The 1830 Limerick Food Riots

Limerick in the 1820s.
Limerick in the 1820s.

Poverty, inequality, and food riots in Limerick City in the 1830s. By Liam Hogan.

The 1830s were an especially desperate time for the destitute in Limerick. This article takes a close look at the period leading up to the enactment of the compromised Irish Poor Law of 1838 and its coercion of thousands of people into 163 workhouses across the island. [1]

Prior to this “remedy” a House of Industry had been established in Limerick in 1774 and funded by local taxes. It provided many with shelter but it was a completely insufficient in coping with the sheer scale of the annihilating poverty.

The 1830s were an especially desperate time for the destitute in Limerick

In lieu of an adequate intervention by a laissez-faire government to alleviate the distress of the poor, the possibility of their amelioration, or even emigration, was slim. Lacking political leverage, monetary relief or democratic franchise, their fate was all too often left to the whim of the market, the will of the landlord, or the charity of the philanthropist. They lacked power, or as Hobbes defined it, the “present means, to obtain some future apparent good.” [2]


Destitution in Ireland from the London Pictorial Times, 22 August 1846

O’Connell’s Catholic Emancipation campaign was victorious in 1829, but it was delivered to the Irish people alongside the Protestant supremacist Disenfranchisement Act. This meant that the property qualification for voting was raised from 40 shillings to £10 income per year. [3]

This dramatically reduced the electoral franchise in Ireland from around 216,000 voters to 37,000. It meant that in Co. Limerick, which had a population of circa 300,000 in 1830, yet now only 3,913 people (c. 1%) had the vote. [4]

This was purposefully anti-democratic and it ensured that political power in Ireland remained almost exclusively in the hands of the wealthy, the landed interests and the merchants.

Only 1% of the population of County Limerick had the right to vote.

As we shall see, the working classes in Limerick did not passively accept their situation. Their efforts to get by, and their humility and dignity in the face of growing destitution and elitist indifference, have been overlooked for far too long.

Yet we should not sentimentalise their lives. Food shortages, lack of employment, low pay, illiteracy, and appalling living conditions which encouraged the contraction and spread of infectious diseases meant that life was often“ poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

“I know of no town in which so distinct a line is drawn between its good and its bad quarters…” – Henry D. Inglis (1834)

By the early 1800s the City of Limerick was sharply divided between the rich and the poor. As soon as the famous walls of the city were torn down in the 1760s, those who could afford it began to relocate from Irishtown and Englishtown (collectively known as the Old town) to the new spacious developments in the Newtown Pery district.

This trend continued for decades until the Old town was predominantly populated by the working classes. Limerick historian John McGrath noted the effect when he observed that while the Thomond Bridge and the New Bridge physically connected the city together, they now also acted as community boundaries.[5] This shift in wealth and affluence across the city is demonstrated by the following example.

 Follow the Sedan Chairs

A Sedan chair. from “Gately’s World’s Progress. A general history of the earth’s construction and of the advancement of mankind” by Charles E. Beale (1886)

One of most opulent services in Limerick at this time was the sedan chair. The sedan chair in Limerick was “an upholstered seat, completely covered in” which was carried by “two men between poles, who moved at a tolerable pace, in a kind of a trot, equal to perhaps four miles an hour.” They were used to convey the fully robed judge to court in Limerick until around 1809. [6]

Sedan chairs, like taxis today, needed a licence to operate and among their patrons were “ladies going to balls” and the wealthy who wished to move around town in bad weather.

In the late eighteenth century the sedan chair stand was located on Mary Street, near the Exchange. But by 1830, the last year of their operation, the sedan chair stand was positioned on the corner of George Street and William Street in Newtown Pery. This ostentatious service had moved with its clientele, from the Oldtown to the Newtown. While the difference was only 600 metres in measured length, in terms of living conditions it could not have been greater.

