The years spanning from 1845 to 1852 – also known as the Irish Potato Famine – were among the most tragically formative in Irish history. What should we call them?
During this time, over one million Irish died and close to two million emigrated – forever altering the course of Ireland’s future and setting the wheels in motion for Ireland’s powerful and extensive diaspora.
Debate continues today about whether these years should be referred to as a famine, due to the potato blight, or whether to label it as merely a famine brushes under the carpet all the political and social maneuvers and decisions that were also at play.
Some claim that “Irish Famine” is the more straightforward, better-understood term. The Irish government seems to be on board with this, as they recently appointed an official National Famine Commemoration Day.
Others argue to call a spade a spade and describe it as genocide, due to the willful neglect of the British government.
I believe that the Great Hunger, which stems from “an Gorta Mór” in Irish, is the proper, more respectful, and fully representative term.
True, it was Phytophthora infestans (the potato blight) that set the chain of events in motion. The fungus arrived in Ireland in 1845, and when crops began failing that year they were believed to be isolated events. Most were able to weather the first year of blight, with reserves set aside from the previous harvest. Then the blight spread, and for the next four years, potato crops, the staple element in the diets of Ireland’s lower classes, particularly in the west, failed.
The lack of potatoes was devastating, but to say that this brought about a population loss of over 3 million is to make a vast over-simplification.
As many leading scholars on the Great Hunger, including the late Cecil Woodham-Smith and Professor Christine Kinealy, currently the Director of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, have noted, one of the most devastating actions taken during these years was the continued exporting of food out of Ireland.
To quote Woodham-Smith, writing in “The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849,” “…no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries (England and Ireland) as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.”
And, as Kinealy revealed, during 1847 – the worst year of the Hunger, so bad it is remembered as “Black ’47,” while 400,000 men, women and children died, almost 4,000 ships carried food away from Ireland. Exported commodities included “peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed,” as well as butter.
This, combined with the shocking regulations and lack of aid put in place by the British government during the Great Hunger, shows that it was not simply just the potato blight that caused such tragedy and chaos.
We should not oversimplify, but explain and educate.
How do you think this period in Irish history should be referred to? The Potato Famine? The Great Hunger? An Gorta Mor?
Let us know what you think in the comment section, below.