War and Famine in Ireland, 1580-1700

This article on famine in Irish History looks at how war provoked famine and massive population loss and aided conquest in early modern Ireland. By John Dorney.


Famine, “the regional failure of food production or distribution systems, leading to sharply increased mortality due to starvation and associated disease”, is one of the great human nightmares – when the normal structures that allow people to regularly feed themselves break down.[1]

Modern Ireland, situated in the middle of the rich world, is increasingly isolated from this spectre, but famine has played a crucial role in Irish history.

For much of Ireland’s history, much of the population lived on a knife-edge of hunger.

Hard weather and a bad harvest, or, as we will see, deliberate destruction of crops and animals by armed forces, could pitch the poor into starvation very quickly. At this point, they would be forced into reliance either on mutual aid or charity to survive until the next harvest.

Angry debate still continues over the extent of the British government’s responsibility for the Great Famine of the 1840s but in earlier periods, the culpability of various military commanders in Ireland is more clear-cut. In the two centuries 1500-1700 that saw the establishment and consolidation of English (or any) state power in Ireland for the first time, famine was systematically used as a weapon of war.


War and famine 1500-1600

The population of 16th centuryIreland was estimated at about 1 million. The average life expectancy was just 28, when infant mortality was factored in.

The countryside was very heavily wooded and covered with bogs. Small areas of the best land were cleared for agriculture, with the result that the tilled area of a given lordship tended to sprawl in a series of unconnected plots. The staple crop was corn, which had the considerable disadvantage that it was difficult to grow and easy to destroy.

Cattle were the most important commodity in the country – serving as currency, clothing material and of course a food source. Such was their value, that their meat was only eaten on special occasions, except by the elite. The Irish poor’s normal diet consisted of oatcakes, milk, curds, butter and cheese – again it will be noticed that almost all these items came from cattle.

In those parts of the country, the Pale around Dublin and south County Wexford for instance, where tillage was more common, the common people survived on bread and thin soup made from cereals, peas and beans. At this date the potato, in the future to be so central to Irish history, had yet to be introduced from the New World. It made its appearance in about 1610 but did not become the staple food until the mid 18th century.[2]


Life was precarious for the common people at the best of times in the 15 and 1600s but the major famines in Ireland at this time were manmade events

We must assume that life was fairly precarious for the common people at the best of times. In zones of tillage farming, the early summer, just as winter stores of food were running out and the new crop had not yet been harvested, was known as the ‘hungry time’. In pastoral, or cattle-raising areas, the hard season was the onset of winter, when the cows’ dairy products dried up.  Localised food shortages or famines caused by bad weather were regularly noted by the annals. However,  the two major famines in Ireland in the Tudor period were primarily manmade events.

These two major famines occurred in 1582-83 in Munster and in 1602-3 in Ulster. Both were caused by the deliberate destruction of crops and foodstuffs as a military tactic. In both cases, such campaigns were in response to the followers of respectively, the Earl of Desmond in Munster in the 1580s and Hugh O’Neill in Ulster in 1600, waging guerrilla warfare against English forces and their local allies.

Modern armies, with road networks, motorised transport, railways, aerial reconnaissance and far greater numbers, have trouble tracking down hit-and-run fighters operating from remote locations. With none of these advantages, the Tudors’ commanders, Earl Grey and Mountjoy (respectively in the 1580s and 1590s) resolved instead to destroy the rebels’ food supply. Grey summed it up as, “burning their corn, spoiling their harvest and killing or driving their cattle”.[3]

We know from modern experience in, for instance the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) or more recently in such places as Darfur and Somalia, that seizing, withholding or destroying food as a weapon of war can indeed bring about famine conditions within a short time.

Burning and spoiling an enemy’s territory was standard practice in warfare in 16th centuryIreland. It should not be thought that Irish lords were above the practice, Hugh O’Neill routinely devastated the lands of his enemies, while Shane O’Neill his predecessor,  had caused famine in Ulster in the 1560s by use of such tactics.

But the English scorched earth tactics, combined as they were with a determined resolve to break the military power of the Irish lordships and to ‘civilise’ and Anglicise Ireland, were far more prolonged and systematic. The rural population’s foodstuffs might survive, with hardship, one summer campaign of this sort, but famine was inevitable if scorched earth campaigns were continued through the winter and over more than one year.