An eyewitness account of the poverty in Limerick City (1834)


Municipal Corporation Boundary of Limerick City” (1837) Courtesy of Limerick City Library. The population of the County of the City of Limerick was 66,534 in 1831

In 1834 Henry David Inglis, the Scottish journalist and travel writer, visited Ireland and wrote about poverty in Limerick city.

In 1834 Henry David Inglis, the Scottish journalist and travel writer, visited Ireland and he published a book based on this sojourn in 1835. An interesting and invaluable piece of travel writing, it was very successful, leading to the publication of a fifth edition in 1838. What sets this travelogue apart are the observations Inglis makes, which showcase an astute sense of social justice and critical thinking.

This is evident when he writes about Limerick City; the pathetic scenes he witnessed in the Old town were seared into his memory. Equally devastating is the contrast he draws between the extreme poverty in one section of the city, and the great wealth and economic growth in the other. The following section juxtaposes these disparate realities.

“Exports have nearly doubled since 1822…”

Despite being instructed beforehand that the poor of Limerick city were in the most critical condition, he was shocked by what he found. He writes by way of introduction,

I found too dreadful confirmation of the very worst reports; I spent a day in visiting those parts of the city, where the greatest destitution and misery were said to exist. I entered upwards of forty of the abodes of poverty ; and to the latest hour of my existence, I can never forget the scenes of utter and hopeless wretchedness that presented themselves that day. [7]

“The advance of the prosperity of Limerick, has been rapid and uniform.”

He described the inside of these homes, which were filthy and lacking furniture. They had no beds to sleep on, instead they had to content themselves with bundles of straw and some mats. Many of the inhabitants were malnourished, weak and emaciated.

…the inmates, were some of them old, crooked, and diseased; some younger, but emaciated, and surrounded by starving children ; some were sitting on the damp ground, some standing, and many were unable to rise from their little straw heaps. In scarcely one hovel, could I find even a potato…

Thus over a decade before the cataclysm of the Great Famine, Inglis recorded that people were starving to death in Limerick city.

In one which I entered, [I saw] two bundles of straw lay in two corners; on one, sat a bed-ridden woman; on another, lay two naked children, — literally naked, with a torn rag of some kind thrown over them both. But I saw worse even than this. In a cellar which I entered, and which was almost quite dark, and slippery with damp, I found a man sitting on
a little sawdust…he was naked: he had not even a shirt: a filthy and ragged mat was round him: this man was a living skeleton; the bones all but protruded through the skin: he was literally starving…

Inglis believed that his visit to these homes was representative of the general condition of this class and instead of visiting forty houses in the district he “might have seen thousands.”

“What a very handsome city this is!”

Next, Inglis wrote about the working poor in Limerick. Those who were perennially underpaid and

…fast approaching infirmity and disease; but yet able and willing to earn their subsistence. I found many hand-loom weavers, who worked from five in the morning till eight at night, and received from a task-master, from half a crown to four shillings a week. Many of these men had wives and families; and I need scarcely say that confinement, labour, scanty subsistence, and despair, were fast reducing these men to the condition of the others, upon whom disease, and utter destitution had already laid their hands…

Confirmed by National and Local Sources

Mode of Entering the Limerick City workhouse, Limerick Reporter, 19 May 1841

A few years later the Municipal Corporation Boundaries report concurred with Inglis’ account, when it judged that the “Old Town is one vast mass of dilapidation, filth and misery.”[8]

It alluded to the constant influx of the country poor, who were often evicted tenants and farmers, as it was only in the city that they could find “at a cheap rate, something like a roof to cover them.” Referring to the “very poor agricultural population” in the Liberties of the City, the report recommended that they should be “exempted from a most oppressive degree of taxation to which they are at present exposed.”

Well before the Great Famine, people were starving to death in Limerick.

