Identifying Survivors of the Great Irish Famine

It’s odd to say that you can identify survivors when the population you are studying is made up of skeletal remains; but this is exactly what Beaumont et al. (2013) do in their analysis. Usually, the goal of bioarchaeological studies is to understand why the specific population died. However, during periods when you have mass graves and high mortality, like plague eras or the famines, it can also be beneficial to look at those who weren’t buried in mass graves and did survive. I’ve discussed evidence for the Great Irish Potato Famine previously, specifically the identification of scurvy among the population. This new study aims to identify the migrant population who was able to leave Ireland and survive in London through stable isotope analysis of diet.

Doyle Engraving of Irish Immigration during the Famine, via Wikipedia

Doyle Engraving of Irish Immigration during the Famine, via Wikipedia

Due to economic constraints during the mid-19th century, the diet of the poor in Ireland was drastically reduced to primarily potatoes and dairy products. While buttermilk and potatoes can provide the majority of vitamins and protein necessary, it is estimated that one third of the poor population would have been forced to subsist on potatoes for periods of time. With the potato blight in 1845 there was increasing pauperism and the sole source of sustenance for many was wiped out. People affected by the blight were forced to take shelter at workhouses like the one at Kilkenny City, and during the famine there was major overcrowding leading to disease and mass death. It is estimated that almost 1 million died. However, it is also thought that at least that many also emigrated to other areas.

Migration to London was not unheard of prior to the famine. Irish workers often migrated there seasonally for work, and there were many pockets of Irish communities within the city. During famine years it is estimated that there were 1.5 million Irish within London. In order to determine Irish immigrant versus London native, Beaumont et al. (2013) examines dietary habits. Prior to the famine, the average diet for the Irish consisted of primarily potatoes, supplemented by oatmeal, dairy products, eggs, and fish in coastal populations. Londoners of the same era have a more varied diet with both local and imported foods, access to fruits and vegetables, fresh milk, major sources of seafood, and often their wages paid for tea and beer. Due to these differences, an analysis of stable isotope ratios has the potential to reveal migrant populations.

Skull from the Kilkenny Mass Grave

Skull from the Kilkenny Mass Grave

The sample includes the Catholic cemetery at Lukin Street, London, UK and a comparative site at the workhouse cemetery in Kilkenny, Ireland. The Lukin Street cemetery was excavated in 2005, and dates between 1843 and 1854. It contained 194 coffins with identifying nameplates, and of these, 32 had Irish surnames. The total burial population consisted of 119 individuals, 56 with full or partial nameplates, and 6 with samples of hair. Epigraphic evidence for the site is limited: burial records weren’t recovered, death certificates were only found for two individuals, and there is limited information from the Annual Reports of the Registrar General for this period. Beaumont et al. (2013:90) argue that the sample “provides the opportunity to obtain an isotopic profile for a temporally constrained population, some of whom may have migrated to London to avoid the Great Irish Famine, or migrated as survivors”. The Kilkenny Workhouse cemetery dates from August 1847 to March 1851, and includes 970 individuals. Epigraphic evidence is plentiful for the workhouse, but not for the individuals living and dying in it. Isotopic analysis has been done of 20 individuals, and provides a comparison tot eh London population.

Comparison of stable isotope ratios was done with both the Lukin and Kilkenny samples, as well as others from the UK. The analysis revealed that Kilkenny had the lowest N15 ratio in comparison with all samples, and the difference is statistically significant. In general, London sites had an overall higher N15 ratio than other sites in the UK. This suggests that there is a difference in the Londoner diet that is significant enough to be detected. Individuals who would have migrated from Ireland during the famine therefore would show a different stable isotope ratio for N15. Of the 22 Lukin Street skeletons with a N15 below 12%, suggesting immigration from Ireland, 9 have partial or whole surnames, and 7 of those are Irish.There were also 5 individuals with a N15 ratio above 12% suggesting the more typical London diet and an Irish surname- it is possible these were second generation migrants.

The study was able to show that analysis of diet can be used to separate local from immigrant populations. A potential problem with the study is that many migrant populations tend to maintain a diet similar to their home country after moving. Therefore, the individuals identified with low N15 may not all be new immigrants but rather individuals who maintained cultural eating practices. Further analysis of Irish sites and the burials as a whole could lead to more accurate interpretations, though this is a great start and a unique way of finding origins.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgBeaumont, J., Geber, J., Powers, N., Wilson, A., Lee-Thorp, J., & Montgomery, J. (2013). Victims and survivors: Stable isotopes used to identify migrants from the Great Irish Famine to 19th century London American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 150 (1), 87-98 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22179

4 responses to “Identifying Survivors of the Great Irish Famine

  1. Pingback: Irish Diaspora and the Typhus Epidemic of 1847 | Exodus: Movement of the People·

  2. You’ve noted that “many migrant populations tend to maintain a diet similar to their home country after moving” and suggest that “individuals … with low N15 may not all be new immigrants but rather individuals who maintained cultural eating practices.”

    The history of the massive Irish diaspora in Manchester in NW England (even before the Famine 1 in 5 of the city’s population was Irish) is that vast numbers of Irish migrants from well before and after the Great Famine were amongst the very poorest of Manchester residents.

    The Irish in Manchester (and the same is true for the other major British centres of Irish migration, such as Liverpool, London and Glasgow) didn’t so much choose for cultural reasons to maintain a diet familiar from home, but one of such abject poverty that many Irish migrants, including second and subsequent generations, had little choice but to subsist on an impoverished diet.

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