen industry was being slowly wrested from rural parts to factory-based manufacture in Lurgan and Portadown. Linen-factory owners had embarked on a policy of housing their employees in new solid red-brick housing, giving preference to families with clusters of young and older females who would work hard in the factories and contribute as well to the home-based aspect of cloth preparation, drawing, hemming, folding and pressing. Houses of often indifferent quality were also being built in towns by speculators who foresaw the inevitable pattern of urban growth and rural depopulation.

The Great Famine

This phase came hard on the heels of the catastrophic Great Famine of 1846-49 which along with harsh physical and demographic consequences had sapped the morale of people in many rural parts. Even before the Famine, periods of dreadful weather conditions as well as of hunger, disease and death had exposed the precariousness of rural life, in the 1830s and early 1840s in particular, John McMahon, the noted engineer, reported to the Commissioners on Drainage of the Flooded Lands in the Lough Neagh District (1846) that a rural tenant dwelling in Derryinver, close Bannfoot, stated that his father had died of a broken heart during the Autumn of 1844 as a result of the flood-waters of the River Bann washing away the hay that he had spent the whole of the previous Summer saving.

In some years, low-lying land, present in abundance adjacent to the Bann and Lough Neagh, remained flooded for months on end. In such circumstances the drift from the land was almost inevitable. Decadal census figures illustrate this trend, and also suggest that population often moved from wet dug-out mosses to fresh uncut turbary raised high above water levels. But this is only part of the picture, and data derived from parish registers is much more helpful since it presents a population profile on a year-by-year basis. It was such material that drew attention to years and groups of years in which marriage numbers fluctuated in approximate inverse proportion to corresponding burial numbers; in other words, when parish marriage numbers showed a significant increase or decrease, parish burial numbers fluctuated in the opposite way.

The sample figures, shown on the table below, were derived from the Catholic and Church of Ireland parish registers for the parish-district known as Montiaghs located on the southern shore of Lough Neagh and bounded in part by the Upper Bann.

Periods of contrasting trends in Montiagh Marriage and Burial Numbers
Period Avg. of previous 4 years Period Average Burial Fluctuations Marriage Fluctuations Avg. of previous 4 years Period Average
1843-45 31 39 8 -7 27 20
1846-48 37 20 17 31 22 53
1848-57 31 45 14 -21 43 22
1858 52 23 -29 18 22 40
1861-65 43 29 -14 5 31 36
1873 30 7 -23 -2 28 26

The resilience of the people immediately after the trauma of the Farnine is demonstrated by the rapid and sustained rise in the marriage numbers, viz. forty-five each year in the period, 1848-57. Not unexpectedly, during the same period, the death rate declined as the weakest in the district had been taken away by the rigours of the Famine period. The most obvious explanation for the subsequent listed decreases in marriage numbers is a persistent diminishing number of young men and women of marriageable age and intent who had left the district for Glasgow, Liverpool and Boston, and later, much later, for Lurgan, Portadown and Belfast.

It is also likely that the relatively low burial numbers of 1866-74 were largely the result of a high death rate in the preceding 1858-65 period which, like the Famine, took a heavy toll of the oldest and weakest in local society. However, a review of prevailing climatic conditions in the period following the Famine brought to the fore six consecutive years where the weather overall militated against proper farming and successful harvesting. These years, and the weather features which they brought, were:

1859 - heavy rains, severe drought, heavy rains;

1860 - heavy rains;

1861 - heavy rains, more destructive than the previous year;

1862 - heavy rains, very wet and cold;

1863 - severe drought, then torrents of rain;

1864 - intense drought throughout the summer.

The following table presents for this six-year period of inclement weather the number of recorded burials in the Montiaghs on a year by-year basis set against the average for the preceding three years. It would be unwise not to link the substantial increase in the Montiagh death rate in some degree to the harsh or unseasonable weather conditions which prevailed and to the effects these conditions had on food production on flooded ground or parched land.

