Plumbing the myths, and realities, of an Gorta Mor,
and why the whole story has for so long been ignored
“Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs.”
– Robbie O’Connell
Readers of BostonIrish know that the Great Hunger, an Gorta Mor, radically changed Ireland and its relationship with the world. Neither BostonIrish Magazine nor its readership would likely exist had the 1845-1852 catastrophe not occurred. But according to a team of Irish historians who have launched a new lecture series entitled “Rippling Effects of The Great Irish Famine,” teaching and research of the Great Famine has largely been omitted from Ireland’s primary, secondary, and university curricula, north and south of the border, until relatively recently.
The idea that the Famine has been a neglected subject was surprising to me. Reminders of that time are everywhere in Ireland: In Mullingar along the royal canal, a pair of bronzed children’s shoes acknowledges the thousands who jumped onto passing canal boats to escape Ireland. In Dublin, a life-size sculpture evokes the stark reality of desperation. In Co. Louth and in most counties, there are unmarked Famine graveyards, fields where the grazing of cattle or sheep is permitted but tillage is forbidden out of respect for the Famine dead. Poems, novels, and songs like the Fields of Athenry, Skibbereen, City of Chicago, and Kilkelly create space for the Great Hunger in an allegorical form rather than in the gut-wrenching details of history. The Great Famine still haunts Ireland and informs its world view, including its commitment to accept Ukrainian refugees.
The goal of the lecture series is to advance understanding of the Famine beyond the memorials, ballads, graveyards, and oral history by submitting the event to rigorous historical research: the origins of the cataclysm, the decisions of policy makers, the experiences of the people, and its legacy. In the process, the painstaking work of primary source research has exposed myths. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore all the new information that researchers have uncovered but I will share a few examples of their new data and explore why the subject has been ignored, like a field left untilled.
Behold the potato, a superfood
The potato was introduced to Ireland in 1590, and by 1800 it had become the island’s staple food. Ireland’s poverty of the time is well-known: 40 percent of families lived in one-room dwellings, little more than mud huts, and 40 percent of school-age children did not have sufficient clothing to attend school or Mass. Because of this widespread poverty, it was believed that Irish people were also poorly nourished. Untrue. Even though 50 percent of the population subsisted entirely on “spuds” (a name taken from the shovel-like tool used to cultivate the tubers) and water, the Irish were very well nourished as evidenced by the rapid population growth, large families, and low infant mortality rates. The average height of Irish people was also greater and literacy rates were higher than those of their counterparts in Britain or the continent.
The potato is a superfood, loaded with carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals, the only single food source that can sustain health all by itself. With just a little milk added for vitamin A, it is a complete, albeit monotonous, diet. The average adult male in pre-famine Ireland consumed 10-12 pounds of potatoes per day (four thousand calories).
Potatoes originated in the Peruvian Andes, where over four thousand varieties protect against occasional blights that affect a single species. The Peruvians had also developed a technique to freeze-dry potatoes for extended preservation, a method unknown to Europeans. Without the knowledge of using multiple species of potatoes to protect against specific species’ blights or the ability to preserve the food source for more than nine months, 50 percent of the Irish population's exclusive reliance on just one type of potato, ‘the lumper,’ left the Irish preparing to collect the harvest in 1845 extremely vulnerable.
An example of primary historical research that has been conducted but is undergoing a review in Ireland is ranking great famines’ impact on population numbers. The Great Irish Famine mortality rate was 12 percent, far more lethal than the next-ranked famine, in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, which had a 7 percent mortality rate. The deadliest famine of the modern era, with a 13 percent mortality rate, also occurred in Ireland in 1740-1741 (also news to me) in a disaster caused not by a potato blight, but by drought and cold weather.
Death and emigration: A huge undercounting
“One million died and one million emigrated” are the generally accepted estimates of deaths and refugees caused by the 1845-1852 Famine, but new research suggests a vast undercount. The numbers are based on the census that was conducted every 10 years. The last pre-Famine census, taken in 1841, recorded 8.2 million people on the island. In 1851, the population was 6.5 million. This ignores all the children born after 1841 and who died or left before 1851.
Historians are painstakingly reviewing baptismal records, deaths recorded by workhouses and parishes, and emigration records to find the uncounted. The population continued to fall. Some 4.2 million were left at the dawn of the 20th century. The accounting effort is complicated by the destruction of 800 years of civil administration records (including the censuses) in the fire at the Four Courts in 1922 during the Irish Civil War.
The new research challenges the truth of the conventional wisdom regarding the Famine. For example, it is generally still believed that counties with alternative food sources like oats, wheat, or fish had lower death rates. In Co. Louth, well known for its fertile land and rich fishing waters, people assumed that conditions during the famine were not as bad as in “the west,” but according to the research, the variation of death rates was 1 percent or less in all 32 counties. The National Folklore Commission in the 1930s compiled first-hand accounts from still-living famine survivors or their children. The interviews document that the hardships of workhouses, soup kitchens, forced evictions, and mass graves, were also endured in Louth.
