Historic Events (1810-1900)

Life in Rural Ireland

"A British survey in 1835 found half of the rural families in Ireland living in single-room, windowless mud cabins that didn't have chimneys. The people lived in small communal clusters, known as clachans, spread out among the beautiful countryside. Up to a dozen persons lived inside a cabin, sleeping in straw on the bare ground, sharing the place with the family's pig and chickens. In some cases, mud cabin occupants were actually the dispossessed descendants of Irish estate owners. It was not uncommon for a beggar in Ireland to mention that he was in fact the descendant of an ancient Irish king." The History Place - Irish Potato Famine

Potato Famine (1845-1850)

"Potatoes were unique in many ways. Large numbers of them could be grown on small plots of land. An acre and a half could provide a family of six with enough food for a year. Potatoes were nutritious and easy to cook, and they could be fed to pigs and cattle and fowl. And families did not need a plough to grow potatoes. All they needed was a spade, and they could grow potatoes in wet ground and on mountain sides where no other kinds of plants could be cultivated.

"More than half of the Irish people depended on the potato as the main part of their diet, and almost 40 percent had a diet consisting almost entirely of potatoes, with some milk or fish as the only other source of nourishment. Potatoes could not be stored for more than a year. If the potato crop failed, there was nothing to replace it ...

"In the summer of 1845, the potato crop appeared to be flourishing. But when the main crop was harvested in October, there were signs of disease. Within a few days after they were dug up, the potatoes began to rot. Scientific commissions were set up to investigate the problem and recommend ways to prevent the decay. Farmers were told to try drying the potatoes in ovens or to treat them with lime and salt or with chlorine gas. But nothing worked. No matter what they tried, the potatoes became diseased: “six months provisions a mass of rottenness.”

"In November, a scientific commission reported that “one half of the actual potato crop of Ireland is either destroyed or remains in a state unfit for the food of man.” By early spring of 1846, panic began to spread as food supplies disappeared. People ate anything they could find, including the leaves and bark of trees and even grass. Lord Montaeagle reported to the House of Lords in March, people were eating food “from which so putrid and offensive an effluvia issued that in consuming it they were obliged to leave the doors and windows of their cabins open,” and illnesses, including “fever from eating diseased potatoes,” were beginning to spread.

"The blight did not go away. In 1846, the whole potato crop was wiped out. In 1847, a shortage of seeds led to fewer crops, as only about a quarter of the land was planted compared to the year before. The crop flourished, but not enough food was produced, and the famine continued. By this time, the mass emigration abroad had begun. The flight to America and Canada continued in 1848 when the blight struck again. In 1849, the famine was officially at an end, but suffering continued throughout Ireland.

"More than 1 million people died between 1846 and 1851 as a result of the Potato Famine. Many of these died from starvation. Many more died from diseases that preyed on people weakened by loss of food. By 1847, the scourges of “famine fever,” dysentery, and diarrhea began to wreak havoc. People streamed into towns, begging for food and crowding the workhouses and soup kitchens. The beggars and vagrants who took to the roads were infected with lice, which transmit both typhus and “relapsing fever.” Once fever took hold, people became more susceptible to other infections including dysentery.

"Between 1845 and 1855 more than 1.5 million adults and children left Ireland to seek refuge in America." (The Potato Famine and Irish Immigration to America)

Medical Care for the Poor in Belfast

Lying-in Hospital - Birth records show that Thomas and Sarah Singleton McKenna's twins were born in Belfast's Lying-in Hospital.

The hospital was built ‘at the upper-end of Donegall Street’ in 1830, having 18 beds. The hospital was very progressive at improving and training midwifery techniques under the direction of Dr. William Burden, a Professor of Midwifery at the nearby Queen's College. The hospital was located on Antrim Street (currently Clifton Street), just north of where Trininty Street intersects with Clifton Street (present location of the Clifton Street Service Station). In November 1904, it transferred to a larger hospital with 28 beds on Townsend Street, now known as the Incorporated Belfast Maternity Hospital. The Belfast Lying-in Hospital (1794-1903) by Lisa Lavery.

