In previous instalments of the Through the Ages series, we have examined life in Limerick in the early decades of the 19th century. It i s clear from the most recent subjects – the merchant bodies, the construction of Newtown Pery, the first hospitals, the introduction of the police and the banking crash – that the city was one which saw boom turn to bust in a short period of time.
It prospered during the Napoleonic Wars, and, with a robust body of merchants and entrepreneurs, it became one of the most economically successful cities in the country, resulting in the establishment of Newtown Pery to accommodate a newly-wealthy class. By 1815, however, it had all started to change. The wars ended, and with them, the enormous demand for provisions.
The value of Irish food products fell drastically, providing excellent value for the British consumer, for whom most of the country’s produce was destined. Despite the low prices, however, Irish people could not afford to buy the nutritious, wholesome food that was leaving their shores every day.
By the 1830s, the vast majority of Irish people were subsisting on potatoes, meal, a little milk, and perhaps the occasional herring if they could afford it. They were trapped in a terrifyingly dangerous cycle, in which the harvest from the previous year would only carry them through three quarters of the year ahead, before they would have to bridge the gap with meal while they waited (and hoped) for the fruit of the next harvest. One bad winter could destroy this precarious balance.
The disastrous inequality in rural areas – in which labourers eked out a living on tiny plots, while paying high rents to largely absentee landlords – drove many to the city, seeking cheap shelter and the possibility of employment. This led to dangerous levels of overcrowding, in already-substandard accommodation.
Historian Liam Hogan has carried out a great deal of research into the riots of 1830 and is considered an authority on the subject. He points us towards the writings of Henry David Inglis, a Scottish journalist who visited Limerick around this time. Mr Inglis writes that he was shocked to find ‘more and deeper destitution in Limerick, than in any place which I had yet visited.’ He describes ‘scenes of utter and hopeless wretchedness’ in the Old Town (as Irishtown and Englishtown were then collectively known). He visited garrets, cellars, and hovels in narrow yards or alleys. Inside, he found ‘crooked and diseased’ inhabitants, a ‘living skeleton’ who was ‘emaciated, and surrounded by starving children’. Some were sitting naked on the damp floor, others unable to get up from the soiled, matted straw beneath them. In ‘scarcely one hovel,’ he wrote, ‘could I find even a potato’.
A bad harvest in 1829 led to a serious lack of potatoes the following year. As demand increased, wealthy merchants raised their meal prices by 25%. This put even basic sustenance beyond the reach of much of the city’s poor.
Human beings can only bear such a situation for so long. As dawn broke over the city on 25 June, 1830, the starving citizens rose from their filthy, straw-strewn beds, and moved, as one, towards the centre.
‘The first indication of actual violence was an attack upon five carloads of oatmeal in Castle-street, coming in to Mr Caswell, of George’s Quay,’ The Limerick Chronicle recorded. ‘The cars were surrounded in an instant by a furious mob of men, women and children, who seized and carried off every bag of oatmeal. The tocsin [alarm] was now sounded, and the signal was caught up like magic in the most remote quarters of the City. Every distant or obscure land and alley, poured forth in overwhelming masses almost half-naked, their dense population, thus congregated in thousands, they were seen flying thro’ the streets with shouts and huzzas in all the ardour of boundless enthusiasm.’
The mob rushed over the New Bridge (now Mathew Bridge), and attacked a sailboat which was moored in Arthur’s Quay, loaded with oatmeal destined for Kilrush. They were only able to seize some of the stock, before the Police arrived and pushed back. They then headed for Hogan’s mills on the canal, ‘smashing to atoms every pane of glass in the windows’, before seizing more than 200 bags of flour and more than a hundred loaves of bread. Women scooped handfuls of flour into their aprons, caps and gowns while men filled their hats with the precious powder. It must have made an extraordinary sight, these half-dressed denizens, moving through the city like ghouls, dusted head-to-toe in white. The Chronicle notes that they also destroyed machinery, ‘rendering the establishment perfectly useless for many days’.
At the riverside, rioters raided a boat from Askeaton, distributing some sixty bags of produce to local rowboats that had pulled up alongside.
Inevitably, the military were summoned, and General Sir Edward Blakeney had the ‘Dragoons, Rifles and the 56th Regiment’ stationed at various points throughout the city, including ‘Banks, Public Offices and Merchants’ Stores’.
The soldiers were pelted with stones and some had their helmets knocked off, but they largely resisted the temptation to respond with violent force; the paper notes that ‘the forbearance of the Military was admirable.’
The mob turned to shops and cellars in the Old Town, which they raided of ‘bread, pork and other provisions’. They rushed the gates of the famed bacon stores of Mattersons on Roche’s Street, but were repelled by the Military. Many of the city’s largest bakeries were stormed, leaving freshly-leavened loaves strewn across the cobblestones of Brunswick Street, Catherine Street and Thomas Street. Butter was seized from the local weigh-house, and coarse salt was taken from a store near the barracks. Bacon was a valuable target, and the paper records ‘invaders’ running through the streets with pig heads in their arms.
By the afternoon, the mob’s energy had begun to abate, and they turned their attention towards the authorities, attempting to retrieve a prisoner from their grasp. ‘By order of a policeman’, the military fired upon the crowd, with an errant bullet tearing through the knee of a ‘country fellow who brought potatoes into the town in the morning’. Liam Hogan notes that the man – an innocent bystander – later lost his leg. The Chronicle listed six injured men in total, with three having been shot by merchants or their employees. The paper also reported that the military engaged in fixed bayonet charges, but this can’t have been carried out in full seriousness, as there were no associated injuries.