While this national survey was surprisingly frank about such injustice, it was a report made by a local physician, Dr. Daniel Griffin, which ultimately confirms the plight of the poor. The doctor, whose brother was the famous writer Gerald Griffin, presented his paper on the mortality of the poor in his native city to the Statistical Society of London in 1840. It is often a shocking read. He described how the Old town…

…contains a multitude of narrow filthy lanes, and of houses falling to decay; inhabited, many of them, from garret to cellar, by a most miserable population…[9]

This population included the Ejected tenantry from the surrounding counties, who always on their expulsion make a run to the cities in search of food and shelter for their starving families.

Agrarian injustice was evidently heaping pressure on urban cohesion. Private charity in the city was left to pick up the tab for those made destitute by crop failures, the imposition of tithes and unscrupulous absentee landlords.

Griffin noted that many tourists who observed the “gay dresses of the more respectable portion” and the residents “whose business scarcely ever leads them into the older portions” were unaware of (or indifferent to) the desperation that existed in the Irishtown and were thus surprised to read reports of such in the newspaper. They had..

…little conception how human life is wasting within a few hundred paces of their doors.

Griffin’s research highlighted the horrendously high level of child mortality among the poor, with children aged under five accounting for 74% of the deaths. He believed that this was partly caused by the “closeness of the habitations — the numbers by which they are occupied — and the narrowness and filth of the lanes” but that it was

…to be attributed principally to the state of destitution and misery of which the lower classes always live, and to their daily privations of the comforts and necessaries of life.

All of this begs the question, what would happen when the destitute in Limerick were pushed to their absolute limits? When their staple food was scarce and its substitute too expensive? We need to go back four years and look at the Limerick Food Riot of 1830, wherein we find that hundreds of people took to the streets and decided to risk their lives to feed themselves and their children.

Rioting for Food (1830)

King John’s Castle and Thomond Bridge taken from ‘Picturesque views of the Antiquities of Ireland’ (1830) The Food Riot started on Castle Street which is just to the left of the horse and cart in Irishtown


The most pressing socio-economic problem in Ireland at this time had remained largely unresolved since the late eighteenth century.

Even though Irish provisions were famously cheap on the international markets many in Limerick could barely afford to purchase them. In times of hardship (poor harvests, crop failures and rising prices) charity alone was relied upon to keep people alive and public disorder at bay.

Charity’s innately haphazard nature added to the feeling and reality of omnipresent insecurity for those with least. Therefore the working classes sometimes felt, as a last resort, that they had no alternative but to riot for food.

The poor could not afford to buy food when prices went up so had no alternative but to riot for food

After a late and cold Spring in 1772, many parts of Great Britain and Ireland experienced a food shortage crisis which meant that the price of food at the market increased.

There were warnings in the local press about an impending famine in Worcester and Exeter, reports of food riots in Essex, Suffolk and Munster. The latter occurred in Limerick City in May 1772 when a distressed group of people from the Old town made attempted to raid the Lock Mill. Six people were shot dead by guards. [10] Twenty five years later the underlying cause of these food riots remained. The Observer newspaper in London noted that how

the uncommon cheapness of provisions in Ireland would lead persons ignorant of the country to suppose the inhabitants abundantly supplied: but though the best beef and mutton were sold at Limerick for two-pence per pound, immediately before Christmas, few of the peasantry were, even on that festival, equal to its purchase. The multitude cannot obtain labour; those that do, earn but from 6d. To 8d. Per day, which barely provides potatoes for their, in general, numerous progenies. [11]
Another potato crop failure in June 1817 led to a large crowd of people in Limerick again raiding merchants’ stores for flour and oatmeal, but this event was dwarfed by the food riot which occurred in Limerick City thirteen years later. [12]

Summer 1830

The first year of the decade began with a potato crop failure, which in turn led to a subsistence crisis all across Munster. The price of food spiked and naturally the effects of this were felt most sharply by the impoverished rural and urban populations.

On the 23 June the Limerick Chronicle reported “deep distress” in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary and that flour had been robbed in various raids outside the town.

The first year of the decade began with a potato crop failure, which in turn led to a subsistence crisis all across Munster.