The building then became the offices of Millar & Co., and was destroyed by the IRA in 1922.

Workhouses - Birth records show that several of James and Catherine Doyle McKenna's children were born in the Belfast Union Workhouse.

"In order to be admitted to a workhouse there was one main condition of entry: “the applicants had to be destitute, that is, without either possessions or property” (Kinealy, This Great Calamity 195). That meant that the family was forced to completely abandon all their possessions and land in order to receive this specific type of relief. ... According to Hilary O’Kelly, “the governing principle of the workhouse system was that relief given at public expense should be less than that which could be obtained by exertion outside it…. Inmates should be worse clothed, worse lodged and worse fed than independent labourers in the districts” (145) ... When making the conditions of the Irish even more horrible than outside of the walls, the Irish population was reluctant to commit themselves to such a prison-like environment." Workhouses: Where the Paupers Crammed Together

One particulary unfortunate and inflamatory incident occured in 1 August 1857. A 16 year-old girl, Mary Anne Tynan, was shot and injured in the Pound by a gunman who retreated to the Sandy Row Area. The conflict seems to have started on 12 July 1857 when Thomas Drew, the rector of Christ Church preached an inflammatory sermon accusing the Roman Catholic Church of “endangering the lives of Protestants and setting at nought the laws of England’’.

"When word of the sermon got out Catholics gathered in the area preparing to defend their homes against an expected attack. Two young Protestant post office workers walked innocently into the crowd. They were attacked and badly beaten.

"The next day two Catholic curates were attacked in Sandy Row and on the following day two Methodist ministers were set upon by a mob at Millfield which had just wrecked a spirit-grocer’s shop owned by a Protestant named Watts.

"And so it went on, with disturbances, turning into riots and pitched battles; shots fired, stones hurled and clubs wielded. The trouble lasted through September. By then, hundreds of people had been evicted from their homes. More than 1,000 injuries were recorded but, amazingly, no deaths." Belfast ... Blighted by Sectarian Strife

Religious Revival of 1859

The great religious revival of Northern Ireland began outside Belfast in the parish of Connor in the village of Kells in the Fall of 1857. Four young men, led by James McQuilkin, were concerned about their salvation and began meeting weekly for prayer and Bible study. The Friday evening meeting continued through 1858 and the four men were joined by many others. The primary focus of their prayers was for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon ourselves and upon the surrounding country. The four men became sought after to speak to congregations and the work quickly appeared in Belfast.

The first visit of the converts to Belfast was to Great George’s Street Church in the end of May 1859. Other meetings were subsequently held in the Linenhall Street Church on the first Sabbath of June and the following Tuesday in the Berry Street Presbyterian Church. Dr. Hugh Hanna, minister of the Berry Street Presbyterian Church, became one of the charismic leaders of the spiritual revival in Belfast. Though the revival was initially lead by the Presbyterian Church, other protestant churches also joined in.

On Wednesday 29 June 1859 a hugh open-air prayer meeting was held in the Belfast Botanic Gardens. It is reported that at least 20,000 people attended this revival. The vast crowds came from the immediate neighborhoods, from every corner of Belfast and from the counties of Armagh, Tyrone, Antrim and Down. Because not all could hear the sermons at the same time, they gathered in groups of 500 to 1,000 in other parts of the Gardens to share experiences and to pray. Of particular note that groups of youth, boys and girls, gathered together to pray. The '59 Revival – Ian R. K. Paisley

Hugh Hanna and other ministers involved in the movement claimed that the revivals resulted in a reduction in drunkenness, sectarian violence, public profanity and prostitution. They also claimed a general strengthening of home and family and an increased desire for education. The Ulster Awakenung of 1859

"Edwin Orr noted that this Revival made a greater impact on Ireland than anything known since Patrick brought Christianity there ...

"One Catholic writer in a Dublin Newspaper said he would accept the movement as from God if the Boyne Celebration passed without trouble in Durham Street, Belfast. This Protestant street each year would indulge in drink and a party spirit which culminated in riots and bloodshed. But this year under the influence of the revival such things gave way to prayer and praise and no trouble came forth." The 1859 Ulster Revival