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See how a series potato crop failures across Ireland in the 1840s led to a catastrophic famine, increased crime and a chaotic period at Wicklow Gaol.

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Bad weather and an over reliance on a single variety of potato led to a fungal infection known as blight attacking crops. Death from starvation, and other related causes, afflicted a country totally dependent on this crop.

The shortage of food, the rise in prices, and the closure of relief works originally set up at the beginning of the famine to provide people with a source of revenue, all combined to make a desperate situation intolerable. A depressed and starving population resorted to extreme measures in order to survive.

 

Increase in Crime

There was a considerable increase in crime during this period. More often than not it was crime against property, rather than crime against the person. Over 800 instances of cattle and sheep-stealing occurred between 1846 and 1850 in Wicklow.

The highest number of prisoners ever held in Wicklow Gaol in a year was in 1848, at the height of the famine, when 780 people were imprisoned. At this point the gaol had only 77 cells. The overcrowding and chaos within each cell must have been unimaginable.

Famine Era Rations

In 1845, the diet for prisoners at Wicklow Gaol consisted of potatoes and milk at both breakfast and dinner, with bread issued on Sundays. By 1849, with no potatoes available, the authorities provided a diet of meal and bread instead. With food being so scarce, some people were ready to commit petty crime in order to be imprisoned and thereby ensure they had regular meals.

As in the 1798 period, an extreme sequence of events outside the its walls combined to put severe pressure on the Gaol and its administration.