CauseAn extraordinary climatic shock, "The Great Frost" struck Ireland and the rest of Europe between December 1739 and September 1741, after a decade of relatively mild winters. Its cause remains unknown. Charting its course sharply illuminates the connectivity between climate change and famine, epidemic disease, economies, energy sources, and politics. The crisis of 1740-1741 should not be confused with the equally devastating Great Famine in Ireland of the 1840s.
Though no barometric or temperature readings for Ireland (population in 1740 of 2.4 million people) survive from the Great Frost, English people were using the mercury thermometer invented 25 years earlier by the German pioneer Fahrenheit. Indoor values during January 1740 were as low as 10 °F (−12 °C). The one outdoor reading that has survived was 32 °F (0 °C), not including the wind chill factor, which was severe. This kind of weather was “quite outside the Irish experience,” notes David Dickson, author of Arctic Ireland: The Extraordinary Story of the Great Frost and Forgotten Famine of 1740-41.
During the ramp up to the crisis in January 1740, the winds and terrible cold intensified, yet barely any snow fell. Ireland was locked into a stable and vast high-pressure system which affected most of Europe, from Scandinavia and Russia to northern Italy, in a broadly similar way. Rivers, lakes, and waterfalls froze and fish died in these first weeks of the Great Frost. People tried to avoid hypothermia without using up winter fuel reserves in a matter of days. People who lived in the country were probably better off than city dwellers, because the former lived in cabins that lay against turf stacks, while the latter, especially the poor, dwelt in freezing basements and garret dwellings.
Coal dealers and shippers during normal times ferried coal from Cumbria and south Wales to east and south-coast ports in Ireland, but the ice-bound quays and frozen coal yards temporarily froze trade. When in late January 1740 the traffic across the Irish Sea resumed, retail prices for coal soared. Desperate people then stripped bare hedges, fine trees, and nurseries around Dublin to obtain substitute fuel. Also affected by the Frost were the pre-industrial town mill-wheels, which froze. Water powered the machinery which ground wheat for the bakers, tucked cloth for the weavers, pulped rags for the printers. As a result, the abrupt weather change disrupted craft employment and food processing. The intense cold even snuffed out the oil lamps lighting the streets of Dublin, plunging it into darkness.
Catholics, Protestants, and alms-giving
The propertied classes began to respond to fuel and food shortages when the Frost was about two weeks old. The Church of Ireland parish clergy solicited donations, which they converted into free rations in the city parishes, distributing nearly 80 tons of coal and ten tons of meal just four weeks into the Frost. A government official, the Duke of Devonshire, in an unprecedented move on January 19, 1740, prohibited export of grain out of Ireland to any destination except Britain. This move was in response to Cork Corporation (City of Cork), which remembered vividly the city events of eleven years earlier when serious food riots erupted and four people died.
In Celbridge, County Kildare, the Conolly Folly was built in 1740 to give employment by Katherine, the widow of William Conolly. In 1743 she built The Wonderful Barn nearby as a food store in case of further famines.
Potatoes deteriorateThe Great Frost affected the potato, which was one of the two main food sources (the other was oatmeal) in rural Ireland. Potatoes left in the gardens where they had ripened the previous autumn (1739) were frozen, destroyed, and inedible, and furthermore could not even serve as seed for the next growing season. “Richard Purcell, one of the best rural witnesses of the unfolding crisis, reported in late February  that had the Frost not occurred, there would have been enough potatoes in his district to have kept the country [Ireland] fed until August , indicating a rare local abundance of the crop. ‘But both root and branch…is destroyed every where’, except for ‘a few which happen’d to be housed’, and ‘in a very few deep…and turfy moulded gardens where some, perhaps enough for seed for the same ground, are sound.’” This interruption of the agricultural cycle would come back to haunt Ireland in the winter of 1740-1741.
Spring Drought, 1740In spring 1740, the expected rains did not come, and though the Frost dissipated, the temperatures remained low and the northerly winds fierce. The drought killed off animals in the field, particularly sheep in Connacht and black cattle in the south, and struck farmers, by the end of April, by destroying much of the tillage crops sown the previous autumn (wheat and barley). Grains were so scarce that the Irish hierarchy of the Catholic Church allowed Catholics to eat meat four days each week during Lent. The potato crisis caused an increase in grain prices, which translated into smaller and smaller loaves of bread for the old price. Dickson explains that the “wholesale rise in the price of wheat, oats and barley reflected not just the current supply position, but the dealers’ assessment as to the state of things later in the year.”
By summer 1740, the Frost had decimated the potatoes and the drought had decimated the grain harvest and herds of cattle and sheep. Starving rural dwellers started a “mass vagrancy” towards the better-supplied towns, such as Cork in southern Ireland, where beggars lined the streets by mid-June 1740.
Food riotsThe soaring cost of food produced the consequences the municipal leaders had dreaded in the first few weeks of the Frost in January 1740. Hungry townspeople “vented their frustration on grain dealers, meal-mongers and bakers, and when they turned to direct action the most likely flashpoints were markets or warehouses” where food owners stored bulk food.
The first “flareup” occurred at Drogheda, north of Dublin on the east coast of Ireland, in mid-April, according to Dickson’s research. A band of citizens boarded a vessel at the quay preparing to depart for Scotland, laden with oatmeal. They removed the rudder and sails. The Drogheda officials made sure that Scotland would receive no more food from the Drogheda port. They, like the Cork Corporation officials, wanted no trouble from the Irish citizens.
