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Irelands Great Famine Interdisciplinary Essays About Life

Ireland’s Great Famine

Cormac Ó Gráda, University College Dublin

The proximate cause of the Great Irish Famine (1846-52) was the fungus phythophtera infestans (or potato blight), which reached Ireland in the fall of 1845. The fungus destroyed about one-third of that year’s crop, and nearly all that of 1846. After a season’s remission, it also ruined most of the 1848 harvest. These repeated attacks made the Irish famine more protracted than most. Partial failures of the potato crop were nothing new in Ireland before 1845, but damage on the scale wrought by the ecological shock of potato blight was utterly unprecedented (Solar 1989; Clarkson and Crawford 2001). However, the famine would not have been so lethal had dependence on the potato been less. Poverty had reduced the bottom one-third or so of the population to almost exclusive dependence on the potato for sustenance. For those in this category, the daily intake was enormous: 4 to 5 kilos (9 to 11 pounds) daily per adult male equivalent for most of the year. That, coupled with an inadequate policy response from the authorities, made the consequences of repeated failures devastating (Bourke 1993).

Ireland was a poor country in 1845, income per head being about half that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The half-century or so before the famine was a period of increasing impoverishment for the landless poor. With impoverishment came rising inequality. Increasing population pressure was only partly relieved by an increase in the emigration rate and a fall in the birth rate (Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). Moreover, demographic adjustment was weakest in the western and southern areas most at risk. The nutritional content of the potato and widespread access to heating fuel in the form of turf eased somewhat the poverty of Ireland’s three million ‘potato people.’ They were healthier and lived longer than the poor in other parts of Europe at the time. However, their poverty meant that when the potato failed, there was no trading down to a cheap alternative food (Ó Gráda 1994). Nowhere else in Europe had the potato, like tobacco a gift from the New World, made such inroads into the diet of the poor. It bears noting that the potato also failed throughout Europe in the 1840s. This brought hardship in many places, and excess mortality in the Low Countries and in parts of Germany. Yet nowhere was Ireland’s cataclysm repeated (Solar 1997).

The first attack of potato blight inflicted considerable hardship on rural Ireland, though no significant excess mortality. The catastrophe of the Great Famine really dates from the fall of 1846, when the first deaths from starvation were recorded. At first there were food riots and protests, but they subsided as hope and anger gave way to despair (Eiriksson 1997). During the winter and spring of 1846-7 the carnage reached its peak, but the famine continued for another three years. Like all major famines, the Irish potato famine produced many instances of roadside deaths, of neglect of the very young and the elderly, of heroism and of anti-social behavior, of evictions, and of a rise in crimes against property. It was widely reported in the contemporary press at first, both in Ireland and abroad. It elicited a massive response in terms of private donations for a time, especially through the Catholic Church worldwide and the Society of Friends. Philanthropists in Britain were also moved by Irish suffering. That was before compassion fatigue set in. For narrative accounts of the tragedy see Edwards and Williams (1956), Woodham-Smith (1962), Ó Gráda (1999), and Donnelly (2001).

Public Action

The debate about relief measures for Ireland in the press and in parliament in the 1840s has quite a modern resonance (compare Drèze and Sen 1989). At first the government opted for reliance on the provision of employment through public works schemes, the cost of which was to be split between local taxpayers and the central government. At their height in the spring of 1847 the works employed seven hundred thousand people or one-in-twelve of the entire population. The works did not contain the famine, partly because they did not target the neediest, partly because the average wage paid was too low, and partly because they entailed exposing malnourished and poorly clothed people (mostly men) to the elements during the worst months of the year.

The publicly-financed soup kitchens which replaced the public works reached three million people daily at their peak in early 1847. Mortality seemed to fall while they operated, though doubts remain about the effectiveness of a diet of thin meal-based gruel on weakened stomachs. The drop in food prices during the summer of 1847 prompted the authorities to treat the famine henceforth as a manageable, local problem. The main burden of relieving the poor henceforth was placed on the workhouses established under the Irish Poor Law of 1838. In principal those requiring relief were supposed to pass ‘the workhouse test,’ i.e. refusal to enter the workhouse was deemed evidence of being able to support one’s self. In practice, most of the workhouses were ill-equipped to meet the demands placed upon them, and in the event about one-quarter of all excess famine mortality occurred within their walls. Local histories highlight mismanagement and the impossible burden placed on local taxpayers; and the high overall proportion of workhouse deaths due to contagious diseases is an indictment of this form of relief. The very high mortality in some workhouses in 1850 and 1851 is evidence of the long-lasting character of the famine in some western areas (Guinnane and Ó Gráda 2002; Ó Murchadha 1998).

