I took a course at an American university called "Genocides and Crimes Against Humanity."  We discussed many world events and sometimes struggled with how to place them into these categories.  The accepted definitions and the collective memories of the different cultures involved were sometimes at odds.

fam·ine   noun \ˈfa-mən\ :  extreme and protracted shortage of food, resulting in widespread hunger and a substantial increase in the death rate

geno·cide  noun \ˈje-nə-ˌsīd\  :  the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group

Which word best describes the events that occurred in Ireland from 1845 to 1852?  Which word encapsulates the cause behind the one million bodies, and the one million emigrants that would forever change this land and it's people?  Are the words mutually exclusive, or should we use both to label this tragedy?  Perhaps you think a different term is the best description. 

This question has been debated before, and will be debated again, but it is a valuable one.  Maybe you've never had a chance to engage in it directly.  Please share your knowledge, opinions, and questions here.

Tags: An Gorta Mor, Famine, The Great Hunger

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Hello Mary,

I am wondering why you seem to think I do not believe there was a famine. Did you even the read the topic under discussion ? The question is whether the huge death toll from the famine was due to natural causes - an epidemic of a previously unknown (and untreatable) crop disease; or if it was largely due to a deliberately inadequate relief response to that crop failure. 

And to presume that I would be a holocaust denier is completely inappropriate. I have been to Auschwitz. Have you? It's not a pretty place.

Despite having written a book on the subject, I doubt you have a firm grasp of the political and social conditions in the years leading up to the famine. Ireland's population had doubled between 1800 and 1845; and by the 1830s the huge numbers of unemployed labourers in ireland had become a significant political issue. There were proposals to 'clear' Ireland as had been done in Scotland over the previous decades- send the excess population off to North America.

Famines were regular occurrences during the 18th and 19th centuries, but were generally due to adversely cold weather conditions that rarely repeated the following season, for example in 1740-41 and 1816-17. Hence the whig government in early 1846 did not want relief operations to continue, as they felt that would  divert the peasants from planting for the next season. Trevalyan is also on record as saying that he "did not under any circumstances want the Irish to starve" but he did feel it was "the divine providence" that was needed to get the clearance program underway - he pointedly blamed the landlords for not starting the clearances (i.e. paying peasant farmers passage to emigrate to America) earlier. I suspect everyone was surprised by the virulence of the potato blight, which returned year after year, unlike famines of previous eras. Given the unique nature of this famine - an exotic new crop disease - it was easy to attribute it to divine intervention or retribution.

Also, you talk a lot about food being shipped out of Ireland while peasants starved. you seem to imply that it would have been a simple solution to divert that food to famine relief . Be realistic - you would have been asking the landlords to bankrupt themselves, and hence that would have been politically impossible. It would be like a modern day government confiscating all the supplies in supermarkets and distributing them to people living rough on the streets. Maybe a morally right thing to do, but politically and legally not possible.



Fascinating discussion, guys.  Leaving the "was it a genocide?" question aside...I don't think it's inappropriate to call it a famine.  Some seem to think that the word "famine" indicates a purely natural occurrence, but that is not accurate.  According to the dictionary definition, a famine can have natural and man-made (even nefarious) causes, as this one did.  So I don't think people should be offended when the word famine is used.  "Famine" is commonly used here in Ireland to describe the period, both in common parlance and in academia.  However, the term "Great Hunger" is equally descriptive.  I use them interchangeably.

Interesting discussion. One other thing that I would like to point out is that there are really no accurate numbers on the number of deaths. It seems to be well over and above 1 million. Even with 1 million fleeing Ireland, the population seems to have gone from 8 million to 4 million in 4 years. Where are the missing 2 million? I have no doubt that certain people wish to downplay the tragedy of it. And I often wonder why more research hasn't been done on the writings of those Irishmen who survived the whole thing. I thought I'd dig out this old quote from someone who lived through both it and his enlistment in the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. What he thought about it - having experienced it first-hand, can leave little doubt as to what his generation thought about it:

"The English administration, in whose interest the national organization was systematically disrupted and the national aspirations sacrificed, proved to be the most murderous in its policy of any that ever ruled the destinies of the Irish people. For, under its auspices was inaugurated the cold-blooded destruction of a gallant race by the agency of the twin plagues of Famine and Pestilence, which, in two years, did more deadly execution than did all the sanguinary wars waged against the national existence for the previous six centuries. This is no exaggerated assertion, the ghastly records of the time verifies it in incontrovertible statistics, so far as regards the number of the victims. That the Government was responsible for their death the following damning facts will testify.