‘Towns there are none of which he may get spoil, they are all burnt; Country houses and farmers there are none, they be all fled; bread he hath none’ ; Edmund Spenser on  the results of scorched earth tactics in the 1580s

Edmund Spenser, who fought in the Desmond rebellion left us a detailed account of the English tactics.

“The open enemy having all his country wasted, what by him, and what by the soldiers, findeth succour in no places. Towns there are none of which he may get spoil, they are all burnt; Country houses and farmers there are none, they be all fled; bread he hath none, he ploughed not in summer; flesh [livestock] he hath, but if he kill it in winter, he shall want milk in summer, and shortly want life. Therefore if they be well followed but one winter, ye shall have little work to do with them the next summer. … All those subjects which border upon those parts, are whither to be removed and drawn away, or likewise to be spoiled, that the enemy may find no succour thereby: for what the soldier spares the rebel will surely spoil”.

Rebels would be allowed to surrender if, “they come and submit themselves, upon the first summons: but afterwards I would have none received, but left to their fortune and miserable end: my reason is, for that those which afterwards remain without, are stout and obstinate rebels, such as will never be made dutiful and obedient, nor brought to labor or civil conversation.”

“The end I assure you will be very short, … although there should none of them fall by the sword, nor be slain by the soldier, yet thus being kept from manurance, and their cattle from running abroad, by this hard restraint, they would quickly consume themselves, and devour one another…” [4]

By April of 1582, the provost marshal of Munster(Warhame St Ledger) estimated that 30,000 people had died of famine in the previous six months. “Munster”, he wrote, “is nearly unpeopled by the murders done by the rebels and the killings by the soldiers.” [5]

But as Spenser wrote, “yet sure in all that war, there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extremity of famine.” Indeed, another English official, Pelham, reported that, “the poor people who live only upon labour and fed by their milch cows offer themselves their wives and children to be slain by the army than to suffer the famine that now in extremity is beginning to pinch them”.[6]

As is typical in famines, more died from disease than actual starvation. Epidemics broke out in Cork city, where the country people fled and by early 1582 it was reported that 27-70 people were dying in the town (which had a population of about 2,000) every day from starvation or disease. People continued to die in the province long after the war had ended, and it is estimated that by 1589, one third of Munster’s population had disappeared. [7]

By 1589, one third of Munster’s population had disappeared

The Gaelic Annals of the Four Masters, lamented;

“the whole tract of country from Waterford to Lothra, and from Cnamhchoill to the county of Kilkenny, was suffered to remain one surface of weeds and waste … At this period it was commonly said, that the lowing of a cow, or the whistle of the ploughboy, could scarcely be heard from Dun-Caoin to Cashel in Munster”.[8]

Edmund Spenser concluded;

“in those late wars in Munster; for notwithstanding that the same was a most rich and plentiful country, full of corn and cattle, that you would have thought they could have been able to stand long, yet eare one year and a half they were brought to such wretchedness, as that any stony heart would have rued the same.

Out of every corner of the wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves; they did eat of the carrions [corpses], happy where they could find them, yea, and one another soon after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, their they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast”.[9]

In the closing stages of the Nine Years War (1594-1603) in 1601-03, much the same pattern of war-related famine occurred. Hugh O’Neill’s and his allies’ forces had been dispersed and were reduced to fugitive warfare in the hills and forests of central Ulster.

English commanders, Lord Mountjoy, Henry Dowcra and Arthur Chichester along with Niall Garbh O’Donnell, a local rival of O’Neill’s ally Hugh O’Donnell, used the same brutal  tactics seen in the Desmond wars, devastating the countryside and killing the civilian population at random.

Chichester reported of one such raid; “We have killed, burnt and spoiled …within four miles of Dungannon…we have killed above 100 people of all sorts, besides such as were burnt, how many I know not. We spare none of what quality or sex soever, and it hath bred much terror in the people”.[10]

Famine soon hit Ulster as a result of the English scorched earth strategy. In this case, the deliberate destruction of food may have been combined with exceptionally cold weather and a poor harvest to accentuate famine conditions. The 1590s, with combination of war and extremely wet and cold summers and harvest seasons, saw near-famine condition throughout Ireland. The harsh winter of 1602-03 saw famine occur across Europe.[11]

In Ulster, however, there can be no doubt that conditions were far worse than elsewhere in Ireland. Fynes Morrison, Mountjoy’s secretary, recorded that;

“No spectacle was more frequent in towns and ditches and especially in the wasted countries, than to see multitudes of these poor people dead with their mouths all coloured green by eating nettles”.[12]

Up to 60,000 died in Ulster of war-related famine in 1602-3 and refugees fled to England, Wales and France

 Chichester’s forces found that the locals were reduced to cannibalism, in one instance coming upon five children eating a dead woman, their mother.