Traditional accounts of the famine pit the more humane policies of Sir Robert Peel’s Tories against the dogmatic stance of Sir John Russell’s Whig administration, which succeeded them. Peel was forced out of office in July 1846 when his party split on the issue of the Corn Laws. The contrast between Peel and Russell oversimplifies. Though Peel was more familiar with Ireland’s problems of economic backwardness than Whig ideologues such as Charles Wood, the crisis confronting him in 1845-6 was mild compared to what was to follow. Moreover, Peel broadly supported the Whig line in opposition, and it was left to his former Tory colleagues to mount a parliamentary challenge against Russell and Wood. Assessment of the public policy response cannot ignore the apocalyptic character of the crisis that it faced. Nonetheless, the government’s obsession with parsimony and its determination to make the Irish pay for ‘their’ crisis cannot but have increased the death rate. The same goes for the insistence on linking relief with structural reform (e.g. by making the surrender of all landholdings over a quarter of an acre in size a strict condition for relief). At the height of the crisis the policy stance adopted by the Whigs was influenced by Malthusian providentialism, i.e. the conviction that the potato blight was a divinely ordained remedy for Irish overpopulation. Compassion on the part of the British elite was in short supply. The fear that too much kindness would entail a Malthusian lesson not learnt also conditioned both the nature and extent of intervention (Gray 1999).

The Irish famine killed about one million people, or one-eighth of the entire population. This made it a major famine, relatively speaking, by world-historical standards. In pre-1845 Ireland famines were by no means unknown — that caused by arctic weather conditions in 1740-41 killed a higher share of a much smaller population (Dickson 1998) — but those that struck during the half-century or so before the Great Famine were mini-famines by comparison. The excess death toll of one million is an informed guess, since in the absence of civil registration excess mortality cannot be calculated directly (Mokyr 1985; Boyle and Ó Gráda 1986). The record of deaths in the workhouses and other public institutions is nearly complete, but the recording of other deaths depended on the memory of survivors in households where deaths had taken place. In many homes, of course, death and emigration meant that there were no survivors. The estimate does not include averted births, nor does it allow for famine-related deaths in Britain and further afield (Neal 1997).

Mortality was regionally very uneven. No part of Ireland escaped entirely, but the toll ranged from one-quarter of the population of some western counties to negligible fractions in counties Down and Wexford on the east coast. The timing of mortality varied too, even in some of the worst hit areas. In west Cork, a notorious problem area, the worst was over by late 1847, but the deadly effects of the famine ranged in county Clare until 1850 or even 1851. Infectious diseases — especially typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery/diarrhea — rather than literal starvation were responsible for the bulk of mortality. While Karl Marx was almost right to claim that the Irish famine killed ‘poor devils only,’ many who were not abjectly poor and starving died of famine-related diseases. Medical progress, by shielding the rich from infection, has made subsequent famines even more class-specific. By and large, the higher the death toll, the higher the proportion of starvation deaths (Mokyr and Ó Gráda 2002). As in most famines, the elderly and the young were most likely to succumb, but women proved marginally more resilient than men.

The famine also resulted in migration on a massive scale. Again precise estimates are impossible. Though these migrants were also victims of the famine, their departure improved not only their own survival chances, but also those of the majority who remained in Ireland. True, the Atlantic crossing produced its own carnage, particularly in Quebec’s Grosse-Isle, but most of those who fled made it safely to the other side. There thus is a sense in which migration was a crude form of disaster relief, and that more spending on subsidized emigration would have reduced the aggregate famine death toll (Ó Gráda and O’Rourke 1997). Most of those who emigrated relied on their own resources; some landlords helped through direct subsidies or by relieving those who left of their unpaid rent bills. The landless poor simply could not afford to leave.

A Hierarchy of Suffering

Like all famines, the Irish famine produced its hierarchy of suffering. The rural poor, landless or near-landless, were most likely to perish, and the earliest victims were in that category. Farmers found their effective land endowment reduced, since their holdings could no longer yield the same quantity of potatoes as before. They also faced increased labor costs, forcing them to reduce their concentration on tillage. Landlords’ rental income plummeted by as much a third. Many clergymen, medical practitioners, and poor law officials died of infectious diseases. Pawnbrokers found their pledges being unredeemed as the crisis worsened. Least affected were those businesses and their work forces who relied on foreign markets for their raw materials and their sales. The relative impact of the famine on different occupational groups may be inferred from the 1841 and 1851 censuses. The overall decline in the labor force was 19.1 percent. There were 14.4 percent fewer farmers, and 24.2 percent fewer farm laborers. Not surprisingly, given their vulnerability, the number of physicians and surgeons dropped by 25.3 percent. The small number of coffin makers (eight in 1841, twenty-two in 1851) is a reminder that during the famine most coffins were not made by specialist coffin makers. It is difficult to identify any significant class of ‘winners’ in the 1840s, though the census indicates increases in the numbers of millers and bakers, of barristers and attorneys, and of bailiffs and rate collectors. The huge fall in the numbers of spinners and weavers was partly a consequence of the famine, partly due to other causes (Ó Gráda 1999: chapter 4; 2001).

