The Great Frost and forgotten famine

For a generation prior to 1740, the winters had been quite benign

For a generation prior to 1740, the winters had been quite benign. But the so-called "Great Frost" in the first month of that year began a two-year period recalled as one of the bleakest in our country's history.

Its causes, and those of the other climatic anomalies that were to manifest themselves in the months that followed, are not known but may well have been related to unusual volcanic activity in very distant parts.

Whatever the reason, by early January, 1740, the Liffey, the Boyne, the Slaney, the Lee, the Foyle and sections of the Shannon had all frozen solid. At first some delighted in the novelty, and others found the frozen lakes to be useful short cuts to expedite their daily business. But in the poorer sectors of the population hypothermia took its toll, and fuel for a minimum of warmth became a very scarce commodity.

Ultimately, the indirect effects were worse. When the thaw came in early February it was found that the extreme cold had destroyed virtually every potato in the land; there were hardly any to provide seed for the coming year. Then during the spring and early summer of 1740, Ireland experienced a parching, dry and bitterly cold easterly wind. Rainfall was only a fraction of what it ought to be, cattle fodder was almost non-existent, and such crops as it had been possible to sow after the Great Frost perished in the drought.

A series of strange and anomalous seasons continued well into 1741. As famine tightened its grip, that year became blian an air, "the year of slaughter", during which it is believed that some half a million people died, either directly from starvation or as a result of the dysentery and typhus that followed in its wake.

Phillip Skelton, a curate in Co Monaghan, described the local scene: "Whole parishes are almost desolate, and the dead have been eaten in the fields by dogs for want of people to bury them. Whole thousands in a barony have perished, some of hunger and others of disorders occasioned by an unnatural, putrid and unwholesome diet."

This climatic chaos ended in September 1741 with a series of violent storms and exceptional floods, after which the weather returned more or less to normal. It left behind it a national catastrophe surpassed only by the Great Famine a century later. If you have a wish to know more, Dr David Dickson's evocative monograph called Arctic Ireland: The Extraordinary Story of the Great Frost and Forgotten Famine of 1740-41, will tell you everything you need to know.