In Co. Sligo locals offered an exceptionally high bounty for anyone willing to import oatmeal “so great is the distress.” The paper stated that “a famine in Kerry is almost inevitable, unless some extraordinary measures be taken for the relief of the poor”, that potatoes were prohibitively expensive and that typhus fever “the attendant of poverty” was “fast setting in.”

As the price of potatoes continued to rise in Ennis, Co. Clare “the distress of the poorer classes hourly increases” and Ennistymon appears to have been particularly affected. Rathkeale, Co. Limerick, where the “greatest stress” prevailed, reported an outbreak of typhus fever.

The “state of the poor” in Tralee, Co. Kerry was also lamented. The amount of potatoes for sale at the market there was not twenty percent of what was the “usual necessary supply.” In Killarney “the most strenuous and active exertions” were made to “ward off famine.”

The Freeman’s Journal (2 July) reported that “hundreds of families in the county of Cork are starving” having to rely on nettles and corn marigolds as their only food. The labouring classes were reported to be starving in many parts of Roscommon and Leitrim; while special funds to relieve the distress of the poor in Fethard, Bruff and Dungannon were also established. The Castlebar Telegraph (23 June) wrote that “the distress continues unabated, and famine is advancing upon us with rapid strides.” The same publication disclosed that cattle were being slaughtered in the fields and “store-houses broken open and plundered” because of hunger. Similar descriptions of distress were sent from Derry, Enniskillen and Kilkenny.

The Situation in Limerick

The signs of distress in the city were clearly shown by the exceptionally high number of arrests for food theft from April onwards.[13] As the Summer arrived and potato prices continue to rise, the tension mounted. The critical development was when prominent oatmeal merchants in the city raised the price of this article from the already profitable 16l. a ton to 20l. a ton.

This increase in price undoubtedly sent shock-waves through the Old town. Oatmeal was the usual substitute when the potato harvest was dismal and the ‘lower orders’ depended upon it to be affordable.

They expressed their anxiety and anger by taking to the streets, raiding provision stores and attacking food transits. Generally targeting those they perceived to be forestallers, they launched a coordinated attack across the city. Predictably this highly organised action was perceived by some of their ‘betters’ to have been spontaneous, wild and “uncivilised.”

The Riot — what happened?

A riot outside a workhouse during the famine of the 1840s.
A riot outside a workhouse during the famine of the 1840s.

25th June 1830: It seems the signal to act was an assault on a convoy of five car-loads of oatmeal which had just crossed Thomond Bridge, heading through the Old town in the direction of Locke Quay. This occurred between 7 and 8am.

It led to a crowd pouring forth “from every lane of the Old town” and soon all of the oatmeal was seized. At Arthur’s Quay a sail boat loading oatmeal for Kilrush was seized.

The people took most of the stock before constables succeeded in protecting four car loads of it for the proprietor. A large crowd of people took over Hogan’s Mills,  smashed the windows, stole around 200 bags of flour and hundreds of loaves of bread.

A large crowd of people took over Hogan’s Mills,  smashed the windows, stole around 200 bags of flour and hundreds of loaves of bread.

A sailboat from Askeaton was seized at the Long Dock, Merchant’s Quay. Every bag of flour on board was carried away. The Limerick Chronicle described how “rowboats from the North Strand pulled up to assist [this] attack, and in half an hour all the property had vanished. The number of bags was sixty.” [14]

In response General Sir Edward Blakeney deployed his military forces. The Dragoons, 60th Rifles and 56th regiment were sent to protect the banks, public offices and merchant’s stores. As if expecting these large detachments of military, the crowd split up into many small groups and launched raids on food stores across the city, evading most of the military until about 3pm. Gabbett’s Store was targeted, stones and sledges were used to gain access but to no avail. The military arrived and the crowd pelted them with stones, which knocked off the helmets of some Dragoons.