Post-Famine Adjustment

The Great Irish Famine was not just a watershed in Irish history, but also a major event in global history, with far-reaching and enduring economic and political consequences. Individual memories of the famine, coupled with ‘collective memory’ of the event in later years, influenced the political culture of both Ireland and Irish-America — and probably still do (Cullen 1997; Donnelly 2000; Ó Gráda 2001). The famine brought the era of famines in Ireland to a brutal end. Serious failures of the potato in the early 1860s and late 1870s, also due to potato blight, brought privation in the west of the country, but no significant excess mortality. The famine also resulted in higher living standards for survivors. The bargaining power of labor was greater. Any negative impact on landlords’ income from a declining population was more than compensated for by the relative increase in the prices of land-intensive output and the prompter payment of rents due. Higher emigration was another by-product of the famine, as the huge outflow of the crisis years generated its own ‘friends and neighbors’ dynamic. Only in a few remote and tiny pockets in the west did population fill the vacuum left by the ‘Great Hunger,’ and then only very briefly (Guinnane 1997).

Whether or not the famine led to the decline of certain native industries by reducing the domestic market remains a moot point, worthy of further research (Whelan 1999). The long-run impact of the famine on the health of affected survivors is another unresearched topic (compare Lumey 1998). Finally, though the introduction of new potato varieties offered some respite against phythophtera infestans thereafter, no reliable defense would be found against it until the 1890s.

Note: This essay builds on my entry on the Great Irish Famine in Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll, editors, Encyclopedia of Population (New York: Macmillan, 2003).

Further Reading

Bourke, Austin. The Visitation of God? The Potato and the Great Irish Famine. Dublin: Lilliput, 1993.

Boyle, P.P. and C. Ó Gráda. “Fertility Trends, Excess Mortality, and the Great Irish Famine.” Demography 23 (1986): 543-62.

Clarkson, L.E. and E.M. Crawford. Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cullen, L.M. ‘The Politics of the Famine and Famine Historiography,” Comhdháil an Chraoibhín 1996 (Roscommon, Ireland) 1997: 9-31.

Dickson, David. Arctic Ireland. Belfast: White Row Press, 1998.

Donnelly, James S. The Irish Potato Famine. London: Sutton Publishing, 2000.

Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Edwards, R.D. and T.D. Williams. The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52. Dublin; Browne & Nolan, 1956 [new edition published by Lilliput Press, 1994].

Eiriksson, Andrés. “Food Supply and Food Riots.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 67-93. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Gray, Peter. Famine, Land, and Politics: British Government and Irish Society, 1843-50, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999.

Guinnane, Timothy W. The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Guinnane, Timothy W. and Cormac Ó Gráda. “Workhouse Mortality and the Great Irish Famine.” In Famine Demography, edited by Tim Dyson and Cormac Ó Gráda, 44-64. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lumey, L.H. “Reproductive Outcomes in Women Prenatally Exposed to Undernutrition from the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 57 (1998): 129-35.

Mokyr, Joel. Why Ireland Starved: An Analytical and Quantitative History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Mokyr, Joel and Cormac Ó Gráda. “What Do People Die of during Famines? The Great Irish Famine in Comparative Perspective.” European Review of Economic History 6, no. 3 (2002): 339-64.

Neal, Frank. Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Famine, Trauma, and Memory. ” Béaloideas 69 (2001): 121-43.

Ó Gráda, Cormac and Kevin H. O’Rourke. “Mass Migration as Disaster Relief: Lessons from the Great Irish Famine.” European Review of Economic History 1, no. 1 (1997): 3-25.

Ó Murchadha, Ciarán. Sable Wings over the Sand: Ennis, County Clare, and Its Wider Community during the Great Famine. Ennis: Clasp Press, 1998.

Solar, Peter M. “The Great Famine Was No Ordinary Subsistence Crisis.” In Famine: The Irish Experience, 900-1900, edited by E.M. Crawford. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989.

Solar, Peter M. 1997. “The Potato Famine in Europe.” In Famine 150: The Teagasc/UCD Lectures, edited by Cormac Ó Gráda, 113-27. Dublin: Teagasc, 1997.

