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The Great Frost Or Forgotten Famine Of 1740

Eyjafjallajokull Volcano

Natural calamity always tests the administrative structures and social bonds of our society and the recent weather experienced here in Co.Tipperary over the past few weeks certainly tested all of these.

Yet this type of weather, contrary to popular media reports, is indeed not new to Ireland. “The Great Frost”,  “Bliain An Áir” (Translated into English “year of the slaughter“) or the “Forgotten Irish Famine”  happened between December 1739 and September 1741 and was one of many such calamities which struck Europe in the past and occurred after a decade of relatively mild winters, such as we have recently experienced here in Ireland.

This crisis of 1739-1741 should in no way be confused with the even more devastating ‘Great Famine’ in Ireland, a century later between 1845 and 1849.

Temperature readings for Ireland then ranged between −12 °C and 0 °C.  Ireland was locked into a stable and vast high-pressure system which stretched across most of Europe, from  Russia to northern Italy, in a similar way as experienced recently. Our lakes, rivers,and waterfalls froze and fish died. Rural dwellers fared better than city dwellers, due to easier access to fuel, while poor urban dwellers lived in freezing basements and below standard housing.

Retail prices for coal soared, urban and rural mill-wheels became  frozen stiff and since water powered our machinery, bakers could not grind wheat, printers could not pulp rags for paper and the work of weavers was greatly prohibited, disrupting craft employment and food processing.

The export of grain out of Ireland was prohibited to all destinations except Britain. The Church of Ireland parish clergy and the Established Church solicited donations from the property classes, which they converted into required rations for free dispersal to mainly city dwellers, distributing nearly 80 tons of coal and ten tons of meal in the first month of this unprecedented cold spell.

One of the main food sources, the humble potato became frozen and inedible. Spring rains never arrived and drought killed off sheep and other animals in the fields. The potato crisis caused an increase in grain prices which in turn led to higher bread prices. Starving rural dwellers began to move into the larger towns with bands of citizens causing food riots.

Documentation of deaths were far from accurate between December 1739 and September 1741, but cemeteries provide some small information. We can estimate that the normal death rate for the country tripled in January and February 1740 and burials averaged about 50% higher during the  period of this crisis, than for the total previous years of 1737 to 1739.

It is interesting to note that Mount Tarumae in Japan experienced a major volcanic eruption, as did Mount Asahi, Japan’s tallest mountain, in 1739.

In 1783 and 86 we experienced two successive severe winters both attributed to an Icelandic volcanic eruption.

In 1816, known as the year without summer, snow fell late and the summer never really materialised. The winter proceeding it was also severe.  A volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, greatly disrupted wind patterns and temperatures.

In 2010 the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland caused enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe over a period of six days in April 2010. Additional localised disruption continued into May 2010.

Is there a connection between volcanic activity and our unusual Irish weather?

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