Next “they attacked the stores of John N. Russell, in Henry Street, but without effect, they were vigorously defended…[while another group] surrounded the bacon stores of Materson’s in Roche’s Street and thundered loudly at the gates for some time, until the arrival of a military party…the large bakery of Mr. Roche, in Brunswick Street, was plundered of its contents, and the loaves flung into the street.” Eason’s, Lyon’s and Hill’s bakeries were raided as well as the bread carts that supplied the retailers.

Meanwhile “a large crowd of people rushed to the Butter House and carried away many [up to 50] firkins of butter….most of this was recovered soon after by the laudable exertion of individuals.”

O’Shea’s store, located near the Ordnance Barracks, was robbed of its stock of coarse salt. McNamara’s store on Denmark Street was raided while Mr. Shea’s Bacon store was “burst open, and a great quantity of provision including pork heads, hams, and flitches of bacon and lard swept away by the invaders.”

Cusack’s store, Pump Lane, was “robbed by the mob” and Nash’s Store on Sexton Street was also targeted with “several firkins of butter” swept away. The 60th Rifles did capture one of the rioters near George’s Quay, and in response they were again pelted with stones. They fired back but hit an innocent bystander in the leg. He was removed to the County Infirmary and his leg was amputated above the knee.

Across the city the Mayor chaired a hastily arranged emergency meeting of the Relief Committee at the Exchange. The riot was condemned and a special Poor Fund was established. A large sum of money was immediately put forward to purchase oatmeal for the purpose of reselling it at an affordable rate.

After two days it amounted to over eleven hundred pounds. While this meeting was in session reports reached the city that the disturbances had spread into the countryside and that the mill at Ballyclogh had been relieved of its contents.

I have created an interactive map which reveals the scale of the riot.


Temporary Respite

rom Dr. Daniel Griffin’s, An Enquiry into the Mortality occurring among the Poor -of the City of Limerick, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, January 1841
From Dr. Daniel Griffin’s, An Enquiry into the Mortality occurring among the Poor -of the City of Limerick, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, January 1841

As money flooded into the Relief Fund, there were no further disturbances on the streets of Limerick. An interesting letter published in the Limerick Chronicle (26 June) signed “A Citizen” denounced the same merchants who raised the price of their oatmeal who were now hypocritically offering charity, to buy their own product.

The raised money was used to buy potatoes and oatmeal, for the purpose of reselling to the poor at a low price. Soon forty car loads of potatoes arrived in the city under the escort of the 60th Rifles.

These were sold in small quantities. Four temporary oatmeal stations were opened, where oatmeal was sold for 3d. a pottle; this worked out at half the market price. This system was costing the Relief Committee 80l. a day to sustain. The clergy of all denominations helped to organise the distribution of food.

The Quakers of the city, represented by Benjamin Clark Fisher, subscribed 115l. towards the fund. Philanthropists stepped forward to help out. Joseph Barrington offered the use of his mills at Barrington’s Bridge, Lisnagry to prepare corn for consumption gratis. Hood and Boyd, of O’Brien’s Bridge, helped those suffering in rural areas when they “delivered upwards of 33 tons of oatmeal, to the poor without money, but merely upon the tickets of the gentry in their neighbourhood.”

A significant portion of the relief fund was used to create work for the unemployed; with around 5,000 people receiving temporary work in this way. But after two weeks the fund was almost exhausted.

 The Behaviour of the Military

The Duke of Wellington.

Despite thousands of people confronting the military head-on and raiding over twenty different locations across the city of their goods, only four citizens were injured by gun shot wounds, Patrick Kelly, John Enright, and Michael Moloney and an unnamed man.

They were shot while storming merchant’s stores. It’s likely that the first three names were shot by merchants who were were protecting their property. Michael Day, Patrick Walsh and Michael Flynn suffered from concussion and were in hospital.

There were also rumours of a fixed bayonet charge at one point, but this is unlikely to have occurred as there were no further injuries reported. The officer in command of the military in Limerick, Major General Sir Edward Blakeney, was sympathetic to the desperate situation the working class found themselves in.

