The warm sunshine of the last week has lifted some of the doom and gloom wrought by nine months of wretched weather.

The severe difficulties that have accompanied the near constant rainfall since last July have been well documented.

Tillage farmers are facing a disastrous harvest as the sowing of winter and spring crops has been severely disrupted, milk yields have collapsed, and beef prices are on the slide in the marts and factories.

Farm incomes will undoubtedly take a battering this year as the fallout from 2023-24 works through the system.

But while this current crisis is certainly serious, it would not hold a candle in terms of impact to the weather-related disaster that hit Ireland a century ago.

In 1924/1925 Ireland suffered a prolonged period of wet weather, which had a disastrous impact on the cereal harvest and the provision of fodder.

More importantly for subsistence farmers along the western seaboard, potato yields took a severe hit, prompting fears of widespread hardship, and even death due to hunger among the rural poor.

In its report for the years 1923 to 1926, the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction reflected the difficulties farmers were facing, although the problems with the potato crop and its implications were downplayed.

“In 1923 and 1924, the quality of hay saved was very inferior, and the corn crops returned disappointing yields of light, badly-filled grain…Potatoes, however, yielded well in both years, and the quality of the tubers proved to be as good as in other more favourable seasons,” the report stated.

Fuel shortage

Tellingly, however, the report admitted that the poor turf harvest in both years, caused an “acute shortage of fuel”, which resulted in “much inconvenience in many counties”. Increased cattle deaths from liver fluke were a further feature of the period.

The poor potato harvest of 1924 had a profound impact on the rural poor, with reports of deaths from starvation recorded in both fact and fiction.

The death of a woman on the Beara peninsula from hunger was a central theme of Peadar O’Donnell’s 1929 novel Adrigoole, which was set in Donegal. However, the events it portrayed were earlier in the decade.

Destitution was not uncommon in rural Ireland in the 1920s. In his seminal work, The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, historian Diarmaid Ferriter records that a deputation from Tory Island off Donegal informed the Government that two-thirds of the population of 350 were destitute. The deputation asked for urgent help for 30 families until the herring season started in the middle of May.

Greater scale

The crisis of 1924/1925, however, was on a far greater scale than anything the country had suffered for more than 30 years.

Fin Dwyer of the Irish History Podcast has studied reports in the local and international newspapers from the period, which highlight the extent of the challenge the weather-induced crisis posed for the newly independent Irish Free State.

Dwyer points out that the Meath Chronicle was warning of famine conditions being “imminent” in August 1924. Similar predictions of mass starvation were carried in the local and national media during the autumn and early winter of 1924.

Meanwhile, the Manchester Guardian was claiming that around 750,000 people were under threat of famine at the time.

Although this estimate was questionable in the extreme, there were deaths from hunger during 1924 and 1925.

Among these was Michael Kane from Omey Island near Clifden, Co Galway. He died from typhoid in Galway Hospital in January 1925 after being found severely emaciated in his home, along with his two young children.

Despite the fact that the Cumann na nGaedheal Government led by WT Cosgrave was extremely fiscally conservative, Dwyer notes that they provided £500,000 in relief for communities.

They also shipped coal into the west to provide fuel and accepted that 153 townlands from Donegal to west Cork were “in distress and generally impoverished”.

The Government’s commitment to relief faltered, however, as the difficulties extended into 1925 and reports of the potential for famine in Ireland began to reach the press in the United States.

“On 31 January, President WT Cosgrave wrote a memo to the editor of the New York Evening World saying he believed that the crisis in the west was so severe that it could ‘not be met by perennial relief measures heretofore adopted’,” Dwyer states.

But Cosgrave consistently challenged the depiction of the food shortages as a famine.

Cosgrave’s Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan went further. He denied that the west was encountering a serious food provision problem when he addressed the Dáil that February.

No distress

“There is no abnormal distress in the west this year. I say that definitely and deliberately,” Hogan claimed.

Hogan’s comments were ultimately correct, as conditions improved significantly on the back of better harvests in 1925 and 1926.

But as Dwyer notes, the Government’s reaction to the crisis illustrates where power and influence lay.

“When the starving poor were pitched against the new State’s reputation, the choice for Cumann na nGaedheal was relatively simple,” he says.

Arguably, the crisis of 1924/1925 helped change rural Ireland.

It exposed the economic limitations of independence and contributed to the mass emigration of the 1920s and 1930s, when a large proportion of the country’s farm labouring class departed – a process finished in the 1950s.

Will the weather crisis of 2024/2025 have equally profound consequences for Irish farming and rural Ireland?

Only time will tell.