Irish sources claimed that as many as 60,000 people had died in the Ulster famine of 1602-3.[13] This may be an exaggeration, as we have no reliable information even about the population of the province, or indeed of the island at the time, but we can be sure that the death toll was very large as a proportion of the pre-war population. The repeated references to cannibalism, both in the 1580s and 1600s is a clear indication that these were very serious crises, where starvation had reached  such a pitch that neighbourly and even family bonds of human solidarity had broken down.

One of the obvious solutions for people living in a war and famine stricken area is simply to flee to safer territory and  this is precisely what Irish people of the late 16th century did. While soldiers could find employment in Flanders,France and Spain, mostly in Spanish service, civilians generally ended up in England and Wales, ‘most of them’, according to the Privy Council, ‘peasants with wives and children’.

In 1583, the English Privy Council complained about the, ‘great number of Irish poor people begging in and about this city [London]’. In 1601, the Bristol city council had to appoint a special official to process the ‘great number’ of Irish arriving in the city and nearby Pembrokeshire in Wales was ‘innundated’ with people, who had fled, ‘the late wars in Ireland’.[14]

Refugees found their way as far away as France where by 1605-07, thousands clustered around Paris,Nantes,Rouen,Angers, St Mailo, Morlaix and Anjou. The French attitude was generally hostile to these people, whom they considered “vagabonds and beggars”.

In 1600 the Breton Parlement at Rennes prohibited mariners from transporting more Irish into the ports of Brittany. In Rouen, 5-700 Irish were arrested and forcibly repatriated. Over 1,000 were expelled from Paris in 1606 on boats manned with archers and sent back to Ireland. The French ports were reporting ‘daily arrivals of Irish beggars’ until 1609 – evidence that it was many years after the war was over before famine condition eased in Ireland. Indeed a series of poor harvests in the late 1620s sent another waves of Irish “beggars” towards the dismayed French.[15]

Nevertheless, demographically the country recovered relatively quickly from the toll taken by both war and famine in the late sixteenth century. It has been estimated that by the middle of the seventeenth century, the population of Ireland had doubled from about one million to two million; fruits of what one writer called, “fairer terms of happiness and prosperity than [for] … these five hundred years, she had enjoyed the sweet fruits of a long peace, full of people and riches”.[16]

However, the war-related famines of late Tudor Ireland did leave an important legacy, aside solely from their part in breaking the resistance of native lords to their incorporation into the English-run Kingdom of Ireland. Without the depopulation of much of Ulster at the end of the Nine Years War, it is difficult to see how, in 1608 the province could have been ‘planted’ as it was, with settlers from England and Scotland.


‘The war that finished Ireland’


If the template for ruthless and systematic destruction of crops, animals and food supplies as a military tactic in Ireland was laid in the late 16th century, it reached its apogee in the middle of the next century, in a brutal war that raged from 1641 until 1653. This war, started by the rebellion of Irish Catholic gentry in October 1641, pitted Catholic against Protestant but also split the Protestant English and Scottish along the lines of Civil War raging in those countries between King and Parliament.

The war of 1641-53 in Ireland produced the greatest population loss in Irish history with the possible exception of the Great Famine of the 1840s

It is unnecessary in this article to detail the development of this conflict except to say that for most of the 1640s, the centre of Ireland was largely held by an Irish Catholic movement centred on Kilkenny, with quarrelling Protestant enclaves at Cork, Dublin, and in two separate pockets of Ulster, one around Carrickfergus, the other around Derry.

