The Great Hunger was a natural calamity which was made into an appalling disaster by a selfish lack of assistance on the part of the British Parliament. Their disregard for large-scale human suffering in the land that they had made part of their empire only 44 years earlier bears witness to their true concern for the Irish people, whom they allowed to sink to the brink of starvation before the blight even struck. Millions of men, women and children starved to death or fell victim to preventable diseases in a land that exported hundreds of tons of food annually. The number who died would be a measure of that horror, but sadly, that number eludes us. The Census Commission in 1841 recorded 8,175,000 while in 1851 it was recorded at 6,552,385. Amateur historians subtract and claim a toll loss of 1.62 million which they divide between died and emigrated. That is totally wrong!
The question then is how to estimate the scope of the disaster. Since births and deaths were not recorded until 1864, the census was the only indication of population, but the census of 1841 was inaccurate as attested to by census officials at the time. They estimated that millions hid from the census to avoid being registered for tithes and taxes, and some census takers refused to venture into woods, bogs, and hills to tally the Irish. They estimated that the actual population was 25% higher than recorded – and that is conservative because, in one district in Co Clare it was actually found to be 33% higher. In addition, the 1841 census was an increase of 172% over the previous census, and the population continued growing at that rate until 1845. Therefore, if the population were 25% higher than stated, and still growing at the alarming rate of 2% per year, the 1845 population would have been more then 11 million. The post- hunger census of 1851 which recorded 6,552,000, was inaccurate in the opposite way since people registered in the hope of receiving relief. Officials at that time complained that family sizes were overstated and some even registered several times. These figures then (the Crown’s own figures) indicate that about 5 million souls were lost to Ireland through emigration, disease, and starvation. One memorial stone erected at the lost town of Lisnabinnia in Galway recorded 5.2 million dead and 1 million emigrated (see picture). The Census Commissioners wrote in their final report:
We feel it will be gratifying to your excellency to find that although the population has been diminished in so remarkable a manner by famine, disease and emigration between 1841 and 1851, and has been since decreasing, the results of the Irish census of 1851 are, on the whole, satisfactory, demonstrating as they do the general advancement of the country.
Some historians view that concluding sentence, so full of bureaucratic good cheer, as indicative of Parliament’s overall response to the Irish tragedy. The true number lost lies somewhere in between 2 and 6 million, but the saddest part is that we can never know how many or who perished.
What we do know are the lasting effects for, in addition to the incredible number of fatalities by one of the slowest and most painful of deaths, it altered the personality of the Irish for generations -- we might even recognize some of the effects from our own grandparents or great aunts and uncles. After the Great Hunger, the Irish no longer married young. The humiliation of being unable to provide for one's family, coupled with the pain of burying one's children must be partly responsible for that. For generations after the Great Hunger, the Irish, no matter how ill, could not be enticed to enter hospital, believing that one only went there to die. The unsanitary and overcrowded government hospitals and workhouses during the Great Hunger, which offered little more than the opportunity to contract disease, contributed to that distrust. The legendary hospitality of the Irish also fell victim to the Great Hunger when the destitute population, still inclined to share what little they had, realized that by inviting strangers into their homes, they had exposed their own families to disease. The most enduring legacy however, is the endowment of hatred that has prompted generations of exiled Irish to pool their resources toward freeing their native land from British domination, and no matter how hard we try to understand the nationalist mentality of some Irish, we cannot hope to do so without an understanding of the Great Hunger.
This remains the strongest legacy since the other effects are finally beginning to fade. One hundred and seventy years after the Great Hunger, the Irish are marrying young again; today Ireland has some of the finest hospitals and medical schools in Europe; and the hospitality of the Irish has made a comeback to the point where it is now one of the highlights of any visitor's stay. But the passion to free Ireland from English domination, which the English hoped would deteriorate with the demise and scattering of the Irish, found a new strength with the freedom they found in other lands, and it returned to haunt the Crown. It also put an end to the hunger, for the emigrant Irish in other lands sent record assistance back to those they were forced to leave behind; and thus it was the Irish themselves who concluded this pitiful chapter of their history.
How many died in forty five,
the first year of the hunger,
when starvation cursed the old ones first,
and then tormented the younger?
How many fell sick in forty six
when the potato failed again,
and malnutrition on frail conditions
claimed children, women and men?
Then, dear God in heaven, came black forty seven;
a year that in horror still stands,
for the crown ordained that the landlords maintain
the tenants who lived on their lands.
Then came the date in forty-eight
when the landlords, cruel and clever,
to avoid being forced to absorb further cost
discarded their tenants forever.
Then came the time in forty-nine
when God-fearing men grew critical,
and loudly decried such genocide
for reasons that were only political.
So They dispersed our kin to the stormy winds
but that became our salvation;
for although they tried to commit genocide,
they failed to achieve liquidation.
Then to our defense came our own emigrants,
now scattered all over the earth;
who'd improved their lot, but never forgot
the land that had given them birth.
Sisters and brothers wrote back to their mothers,
or anyone they had left living;
each letter returning as much of their earnings
as they could afford to be giving.
Today we recall the memory of all
the disease, the starvation and sorrow;
and those who perished for the faith that they cherished
in the hope of a better tomorrow.
But let not your fate, be guided by hate,
for the Lord will have taken fair vengeance.
Remember instead, our own Irish dead
and say a prayer in silent remembrance!