The British military were reluctant to put down the riots. Captain Drought said he did ‘not think it was his duty to fire on a multitude of starving people’.

According to the Limerick Chronicle (26 June), Blakeney was praised by both the merchants and the rioters for his handling of the crisis.

It was Blakeney who was the first to suggest a special relief fund at the emergency meeting at the Exchange, and the officers of his Dragoon Guards later subscribed 10l. towards relieving the distress. It is clear that he understood the injustice that had provoked the uprising, and he now wished to remove this moral pretext for the “disorder”.

He believed that the most desirable action was

to provide sustenance at a fair and reasonable price. The people deserve commiseration, they deserve relief. [We should] appease the wants of these people.

His comments followed a heated exchange at the meeting when William Wheeler, a merchant, accused Captain Drought of “cheering on the rioters”. After some other speakers credited the Captain with saving their premises, Drought responded that the riot had “predisposed him to weep rather than rejoice” and he explained how he had remonstrated with those rioting, adding “as a Christian, he does not think it was his duty to fire on a multitude of starving people.”

And starving they were. During the trials that followed, Patrick J. Hogan deposed that he was struck on the head and was bleeding when defending his father’s stores from the crowd.[15] He realized that it was no use resisting and instead guarded a narrow passage leading to their mills. While the stores was being raided he noticed that one woman, who was struggling to take a bag a flour from another defender, “had the appearance of distress” and that she should be allowed to take it.

Limerick Women led the Riot

One of the most remarked upon aspects of the food riot in Limerick was the role of women in leading the charge into the various provision stores. This was also true of many food raids across the country at this time. The Belfast Newsletter (29 June) described how

…13 drays with potatoes were coming from Navan to Dublin market, they were attacked in Dunshanglin, by a mob, headed by a woman; the sacks were cut and 22 cwt. of potatoes carried off.

Likewise in Limerick it was stated that…

The most active in this outrageous multitude were females, and the most eager too in the attack on property.

The Chronicle reporter was taken aback by the scenes he witnessed later that day on the streets of Limerick.

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 their dress, as to resemble, in truth, rather a horde of wild Indians than a number of civilised beings.

The “civilised” Earl of Limerick slanders the starving poor in the House of Lords

Edmund Pery, the 1st Earl of Limerick

While people were starving in the streets and risking injury to get food for their families, Edmund Pery, the 1st Earl of Limerick, stood up in the House of Lords and slandered their motives. [16] His Lordship, who extracted circa 20,000l. from Limerick in taxes and rent each year, might have been embarrassed by the riot and its discussion by the other Peers.

Basing his argument solely on the word of a single “respected individual in that city” he smeared those who rioted for food. He told the house that contrary to the newspapers reports, the riot was not caused by hunger, but because some young boys were up to mischief.

He then informed the House that it was this that encouraged the adults to join in, and that they only got involved as they saw this as an opportunity to rob whiskey and to get drunk. He said that those who rioted were not those suffering from want. He politicised the incident by blaming Daniel O’Connell for the riot, as according to his Lordship, O’Connell’s talk of Repeal was making the lower classes unruly. He suggested that the real problem in Limerick was unemployment, and not a lack of provisions.

Edmund Pery the Earl of Limerick blamed the riot on ‘mischief’ and unemployment, not the price of food.

He criticised the Mayor, the Police and the Military for not doing more initially to suppress the rioters.  It was later reported that he subscribed the grand total of 50l., or 0.25% of his annual takings from Limerick, to the Relief fund.

