The blight that destroyed the potato crop in Ireland in 1845 caused immense suffering for the next four years – suffering which sadly was not sufficiently addressed by the British Parliament, whose rigid Corn Laws hindered the free importation of grain. It is estimated that more than a million died of starvation and famine fever in those four years, and two million more fled the country, mostly to a new life in America.

The plight of just one of the farm workers at that time was highlighted when he was arrested for murdering his wife. Patrick Ryall and his family lived in dire poverty at Doneraile in County Cork, and when in hunger and desperation he killed his wife Johanna, a local newspaper set up a campaign to save him from the gallows.

The campaigners claimed that the famine had “destroyed all moral perceptions,” and brought about a total collapse of the fabric of society, causing men like Ryall to act completely out of character.

Nonetheless, Ryall was convicted of murder and hanged on Saturday, June 17th, 1848, outside Cork Prison. The executioner was a local prisoner, who was then released. Later, when recognised in a Cork street, he was set upon by a mob and severely beaten. Only police intervention saved his life.