Whelan, Karl. “Economic Geography and the Long-run Effects of the Great Irish Famine.” Economic and Social Review 30, no. 1 (1999): 1-20.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845-49, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962.

Citation: O Grada, Cormac. “Ireland’s Great Famine”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL

In October 2017, during his State visit to Australia, President Michael D Higgins unveiled Footsteps Towards Freedom, a memorial in Hobart to Irish convict women who were sent to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known, in the 19th century. Sculpted by Rowan Gillespie, it was the third set of figures in his Famine trilogy, following those on Custom House Quay in Dublin, from 1997, and the group that make up The Arrival, at Ireland Park in Toronto, from 2007.

Public commemoration always serves as a barometer of present concerns, and these three artworks, each a decade apart, signal the continuing strength of interest in the Famine. They also remind us how the “memory” of the Famine is perpetually evoked, enshrined and examined as cipher for the present – an inversion of its formerly muted place in Irish history – even while its significance remains as elusive and mobile as ever.

The Famine Folios series, published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut, and distributed in collaboration with Cork University Press, is very much a product of such concerns. It also epitomises the difficulty of crafting public history texts that effectively distil a complex academic literature into a readable and engaging format. The achievements of this series are, in this regard, very mixed.

The Famine Folios reflect a diverse perspective: folklore, music, poetry, architecture, political science, history, visual art and performance all feature

With each slim folio essentially comprising a single essay, they occupy the other end of the physical spectrum from the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (2012) and the Atlas of the Irish Revolution (2017), the massive historical compendiums lavishly produced by Cork University Press. But both genres feature a mixture of authors presenting new and revisited scholarly material, heavily illustrated and accessibly designed. Unfortunately the folios’ value as individual publications is more variable, as they never quite commit to either a popular or academic readership, and their quality is uneven.

Under review here are the latest eight in the series of 16 Famine Folios so far. One of the most remarkable recent developments in Famine studies has been an intense interdisciplinarity, and the folios reflect this diversity of perspective, as Famine folklore, music, poetry, architecture, political science, history, visual art and performance all feature.

A number of the folios engage originally and provocatively with their topics. Breandán Mac Suibhne’s Subjects Lacking Words? The Gray Zone of the Great Famine (44pp, €11.95) is the most exceptional, echoing his groundbreaking monograph The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland, also from 2017. Here Mac Suibhne presents a nuanced take on “survivors” of the Famine and those who occupy the “grey zone” – a term borrowed from Primo Levi’s memoirs of the Holocaust – a liminal space where distinctions between perpetrators and victims blur, created in conditions of extreme depravation where communal standards of behaviour are violated in a desperate bid for survival.

Breandán Mac Suibhne poses challenging questions about how societies remember or rehabilitate horrific experiences absent clear moral absolutes

Mac Suibhne poses challenging questions about how societies remember or rehabilitate horrific experiences absent clear moral absolutes. In so doing he revisits territory similarly covered by Cormac Ó Gráda, most recently in Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future, from 2015, and echoes other microhistorical investigations of internecine conflicts, such as Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine, Ciarán Reilly’s work on the Roscommon estate, from 2014, and Ciarán Ó Murchadha’s Figures in a Famine Landscape, from 2016, which focused on west Co Clare.

Niamh Ann Kelly’s Ultimate Witnesses: The Visual Culture of Death, Burial and Mourning in Famine Ireland (48pp, €11.95) also presents a well-written and lucid account of pre-Famine and Famine-era mortuary practices and their visual representation. Informed by an excellent range of sources, many drawn from the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin, she explores the rituals of death and burial disrupted by the mass shock of the Famine. Infused with (but not overdetermined by) cultural theoretical perspectives, she offers sensitive readings of mass-grave sites and their subsequent commemoration. Well-chosen illustrations, closely examined in the text, add force to her arguments.

Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of some of the folios is their use of copious illustration and careful eye for captioning. (Unfortunately, others tend to include images that have no clear relationship to the text, or that are unhelpfully cropped.)

Paschal Mahoney’s Grim Bastilles of Despair: The Poor Law Union Workhouses in Ireland (52pp, €11.95) is a solid survey of the Irish workhouse system and the career of its English architect, George Wilkinson, although his commentary on the Irish Poor Law would have benefited from consulting the extensive work in this area by Peter Gray and Virginia Crossman. An architect himself by training, Mahoney offers astute, insightful analyses of Wilkinson’s designs, basing them on plans and drawings from the collections of the Irish Architectural Archive and extant workhouse examples. Parallels between the horrors of the 19th-century workhouse system with 20th-century institutions of confinement and reform, such as Magdalene laundries and industrial schools, are inescapable; Mahoney’s text is a reminder that many such buildings continue to slip under the preservation threshold, and face uncertain futures.