Morale would undoubtedly have suffered. Even in our modern era with an all-the-year-round food supply and with services to support the sick and the elderly, 'bad weather' and harsh winters are taken seriously as factors which contribute significantly to an increased death rate. How much more vulnerable to unseasonable spells of weather were the cottiers and small landholders of the 1860s dwelling in deficient housing and relying largely on fluctuating potato yields.

Professor James S.Donnelly, in his classic book, 'The Land and the People of Nineteenth-Century Cork', stated in relation to this era:

The extremely cold and wet seasons of 1860-62 and the unusually dry years of 1863-64 constituted a fairly seriously setback for Cork farmers. Heavy summer rains and floods were responsible for poor grain harvests in 1861 and 1862, and the potato blight returned in alarming proportions for three years in succession. Meadows that had been inundated with water in both 1861 and 1862 yielded a light hay crop in 1864 because of the parching summer heat.

The cottiers and smallholders were badly hurt by the potato failures, and there was a great deal of distress among them. All farmers suffered from the scarcity and high cost of fodder, and the condition of cattle and pastures seriously deteriorated. Higher feeding costs and lower incomes combined with the importunate demands of landlords, meal merchants, and shopkeepers, led farmers to dispose of livestock without replacing them until 1864.

Table indicating a substantial increase in recorded Montiaghs burial numbers during a period of climatic stress
Period Montiagh Catholic Burials Montiagh Church of Ireland Burials Combined Totals Averages Compared % increase
1856-58 average 19 8 27 27 xxx
1859 20 5 25 36 33%
1860 20 14 34 xxx xxx
1861 26 11 37 xxx xxx
1862 27 16 43 xxx xxx
1863 22 9 31 xxx xxx
1864 26 20 46 xxx xxx

One other feature of this unsettling era which requires consideration is the dramatic outflow of population from the Montiaghs. The McMahon Scheme to f lower the level of Lough Neagh, 1848-56, resulted in a partial improvement of existing farmland and made available much new land around the lough shoreline, This coincided with a 100% increase in the acreage of potatoes planted which explains why so few left the area in spite of great natural increase. Even with moderate yields, 625 acres of potatoes would have catered for a population of around 4,000 people. With hand-loom weaving remaining for the time- being a rural cottage industry, there is little reason to doubt the district's ability to provide for the steadily increasing population within.

Then came the 1860 s. Almost 30% of the people left the parish in the one decade. It can only be assumed that this demographic crisis, and crisis it was, was triggered off by the succession of climatically adverse growing and harvesting seasons. There were certainly other strong factors at work; for the young and adventurous, Boston, New York, Glasgow and Liverpool beckoned. For others, the less uncertain move to Lurgan, Portadown or Belfast was an option. For those who remained, the unequal struggle against the elements, often on ground of inferior quality, was the never-ending challenge.

The nature of this challenge is succinctly contained in the following extract from a cottier-weaver's evidence given to the Land Commissioners in Lurgan Courthouse, in 1882, as the commissioners sought to determine proper and payable rents for land which could scarcely support families:

'The house was in a very bad state. I rebuilt it and slated it. I spade dug the land every other year. I reclaimed a rood of it. It had never been laboured before. The upland to the house is very fair land. The upper part of the bog is brave and good, the lower part is not. There is no part not reclaimed. The low lying part of the bog is flooded. Some years the boats stay on it three months; one year, the flood stayed four months. I lost all in it.

I carry on weaving. I consider £1. 15s. 0d an acre a fair rent for the upland'.

The old rent of this holding was £4. 15s. 0d. The commissioners fixed the new rent at £2. 10s. 0d.

Who can tell exactly how such stresses affected families and heads of families? One thing is certain: that inclement seasons, flooded ground, poor crops, low potato yields and reduced prices, kept the small tenant in a state of permanent flux. Higher than average mortality rates may well have been the eventual outcome.