The Mayor held an emergency meeting at the Exchange, where resolutions were hastily passed: a sum of money was allocated for the immediate purchase of oatmeal, which could then be resold to the starving poor at a reduced rate. This was a pragmatic, if temporary, solution. Special constables were drafted into service and food deliveries were given military escorts. Despite having been charged with quelling the revolt, General Blakely was unusually cognisant of the root causes of the disturbances. He suggested a ‘subscription for relief of the distressed classes’.
The Chronicle was keen to note that women played a large role in the riots: ‘The most active in this outrageous multitude were females, and the most eager too in the attack of property.’ This was often the case in similar disturbances throughout the country. At the time, in some of the poorest parts of Ireland, only two out of every three children made it to their second birthday. How agonising it must have been for mothers and fathers to watch provisions they couldn’t afford being carted through the streets, knowing that a decent meal could save their child.
The Chronicle painted a vivid, if condescending picture of these desperate women: ‘The figure and aspect of the women in emerging from the stores were of the most ludicrous character. So bedaubed were they with flour, head face and clothes, so ridiculous was the plight in which they ran through the streets, and so disordered in their dress, as to resemble, in truth, rather a horde of wild Indiana than a number of civilised beings.’
In the following days, the disturbance died down quickly, quite likely due to the provision of the reduced-price meal: this would underpin the truth of the rioters’ desperation. A few opportunistic looters continued to lift whiskey, cheese and other provisions from shelves but for the most part, most of Limerick’s poor quietly took their place in an orderly queue at the relief marts. There, they were able to purchase oatmeal at a discount of about 50%.
The lawlessness didn’t go unpunished, however. At a special sitting of the City Quarter Sessions, the recorder detailed the background to the affray. ‘Potatoes were scarce due to a partial failure of the crop…consequently the price of meal increased from 16 to 20 shillings per ton. This caused panic among the population of the city who live from hand to mouth.’
He elaborated further, however, blaming everything from unemployment to youthful marriage as the cause of the poverty of the city, and asserting that the leaders of the riots were, in actual fact, ‘in a state of comparative comfort, and could not plead want as an excuse for violence.’
Historian Bernard Stack examined the court’s treatment of those involved in the riot, and found that there was little consistency – or leniency – employed. One man convicted of assaulting the police received three months imprisonment. Another, convicted of stealing ‘lard, bacon and canvas from a store’, received seven years transportation. He would have been taken from his home in Limerick and sent to a faraway colony, most likely on the other side of the world. A juvenile who was described as a ‘grown boy’ received a year’s hard labour for stoning and threatening the police. Mr Stack points in particular to a James McMahon, who was sentenced to fourteen years transportation for receiving goods on credit and not paying for them.
Further relief efforts were introduced, but, it has been asserted, this may have been as a deterrent against further violence, rather than genuine concern for the starving poor. Some were put to work, repairing roads and constructing walls.
Many of the city’s most prominent business-owners made charitable gestures, offering reduced price meal or flour. Joseph Barrington – the old man who watched the construction of his eponymous hospital that year – offered the use of his mills free of charge, for the purpose of grinding corn to feed the poor.
Liam Hogan references a letter which appeared in the Limerick Chronicle on 26 June, written by an anonymous citizen. He (or she) attacked these merchants for their hypocrisy; they raised the prices of meal, which sparked the riots, and then publicly discounted it as a gesture of charity.
Rioting is generally considered to be caused by a dissatisfaction with the status quo; a sense of injustice; a desire for change and an acute manifestation of anger and resentment. Such emotions had given rise to a number of other violent outbursts in the years surrounding the food riots of 1830: a decade earlier, some 300 workmen came together under the banner of ‘United Trades of Limerick’ and rioted against non-union workers and their employers. Writing in the book Riotous Assemblies, John McGrath references a ‘number of large inter-community disturbances’ which were usually sparked by trivial disagreements and territorial rivalry. In 1828, the men of the Abbey and King’s Island came to blows following an argument in a local pub. They rioted for three days.
Later that week, Garryowen and Irishtown clashed, and military intervention was required. The ‘Garryowen Boys’ were led, Mr McGrath says, by a number of prominent merchants’ sons. This is not unusual, he asserts: ‘Indeed the food riots, usually taken as an example of purely working-class activism, were joined by many young men of substance who evidently felt thrilled by the excitement of the occasion.’ The women, it was noted, did not ‘mingle directly in the fray…[but] supplied the combatants with stones.’
In 1840, Limerick people again rose up to protest forestalling (the monopolising of food markets) and to demand employment. Women played a large role in this disturbance, making up some two thirds of the protesters.
Later in the 1840s, political divisions gave rise to a riot against the presence of the Young Irelanders in the city. Contentious parliamentary elections led to fatal riots in 1859, and a fractured nationalist cohort saw more rioting in 1869 and 1876. A year later, a serious street battle broke out between Limerick’s citizens and its soldiers, and five years after that a number of civilians were killed when a mob attacked the RIC after a minor incident at Colbert Railway Station. By the end of the 19th century, the disturbances were occurring between pro and anti-Parnell groups, including a few ‘well-heeled revellers in the Ennis Road [who] tore down the railings of villa residences, before engaging in pugilistic sport with the night watch’.
The best-known of these disturbances remains the 1830 Food Riot, however, in which ‘the city’s poor appear to have been united by class – or at least by the desire for food’. For one day at least, Limerick’s poor refused to be subjugated and starved, rising up against a political and social policy that would, fifteen years later, lead to a million deaths.