During the famine, the press of the northern Protestant-dominated counties promoted the idea that “Superior Ulster, composed of proud people of manly self-reliance, will not stoop like the west and South.” The myth that “Superior Ulster” avoided the worst effects of the famine is not borne out by the numbers; mortality rates were similar to the rest of Ireland in all nine counties of Ulster. A mass Famine grave on the Shankill road in Belfast is as large as Skibbereen’s, but it has been hidden in plain sight because it does not support the narrative of “Superior Ulster.”
Police reports in Belfast of the time reveal cases of groups of desperate people robbing boats laden with food and other products for export. Revealingly, the thieves only stole food; all other cargo was left undisturbed.
“The Irish are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence”
The British Whig government of the time was dominated by laissez faire, free market economists, racists, and Malthusians who believed that overpopulation was the real threat to human civilization.
“The famine is a punishment from God for an idle, ungrateful, and rebellious country, an indolent and un-self-reliant people. The Irish are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence,” said Charles Trevelyan in 1847, the worst year of the Famine. He was knighted in 1848 for overseeing Famine relief.
English “doctors” were deployed to Ireland to observe the effects of the Famine. Their sketches noted the hairy faces of the dead and dying. We now know that victims of starvation, even children, will often sprout hair in strange places as the body tries desperately to preserve itself, but the “doctors” saw this as confirmation that the Irish were “a lower race, between gorillas and negroes.”
The historians believe that there are several reasons that the Great Famine has been avoided by scholars and its research underfunded in Ireland and Britain. First, survivors of a catastrophe of this scale are so traumatized that studying the cold facts can be re- traumatizing. For 20 years after the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940s, there was very little study of it. The Covid pandemic may well join the 1918 flu pandemic as modern examples of catastrophes that people prefer to not research or even discuss. The impact of the Brexit calamity is famously underreported and under-discussed in the UK. There is also a societal instinct, and a practical imperative, in Ireland to not dwell on tragedy and to “get on with it.”
Second, there were (and still are) political considerations. Uncovering the truth about the Famine inevitably leads to assigning culpability. The facts are a condemnation of the British response on multiple levels. While the service of the Quakers and some others is recognized as admirable, the Empire’s response was late, inadequate, corrupt (famine relief money often ended up in the pockets of bad actors), it punished the victims, and it was driven by racism, greed, and disregard for human life. Writing the history of mass deaths caused by the willful incompetence and callousness of the British has political implications, even in today’s fraught post- Brexit context. In short, the reason the Famine has been ignored is that it is too painful for the Irish and too shameful for the British to study.
Over the 100 years of Irish Independence, Ireland has worked to build a positive relationship with Britain. Studying the truth of the Great Irish Famine might reopen wounds. In Northern Ireland, the subject was even more radioactive after the outbreak of the Troubles. Scholars had better chances of receiving funding for Irish Famine research from American Universities than from Ireland or Britain.
The struggle against hiding history, which informs our future, continues
Just this month the British government unilaterally introduced a ‘Troubles Legacy Bill.’ If it passes through Parliament, ignoring the objections of all political parties in Ireland, the US and the EU, UK government investigations into Troubles-era violence including assassinations and collusion between Loyalist death squads and the British military, will be abandoned.
Hiding tortured history is not unique to Britain. Since the murder of George Floyd and many others, opponents of teaching the basics of US history with regard to slavery are attempting to bury history in an unmarked grave. Florida Governor Ron Desantis' ‘Stop WOKE Act’ bans teaching that racism played a role in the creation of the United States and that the lingering impacts of racism and slavery still inform American life. Professors in African American Studies programs in Florida’s public universities have lost funding. In contrast, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the creation of the first in the nation ‘Reparations Task Force’ in 2020. Its recommendations for compensation to the descendants of enslaved black people are due in July. The fight for history and how it informs our future, continues.
There is a danger that the study of history becomes nothing more than a nurturing of grievances, score-settling, and a perpetuation of divisions but fundamentally, people deserve the truth. As with the holocaust, we should ‘never forget’ the past and do our best to learn from it. California’s example shows that confronting the truth can lead to progress.
The expanding field of Famine Studies suggests that in 2023, Ireland is confident and secure enough in itself to discover what really happened to her people in the 19th and the 20th centuries. There is much more work to do. America, too, should continue to examine all of our history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to build a future in which everyone, including Native Americans, African Americans, women, and immigrants, can flourish in solidarity.
Editor's note: The ongoing lecture series discussed above is available to all at armaghbanbridgecrtaigavon.gov.uk/famine. Upcoming sessions will focus on the role of women during the Famine, and the experience of survivors who later fought in the US Civil War.