At the end of November 1846, Ireland entered the second year of the Great Hunger.
Over three million of the island’s poorest people faced starvation. The west coast, where poverty was endemic at the best of times, was hardest hit. However, one such community on the Kerry coast has received temporary salvation from the most unlikely of sources.
The winter of 1846 was gloomy. Not only were the Irish starving, but the country’s grain merchants showed little sympathy. Despite widespread hunger, they continued to sell grain to the highest bidder, which meant that the poor could not afford to eat.
Riots were common as large quantities of grain were brought to markets during the last months of the year. On November 20, 1846, the ship ‘Sea Lark’ left Tarbert, Co Kerry in the Shannon Estuary laden with seventy tons of flour, bound for the port of Tralee.
However, no sooner had the ship left the port than a violent storm broke from the Atlantic Ocean. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and dozens of boats were caught in the storm. In the aftermath, around 150 ships were found floating off the west coast, with their missing crews believed to have been washed overboard. Among them was the ‘Sea Lark’, which had left Tarbert with its hold full of flour.
Although the crew was lost, the ship’s hull and its precious cargo of food survived intact. Eventually the ‘Sea Lark’ drifted ashore at Ballybunion strand in County Kerry, and word quickly spread across the countryside that a large cargo of flour had been wrecked on the coast.
By 9 a.m. on November 21, 1846, a thousand people had gathered on the beach in the hope of obtaining food. While the coast guard and the police had arrived to protect the flour from the merchant, there was little they could do.
Hungry and desperate, the crowd attacked the boat with axes and after three hours they had punched six holes in the hull. Driven by hunger, fights break out when the first sacks of flour come out of the hull. In the hours that followed, the desperate people took what amounted to around 50 tonnes of flour from the ‘Sea Lark’.
On Sunday November 22, an even larger crowd of 4,000 gathered at Ballybunion Strand to take the remaining flour. Police eventually intervened, arresting people leaving the shore with what was believed to be stolen flour. Thirty other people were apprehended aboard the ship. As ruthless as these arrests were, the food already plundered from the ship gave many on the north Kerry coast a much-needed lifeline as the Black 47 approached.
*Fin Dwyer is a historian, author and creator of the Irish History podcast, which you can listen to here.
*Originally published in 2017. Updated in 2022.
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