Some of the other members of the House were taken aback by his statements. The Earl of Winchelsea was puzzled “the Noble Earl said the disturbance commenced in a frolic, and the papers stated that it arose from want…”

Other members noted that the periodic famines in Ireland were entirely predictable, if not inevitable, and that the Government should do something to remedy the situation. But the Duke of Wellington did not see an immediate solution. He said

…this was not a new occurrence. There was not a year that something of the kind was not felt among the labouring classes at this period. When the stock of potatoes which they had been able to obtain out of their own gardens was exhausted, which in very many instances it was before the new crop was fit for use, the poor were obliged to resort to the markets, and the consequence was a rise took place, which, as the poor but had a slight command of money, served to increase their distress. But however much any privation or suffering amongst any class was to be regretted, it was the fact, and was almost unavoidable. It arose out of the state of the country.

Just over a week later, the debate about the distress in Ireland was resumed in the House of Lords (9 July). Earl Stanhope warned that there could be a significant famine in Ireland if the Government did not intervene, but he was criticized heavily by the Earl of Limerick who did not believe that such bleak predictions “were well founded.”

He reiterated that the riot was not caused by a “starving multitude” and that this view was based on letters from the “most respectable merchants, some of whose magazines had been attacked by the mob.”Notably he did not mention the principle cause of the riot, which was the raising of the price of oatmeal by these same merchants.

He even claimed that “not a single distressed person joined the mob.” The Marquis of Londonderry went further and denied that there was general distress in Ireland, claiming that “the people were never better off than now.” The Duke of Wellington closed the debate by confirming that Government had no intention of offering any relief for the distress in Ireland.

How was the rioting reported?

While the Earl of Limerick’s version of events contradicted all of the eyewitness accounts (including the military officers) perhaps he would have been satisfied to see how the riot was equally misrepresented in some international newspapers.

Through the omission of critical details, many of them aligned their narrative with his. The most syndicated article about the riot ran with a “Dreadful rioting in Limerick” headline.

This was an edited version of the original headline that appeared in the Dublin Mercury Advertiser on the 28 June 1830. It read in full “Dreadful Rioting in Limerick, Occasioned by the want of bread, potatoes, etc.” By leaving out this second detail, which explained the primary motivation and cause of the unrest, they painted the rioters as criminals and thugs, rather than the hungry, the poor who were unwilling to accept this unjust situation.

O’Connell uses the Limerick Food Riot to call for the Repeal of the Union

O'Connell as Mayor of Dublin in 1841
O’Connell as Mayor of Dublin in 1841

Less than four months later Daniel O’Connell referred directly to the Food Riot in Limerick when he called for the Repeal of the Union during his response to the King’s Speech in the House of Commons. While the Duke of Wellington thought the level of poverty in Ireland was ‘just the way it is’, O’Connell believed that the lack of domestic and independent legislature was responsible for much of the suffering. He also targeted the King’s lack of references to the distress being felt by many across the United Kingdom.

..[was not the King’s Speech] one of the most unsatisfactory discourses every pronounced by the chief of a great nation? I did not hear in it one word about the poverty and distress of the people in any part of the kingdom — not one word regarding relief. [17]

O’Connell asked

[If there be no distress], why are the people in a state of disturbance and insubordination within a short distance of the very seat of Government? Is there no cause for this, and is the calumny to be pronounced upon the people of England, that they break out into acts of violence without the pretence of suffering? Nothing is said about the alleviation of distress, and, above all, nothing is said about the alleviation of the distress of Ireland.

Daniel O’Connell believed that the lack of domestic and independent legislature was responsible for much of the suffering.

He responded to the false claims that his Repeal Association sought complete separation between Great Britain and Ireland, and clarified that

We want a connection of authority, not of subserviency — of equality, not submission. Ireland must be equal, not inferior — she must be a kingdom, not a province…What good did [the Union] ever do to my unfortunate country?… The Imperial Parliament has passed four Acts out of five in favour of the landlords, those absentees who exhort all its wealth from Ireland. By the Subletting Act, the landlord has obtained unlimited power over the property of his tenants.

By the Vestries Act, these landlords tax the Catholic people for the support of the Protestant Church, the great revenues of which go into the pockets of their children and dependents….and what are the effects of all these oppressive laws? Look at the poverty of the people, look at the misery and distress which have been manifested at Naas, Newry, Cork, and Dublin; look at the riots at Limerick, and the starvation under which the peasantry are dying.