A riot broke out in Dublin on Saturday and Sunday near the end of May 1740 when the populace believed that bakers were holding off baking bread. They broke into the bakers’ shops and sold some of the loaves, giving the money to the bakers. Other people simply took the bread and left. On Monday, rioters targeted the meal from mills near the city and resold it at discounted prices. Troops from the Royal Barracks killed several rioters as they tried to restore order. City officials tried to “smoke out hoarders of grain and to police food markets, but prices remained stubbornly high throughout the summer.”
Similar skirmishes over food continued in different Irish cities throughout the summer of 1740. International war made things worse, as Spanish privateers captured ships trading with Ireland, including vessels bringing grain. Linen, salted beef and pickled butter were Ireland’s chief export earners and the war endangered this trade.
The cold returnsIn autumn 1740, a meagre harvest commenced and prices in the towns started to fall. Cattle began to recover, but in the dairying districts, cows had been so weak after the Frost that at least a third of them had failed to “take bull”. This meant that fewer calves, less milk, and less butter were future realities.
To make things worse, blizzards swept along the east coast in late October 1740 depositing snow and returned several times in November. Then a massive rain downpour occurred on December 9, 1740, causing widespread flooding. A day after the floods, the temperature plummeted, snow fell, and rivers and other bodies of water froze. Warm temperatures followed the cold snap, which lasted about ten days. Great chunks of ice careened down the Liffey River through the heart of Dublin, overturning light vessels and causing larger vessels to break anchor.
The strange autumn of 1740 pushed food prices back up, e.g., Dublin wheat prices on December 20 were at an all-time high. The widening war in mid-December 1740 encouraged people with stored food to hold onto it. The populace needed food, and riots erupted again in various cities throughout the country. By December 1740, signs were growing that full-blown famine and epidemic were upon the citizens of Ireland.
Relief schemesThe Lord Mayor of Dublin, Samuel Cooke, consulted with the Lords Justices, Archbishop Boulter, Speaker Boyle and Lord Chancellor Newport on December 15, 1740 to figure out a way to bring down the price of corn. Boulter launched an emergency feeding program for the poor of Dublin at his own expense. The Privy Council instructed the High Sheriff in each county to count all stocks of grain in the possession of farmers and merchants and to make a return of total cereal stocks in their county.
The reports indicated a surprising number of privately held stocks, for instance County Louth held over 85,000 barrels of grain, mainly oats, in the possession of some 1,655 farmers. Landowners, such as the widow of Speaker William Conolly, builder of Castletown House, distributed food and cash during the “black spring” of 1741 on their own initiative . The widow Conolly and other philanthropists created menial jobs, such as building an obelisk, paving, fencing, draining, making roads or canals, and cleaning harbours.
Return of normal weatherIn the first week of July 1741, grain prices at last decreased and old hoarded wheat suddenly flooded the market. Five vessels loaded with grain, presumably from America, reached Galway in June 1741. The quality of the Autumn harvest of 1741 was mixed. The food crisis was over, however, and seasons of rare plenty followed for the next two years.
Death tollDocumentation of deaths was poor during the Great Frost. Cemeteries provide fragmentary information, e.g., during February and March 1740, 47 children were buried in St. Catherine’s parish. The normal death rate tripled in January and February 1740, and burials averaged out about 50% higher during the twenty-one-month crisis than for the years 1737-1739, according to Dickson. Summing up all his sources, Dickson suggests two estimates: 1) that 38% of the Irish population died during the crisis and 2) that between 13-20% excess mortality occurred for 1740-1741.
SummaryThe story of the Irish Great Frost of 1740-1741 holds lessons for human social behaviour in response to climate-induced limitations in energy, food, and housing. Fifty to a hundred years passed before Ireland became healthy again, only to experience the 1840s famine. Dickson notes that an upsurge in migration out of Ireland in the years after the 1740-1741 crisis, similar to the mass emigration in the 1840s, did not occur. One additional item: Irish Dendrochronologist Mike Baillie confirmed tree ring patterns in 1740 that were consistent with severe cold.
The year 1741, during which the famine was at its worst and mortality was greatest, was known in folk memory as the "year of the slaughter" (or "bliain an áir" in Irish).
- David Dickson, Arctic Ireland (White Row Press, Dublin 1997).
- Michael Drake, The Irish Demographic Crisis of 1740–41, Historical Studies VI, T. W. Moody (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1968.
- Joe Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society (ISBN 0-7171-0567-9)
- Eamonn O Ciardha: Ireland and the Jacobite Cause, 1685-1766: A Fatal Attachment, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2002. Review available at:  accessed July 10, 2007.
- Neal Garnham: “Local Elite Creation in Early Hanoverian Ireland: The Case of the County Grand Jury” The Historical Journal, September 1999, volume 42, number 3, pp. 623–642.
- “An express from Corke, with an account of a blood battle fought between the mob of that city and the standing army…(Dublin, 1729). Cork merchants in 1740 were adamant that they would not risk shipping out corn from the port: John scott, Cork to Thomas Dillon & Co, 25 Jan. 1739-40 (Dillon papers, N.L.I. Mic. P. 2762.” Source: Footnote 12 in Dickson, p. 78.
- Gary L. Roberts: Doc Holliday: The Live and the Legend, John Wiley & Sons, 2006, p. 10.
- Mike Baillie: A Slice Through Time: Dendrochronology and Precision Dating. Routledge, London, 1996, pp. 16–31.
- SEMP Biot Report #430: “Dendrochronology: How Climate Catastrophes Show Up in Tree Rings” (June 11, 2007). Available at:  accessed July 11, 2007.