Two of the other folios would best suit a general audience, as they are not conversant with (or opt not to include) recent scholarship in their areas.

In Leaves of Hungry Grass: Poetry and Ireland’s Great Hunger (52pp, €11.95), the poet Vincent Woods offers a “personal and particular” patchwork of “the poetry of restorative memory, the work of Irish and international poets who seek to reimagine the Famine past, pay witness to its victims and survivors, and forge links to a wider world of suffering humanity”. Its assembly of examples culminates in a newly commissioned poem by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Maria Edgeworth in 1847.

Mick Moloney’s Across the Western Ocean: Songs of Leaving and Arriving (56pp, €11.95) is an interesting compendium and CD of 19th- and early-20th-century songs on Famine-related themes such as eviction, emigration and conditions of immigrant life. Anti-immigrant songs from the Know-Nothing movement provide intriguing counterpoints to nostalgic balladry, with nativist lyrics like “Yankee Doodle wide awake / Be silent you should never / Until you drive the popish snake / From off the soil, forever” echoing Trumpian rhetoric. The author’s expertise on this topic is unfortunately rather short-changed in a text dominated by reproduced music and lyrics rather than discussion and analysis.

We may be more sanguine about the perils of conflating history writing with blithe notions of a ‘shared cultural memory’ than was the case 30 years ago

The three remaining folios required a stronger editorial hand.

Angela Bourke’s Voices Underfoot: Memory, Forgetting, and Oral Verbal Art (44pp, €11.95) is fragmented in its treatment of “oral history and verbal art”, and examples ranging from David Thomson’s memoir Woodbrook, from 1974, to soup pots do not entirely cohere into a focused account of folk memory and the Famine. Its opening statement that the Famine “had scarcely been spoken of in Ireland for twenty-five years” preceding the 150th anniversary is contradicted by several of the other folios, as well as existing historiography.

Tadhg Foley’s Death By Discourse? Political Economy and the Great Irish Famine (48pp, €11.95) misses the opportunity to present a readable summary of the oppressive economic and philosophical ideologies of modernisation that led to disastrous state responses to crisis, particularly under the Russell government from mid-1846. The essay appears to be condensed from Foley’s previous collaborative works with Thomas Boylan, published in the 1990s, but here lacks a clear chronology and historical context.

Richard Kearney and Sheila Gallagher’s Twinsome Minds: An Act of Double Remembrance (48pp, €11.95) has little to do with the Famine at all, as a “published version of a multimedia performance” commemorating the Easter Rising originally staged at the Abbey Theatre in 2016. The authors claim that the failure of the 1916 leaders to explicitly refer to the Famine as “the direct cause of rebellion” (which was unsurprising, as it wasn’t) was “symptomatic of an unconscious repression of inherited trauma”, an assertion with no basis in evidence. What follows is an attempt to model what the authors distinguish as “good” commemoration from the “bad” type, deeply indebted to fuzzy pseudo Freudian notions of post-traumatic “healing” and recovery.

This final folio indeed feels like a throwback to the ubiquity of such framings of the Famine in the 1990s, which Mac Suibhne’s own folio aptly critiques, noting how “narratives like those of [Hugh] Dorian and [Jeremiah O’Donovan] Rossa and, indeed, stories told by the generation that came after them give the lie to the facile notion, popularized in the 1990s, that the Famine was ‘so deeply tragic as to be too traumatic to recall’.”

The field of Famine studies has certainly advanced to a point where we may be more sanguine about the perils of conflating history writing with blithe notions of a “shared cultural memory” or undifferentiated “cultural trauma” than was the case 30 years ago, a myopia the Famine Folios series does not always avoid.

Serious students or scholars of Irish studies will prefer its authors’ more rigorous and extended engagements with their subjects elsewhere, although the folios’ standards of design and visual interest are admirable and bode well for the imminent Irish tour of Art & the Great Hunger, from Quinnipiac’s art collection, which features heavily throughout.

Dr Emily Mark-FitzGerald is associate professor of art history and cultural policy at University College Dublin. She is author of Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument (Liverpool University Press, 2013) and coeditor of The Great Irish Famine: Visual and Material Cultures (also Liverpool University Press, forthcoming 2018)

Art & the Great Hunger, from the collection of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, at Quinnipiac University, opens at Dublin Castle in March, then moves to Skibbereen in July and Derry next January;