Those accused of taking part in the Food Riot were sentenced at the Limerick City Quarter Sessions in July 1831. The Limerick Chronicle (21 July 1831) reported how the sentences were

heard by their numerous friends and relatives with the most alarming indications of despair and consternation. The silence of a moment was succeeded by loud and terrific gestures. Those unfortunate people had never calculated that the scandalous plunder of their fellow-citizen’s property would ever expose them to any punishment, much less a severe and exemplary one. The 25th of June was to them a memorable day, and the enormous pillage of private property an act of triumph and exultation among the poorer classes.

Fourteen individuals were sentenced to seven years transportation.

The cycle continued

That winter, the plight of the poor in Limerick was as pronounced as ever. According to the Limerick Post, half of the people in the city were suffering.[18]

The core problem was never resolved and another significant food riot occurred in Limerick in June 1840. Rather than implement the recommended set of reforms and state interventions in Ireland, British governments ignored such advice and imposed the unsuitable (but apparently cost effective) Workhouse system on an already demoralised populace. [19]

One wonders if these 163 workhouses (and various assisted emigration schemes) acted as a safety valve to help buffer widespread revolt or revolution during the unprecedented potato crop failures of the 1840s and the subsequent, inexpressible horror of the Great Famine.



[1] Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1828, Irish Statue Book, URL

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan(1651)

[3] John Dorney, “Democracy in Ireland –  A Short History”, The Irish Story, 8 April 2013

[4] Martin McElroy, “The Impact of the Parliamentary Elections Act (1829) on the Irish electorate”, Politics and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland, 1750-1850: Essays in tribute to Peter Jump (2007), 32

[5] John McGrath, “Riots in Limerick, 1820–1900”, Riotous Assemblies— Rebels, Riots & Revolts in Ireland, Sheehan and Cronin (ed.), (Cork 2011), 153–175

[6] Maurice Lenihan, Limerick; Its History and Antiquities, Ecclesiastical, Civil, and Military, (Limerick 1866), 486

[7] Henry David Inglis, Ireland in 1834: A Journey throughout Ireland, (London 1835)

[8] Municipal Corporation Boundaries (Ireland): Reports and plans ordered by the House of Commons, 10 May 1837

[9] Dr. Daniel Griffin, An Enquiry into the Mortality occurring among the Poor -of the City of Limerick, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, January 1841. Paper read on the 14 November 1840.

[10] Rev. Patrick Fitzgerald, The History, Topography, and Antiquities, of the County and City of Limerick (1827), 467

[11] The Observer (London), 31 December 1797

[12] Bernard Stack, “Limerick Famine Riots of 1830”, Old Limerick Journal, Vol. 38, Winter Edition 2002, 33-36

[13] McGrath, 159

[14] Limerick Chronicle, 26 June 1830

[15] Limerick Chronicle, 24 July 1830

[16] Distress in Ireland, House of Lords debate, 29 June 1830

[17] Daniel O’Connell’s address in answer to the King’s Speech, House of Commons debate, 2 November 1830, Vol .1 cc55-127

[18] The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality , 16 December 1830, reprinted from the Limerick Post

[19 ] Gearoid O’Tuathaigh, Ireland Before the Famine 1798–1848, (2007)

Those sentenced were ;Honora Long, Catherine Ryan, Catherine Fitzgerald, Honora Hanrahan, Margaret Shannon, Catherine Lynch, David Hartigan, Michael Kennedy (a boy), William Bovenizer, John Connors, John Buckley, John Madden, Patrick Speerin (a pensioner), and James McMahon who received a 14 year sentence. A further ten individuals were sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and hard labour. They were Michael Carroll, Michael Ryan, Denis McCann, John Downes, Denis McMahon, Michael Meany (a pensioner at 9d. a day), John Keane, James Hackett, Michael Crawford, and Denis McCormack.

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