All sides, in trying to maintain their territory and to expand it, used scorched earth warfare. By 1642, the no-mans-land of central Ulster had been so ravaged by both Irish and Scottish forces that Eoghan Rua O’Neill, the Irish general, famously remarked it, “not only looks like a desert, but like hell, if there could be a hell upon earth”.[17]

Refugees from Ulster, estimated at 30-50,000, fled the “starving wilderness”, to all corners of the country. One Irish language account tells of their arrival in West Cork and Kerry, where they were initially greeted warmly, “famine hit the North and scattered them in our midst here in Munster. Men and women came, they were true Irish people” (Eireannaigh chearta a b’ea iad). But eventually, when they began to compete with the locals for scarce food, they were violently driven out. Elsewhere it was the locals who fled, for instance in Ballybritain, Offaly, half the local population fled before the armed refugees who were accompanied by elements of the Ulster Army.[18]

The anecdote is interesting in that it shows how bonds of ethnic or religious solidarity can at first aid the relief of famine victims, but as the situation continues to deteriorate, may be discarded in favour of more pressing needs of local and family survival.

It should not be thought that this “subsistence warfare” was something only practiced by English and Scottish forces against the Irish. In fact, the Catholic Confederate forces wreaked exactly the same destruction on enemy-held territory, north of Dublin in November of 1647. Eoghan Rua O’Neill’s Ulster Army burned and spoiled all the arable land they could find in hope of starving out the English Parliamentarian force based in the city.  One Dublin resident reported  that O’Neill was, “destroying the goodliest haggards of corn that was ever seen in these parts. The last night the country towards Drogheda seemed as one fire, there were about 200 fires counted by some who were on St Audeon’s steeple [in Dublin city]. He spareth none of what religion soever, all are alike to him”.[19]

However, until 1649, such destruction was localised to the “frontiers” between the rival armies. This all changed with the invasion of Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament’s New Model Army in 1649 – the first force in Ireland with enough logistical and financial support to truly conquer the country and to eliminate all armed resistance from both Irish Catholics and Royalists.

‘This was the war that finished Ireland and sent thousands begging…plague and famine stalked together’: Irish poet 1650s.

However, the Cromwellians’ success in smashing enemy field armies and taking fortified towns meant that by 1650 they were occupying most of the country but were faced in their rear with widespread and stubborn guerrilla resistance from Catholic bands known as “tories”. The Parliamentarian tactics for subduing this threat, instituted by Henry Ireton and Edmund Ludlow, were to remove all civilians from tory-infested areas to fortified villages and those who remained at large would be, “taken slain and destroyed as enemies and their cattle and goods shall be taken or spoiled as the goods of enemies”.

One such punitive raider in Wexford reported, “In searching the woods and bogs we have found great store of corn, which we burnt, also all the houses and cabins we could find, in all of which we found plenty of corn: we continued burning and destroying for four days”.[20]

It was the same tactics as those of the 16th century  but conducted over a much wider area – through counties Wicklow and Wexford, the north and south midlands and south-west Munster.Ulster however, which suffered so much in 1641-42, was largely spared.

An Irish poet wrote of the period, “this was the war that finished Ireland and sent thousands begging…plague and famine stalked together”.[21]

Again, there are no specific figures for how many died in Ireland between 1641 and 1653. The closest we have is the estimate of William Petty, who in his survey of 1672 put the death toll at 618,000, or about 40% of the country’s pre-war population. Of these, he estimated that over 400,000 were Catholics, 167,000 killed directly by war or famine and the remainder by war-related disease.[22]

This figure is probably too high, as tens of thousands of the vanished people had either fled to continental Europe or been transported to the West Indies, but the accounts of other writers leave us in no doubt that this was a catastrophe of startling proportions. In 1653, Colonel Richard Lawrence reported, “the plague and famine had swept away whole counties so that a man may ride 20 or 30 miles and not see a living creature, either man, beast or bird”.[23]

If we take the lowest projected figure of around 200,000 deaths, this still represents over 10% of the estimate population of Ireland at the time. This would put the human disaster of the 1640s and 50s at the very least on a par with the Great Famine of the 1840s. This catastrophe goes far to explain the enduring popular memory of Cromwell himself as a demon figure in Irish history.

Famine represents only part of the story here however. First of all, there were a considerable number of deaths due to direct violence, either combat or massacre, both of soldiers and civilians. Also, a great many of those who died in the turmoil of 1640s and 50s did so as a result of an outbreak of bubonic plague, brought accidentally from England with the New Model Army, who also died from it in droves. Unlike, malnutrition related disease such as dysentery, plague is not commonly associated with famine and will kill the well nourished as well as the starving – although the latter of course will die in disproportionate numbers.

