The potato crop had become the staple diet throughout rural Mayo by the nineteenth century. The advantage of the potato was that it thrived on even the stoniest soil and so even the smallest holding was capable of producing sufficient potatoes to feed the family for most of the year. Such reliance on the potato meant that the effect of the successive famines of the first half of the nineteenth century was devastating. Houses were in most cases no better than hovels There was no substitute for the potato and people starved to death.
The poor living conditions of the hovels deteriorated even further and disease became rampant. The effects of successive famines were particularly acute in the West of Ireland, where the population declined by as much as a fifth. Rents fell behind and landlords reacted in one of two ways. The more benign provided tickets so that people could emigrate. However, the conditions on board what were called 'coffin' ships were so terrible, that many died. The less benign landlords pursued the hapless, starving tenants and evicted them forcibly off their land, leaving them to die on the roadside.