When, in the Autumn of 1845, the "potato-blight" made its sudden appearance and destroyed more than half the sustenance of the Irish people at one fell stroke, a Tory administration was in power. But the prompt, humane, and statesman-like action of the premier, Sir Robert Peel, was equal to the exigency, and, during his term of office, very few, (if any,) deaths from hunger occurred in Ireland.

His successor in office, Lord John Russell, had full warning of the recurring calamity, and, in the example set by the Tory statesman, the means of averting its evil consequences, had he been inclined to avail himself thereof. But his 'free-trade-in-human-lives" policy tended in the opposite direction, and the calculating, cold-blooded political economist, not only complacently presided over the peoples legal assassination by famine and famine-engendered fever, but, with a savagery unmatched by Cromwell's, had his liveried murderers shoot down the unarmed, hunger-maddened peasants, who tried to prevent the food raised by their toil from being shipped by his speculating proteges to a foreign land, before the faces of themselves and their starving families. No Irishman who witnessed those appalling scenes, can ever forget them, or, from his heart, forgive those responsible therefore, none such need be reminded of their indescribable horrors. I recall them here for the information of a younger generation, descendants of the murdered and expatriated victims of English rule that so they may appreciate the motives of the men who, in the face of persecution and obloquy, took their stand between the people and their leagued enemies; and, also, that they may cherish, in their heart of hearts, the holy and implacable hatred of the assassins, until, by God's justice a day of fitting retribution is vouchsafed the true men of their imperishable and unconquerable race."

- Michael Cavanagh, "Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher", pp69-70

Hello John W Hurley - I have not got around to replying to  Tom's blog above ; but I will when I have all my facts to hand..

Your brilliant article from a first hand witness ; belies the narrative of those that believe .that the famine was caused by natural causes alone . That  the epidemic of the blithe on all of the Potato seedlings is of course in  no doubt ; what the discussion raises is however the question; what was the actual cause of the Famine ?  

"Dennis Clark an Irish America historian ;claimed that the Famine or the Great Hunger  was the culmination of generations of neglect ; misrule and repression . Not least, that it was of epic proportions of English Colonial cruelty and inadequacy for over seven hundred years;  for the landless cabin dwellers it meant emigration or extinction." . 

The question is whether the huge death toll from the Famine was due to natural causes alone; .. "Francis A. Boyle , Law Professor of the University of Illinois at Ubana -Champaign ;  has noted that " Trevelyan and the British  Government pursued a race and ethnicity- based policy aimed at destroying the group know as the Irish people , and that they policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide as per the Hague convention 1848 ; 100 years after the Famine .

Other historians  would argue that ' Ireland was full of food ; so how could there be a Famine ?? 

W . Mitchell a notable journalist at the time ; wrote " The almighty may have have indeed sent the blight but it was the English who cause the Famine ". His outspoken comments were to get him tried for sedition and sentenced to deportation .! ! !

 My arguement is much akin to Dennis Clarkes and  Francis Boyles . It is a reasonable argument in the face of those who believe that " Natural Cause" alone causes the Famine . No records exist as to how many actually died before they reached the Ships to take then to Foreign Shores - no records exist as to haw many actually died on the Ships setting sail for the  promised land . They have not been called 'the coffin ships 'for no reason ' 

Mary Thorpe 

I am quoting from "The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine", "over one million excess deaths occurred (c. 1.4 million if averted births are included. At least one million and a quarter (possibly as many as 1.35 million) emigrant refugees fled the country for other lands. It is also better remembered because it is the most recent and best-documented famine.In short, the Great Famine is remembered because of the terrors of hunger and fever, the many deaths and broken homes and because it led to a revolution in Irish society as deep and as traumatic as the Cromwellian conquest two centuries earlier." The editors insist on referring to this catastrophe as "The Great Irish Famine" although I have long used the term "HOLOCAUST" as being a more descriptive and more accurate term.

Holocaust ; Genocide - in my opinion - would be an apt description of this era in Irish History . John Hurley blog above has given an eye witness account of this era. 

Daniel O'Connell -in the years before his death ; foresaw the deaths of so many people ; but parliament would not listen to him . He begged Parliament do do something before it was too late; that did not happen . 

So many , many people - experts ; professionals and historians ; have been able to give their opinion on this terrible  ere ; why would anyone doubt all of the evidence . 


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