A new documentary exploring the history of the Great Irish Hunger and the story of the million Irish people who left Ireland to escape hunger during this time will premier on Tuesday, November 10, at Quinnipiac University.
“Ireland’s Great Hunger and the Irish Diaspora” is a 50-minute documentary narrated by famed Irish actor Gabriel Byrne that delves into the troubled history of crop failure, death and emigration that struck Ireland between 1845 and 1853.
During these years, the potato crop, on which the Irish people were so reliant, was struck by a blight causing the crop to fail and leaving the Irish population without a food source.
The film’s producers, Rebecca Abbott and Liam O’Brien, take a look throughout the documentary at not only the physical reasons why the period of hunger often dubbed the “Irish Famine” was caused i.e. the appearance of the blight, but at the historical, social and political circumstances that caused it to have such a devastating and lasting effect on its people.
“Understanding how the Great Hunger happened can help us see – and perhaps prevent – similar situations that are developing and taking place in the world today,” said Abbott, who filmed and edited the documentary.
“I feel the documentary will help viewers develop a deeper understanding of a major, tragic event in world history.
“I hope by getting a better understanding of the historical, cultural and political events leading up to and surrounding the Great Hunger, audiences will begin to see how this understanding can give insight into events taking place today.”
Throughout the documentary, Abbott, a professor in the Department of Film, Television and Media Arts at Quinnipiac University, also speaks to descendants of those Great Hunger survivors who fled Ireland in the hopes of escaping hunger and poverty, aiming to make a better life for themselves on foreign shores. The film will focus, in particular, on those who fled Ireland through a Canadian quarantine station, and those whose maternal ancestors emigrated to Australia under the Earl Grey scheme from 1849 to 1852.
The quarantine station in question is the island of Grosse Île, Quebec, Canada, which acted as a quarantine station for the Port of Quebec akin to Staten Island in New York during the Great Hunger period. Many Irish lost their lives here during the typhus epidemic of 1847 - a year that is named Black ‘47 in Irish history in memory of the worst period of the Irish Famine.
The island is locally known as “L’Íle des Irlandais,” The Island of the Irish, due to the fact that several thousand Irish people are buried in mass graves there. Many of those who succeeded in escaping the famine and survived the Atlantic crossing, died as a result of fever once on the island.
In 1847 alone, 100,000 Irish people attempted to enter the port and escape starvation at home.
These passengers knew little of the hardships and sickness that they were still to face. Between 1832 and 1837, there were 7,480 burials recorded on the island. In 1847 alone, this number reached 5,424 with many Irish people listed as being buried at sea.
The Earl Grey scheme, named after its principal architect, Earl Grey, the British government's Secretary of State for War and the Colonies at the time of the Great Hunger, operated in Ireland between 1849 and 1852, shipping over 4,000 young Irish girls and women from workhouses to the Australian colonies, arriving at Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
“The Potato Orphans” as they are sometimes dubbed, were, at times, married off to convicts who had also been shipped to the Australian colonies.
Even though many young women may have survived the famine, they were left orphaned by the deaths of their family members or abandoned by parents who were no longer able to provide for them. Many entered the already struggling workhouses, which became increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced as the famine worsened.
Up to 4,000 vulnerable and lonely Irish girls were sent to Australia to work for as little as £11 a year in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the workhouses. Aged between 14 and 45, the women were shipped out in batches of 200 to 300 at a time, on a voyage almost identical to that of the Irish convicts being sent to Australia.
Featuring in the documentary is Christine Kinealy, Founding Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute. Speaking on the Institute’s contribution to its production she said: “The mission of the Great Hunger Institute is to promote a scholarly understanding of the Great Hunger. The production of this documentary reinforces the fact that Quinnipiac University is a world leader in the study of the Great Hunger.”
The film will also feature many other leading scholars on the subject of the Great Hunger including Declan Kiberd, University College Dublin and Notre Dame University; Ciaran O’Murchadha, author of “The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852”; Mike Murphy, University College Cork; and Richard Reid, historian, National Museum of Australia.
The documentary, “Ireland’s Great Hunger and the Irish Diaspora,” will be premiered from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 10, in the Mount Carmel Auditorium in the Center for Communications and Engineering at Quinnipiac University, 275 Mount Carmel Ave. The viewing, sponsored by Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac, is free and open to the public.
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