Additionally, while the destruction of the war was certainly the key element in provoking famine, there were also severe food shortages, bordering on famine throughout Europe in 1648-51.[24]

The social and political impact of these events on Irish society were huge, but economically and demographically, the recovery was, again, surprisingly rapid. By 1700 the population was again estimated to be about 2 million.


Ireland saw no more famines caused directly by war after the 1650s but ‘natural’ subsistence crises remained a constant peril for the poor for the next two centuries.

Unlike the plantations of the early 1600s, those after 1650 saw little new settlement of English or Scots in Ireland. Rather the ownership of land was transferred from the old Catholic landed class to Parliamentarian veterans and other Protestants trusted by the Cromwellian regime. Those Irish peasants who survived the disasters of the mid seventeenth century may actually have seen their lot improve. Much as after the Black Death of 14th century in England, the massive population loss in 1660s Ireland meant labour shortage, rising wages and lower rents.[25]

Even the Jacobite-Williamite war of 1689-91 caused no recurrence of massive famine and population loss. By that time armies were bigger – 20-30,000 as opposed to less than 10,000 in the 1640s – but they were also better supplied and less destructive of the civilian economy. The Jacobite war was also much shorter than the wars of mid-century, meaning that less prolonged disruption of harvests and seizure of livestock could take place.

However a famine in Scotland, caused by crop failure in 1696-98, had a major impact in Ireland, causing Scottish Presbyterians to become an absolute majority in Ulster– where about 50,000 settled to escape hunger in their own country, joining the existing 100,000 strong Scottish community there.[26]

The era of war-inflicted famine in Ireland was over by 1700. A combination of deliberate, ruthless, use of starvation to stamp out resistance and the depredations of poorly fed troops had caused the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of the labouring poor over the previous hundred and fifty years. Ireland was not unique in this experience however. In the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, the population of Germany is estimated to have fallen from 16 to ten million – due to much the same combination of atrocity and pillaging as caused such devastation in Ireland. [27]

But even in a much less violent two following centuries, from 1700-1900, the spectre of mass starvation would continue to hover over the Irish poor.


[1] http://www.ucc.ie/famine/About/abfamine.htm
[2] Padraig Lenihan, ConsolidatingConquest,Ireland 1603-1727, p231
[3] Colm Lennon, Sixteenth Century Ireland, The Incomplete Conquest, p227
[4] Edmund Spencer, A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) p.104, Located at http://celt.ucc.ie/index.html
[5] (Cal. S.P. Ire. 1574-1585; pp 361-362)
[6] Lennon, p227
[7] Edward O’Mahony,Baltimore, the O’Driscolls, and the end of Gaelic civilisation, 1538-1615 the Mizen Journal, no. 8 (2000): 110-127
[8] Annals of the Four Masters, http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/T100005E.html
[9] Edmund Spencer, A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) p.104, Located at http://celt.ucc.ie/index.html
[10]Calendar ofState Papers,Ireland, Vol CCVII, pt 2, p91
[11] David J Sturdy, FracturedEurope, 1600-1721
[12]Connolly p254
[13]MichileneKearney Walsh, Destruction By Peace, p205
[14] Mary Ann Lyons, Franco Irish Relations, 1500-1610, p169-170
[15]Lyons, 180-187
[16] Anonymous, Aphorismicall Discovery of Treasonable Faction (c. 1652), in Gilbert, J.T., History of the Affairs of Ireland, Irish Archaeological and Celtic society,Dublin, 1879. p1
[17] GA Hayes McCoy, Irish Battles, p179
[18] Padraig Lenihan, Confederate Catholics at War, p121
[19] Lenihan, Confederate Catholics, p102
[20] Padraig Lenihan, Consolidating Conquest, p133
[21] Lenihan, Confederate Catholics, p112
[22] John Kenyon, Jane Ohlmyer (Ed.s) The Civil Wars, A Military History of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1638-1660, p277-278.
[23] John Kenyon, Jane Ohlmyer (Ed.s) The Civil Wars, A Military History of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1638-1660, p277-278.
[24] Sturdy, Fractured Europe, p2
[25] Lenihan, Consolidating Conquest, p234
[26] Karen J. Cullen, Famine inScotland, the ill years of the 1690s, p177-178
[27] Sturdy, Fractured Europe, p75-76

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