Exclusive Interview with Tim Pat Coogan - A policy of ethnic cleansing? Who’s to blame for the Irish Famine?


The better studies on the Great Hunger have all been written by Irish Americans, Coogan contends, since they are outside the British tenure track loop and don’t have to bow the knee to this kind of shibboleth.

“Christine Kinealy, James Donnelly Junior, Bob Scally – all these guys have written about the Famine in a moving way and are above reproach. They don’t follow a hidebound path.”

Unlike their illustrious predecessors, these Irish American historians don’t give credence to the idea that it didn’t matter that food was exported from Ireland during the Famine. Nor have they shied away from examining the impact and legacy on the people who experienced it and their descendents.

“Two million died. It is two million by the way because modern scholarship shows that the loss to the birth rate was more than just a million. Whole families perished and there’s no records. The fevers were devastating and then there were all the diverted births, of children born on ships or born in America,” Coogan explains.

“We lost through death and emigration three million out of a population of nearly nine. There was a psychological aspect to it too, a condition called learned helplessness where the experience is so overwhelming that you simply accept your fate. That learned helplessness has played itself out in all the decades that have followed.”

It didn’t help that a chorus of high-handed British officials saw the subsequent death of millions of Irish paupers as “God’s lesson” for their supposedly shiftless neighbors, Coogan says.

In The Famine Plot Coogan underlines how a toxic stew of anti-Irish sentiment, amoral economic opportunism and longstanding religious discrimination, led – he maintains – to one of the earliest examples of how an engineered food shortage became a covert policy of ethnic cleansing. 

Whether you accept this claim or not, that British officialdom pursued a premeditated policy to let Irish paupers die, or whether you believe that laissez-faire economics and political indifference (which is in some ways worse) led to mass starvations, there’s no question that it’s the darkest chapter in Britain’s colonial past.

Many Irish readers will be familiar with the details of the Irish Famine, the numbers who died, the dangerous voyages on coffin ships in search of relief, and the legacy of that crisis on the Irish diaspora of nearly 80 million people.

But nothing can prepare you for the book’s emotional wallop, as Coogan vividly recreates the hell on earth conditions that our ancestors navigated and then were haunted by after the fact. Their voices, the needless horror they witnessed, have rarely been so passionately expressed.