The Significance of the 'Great Hunger' on the Development of Ireland [Print]  [Back]

During the 'Great Hunger' (1845-1850), the population of Ireland fell from at least eight million to six and one-half million. It is estimated that a million and a half of these died of starvation and fever. At least another million fled the country. It is exceedingly difficult to calculate these numbers because the tragedy was so overwhelming that accurate records could not be kept. In the thirty years following the 'Great Hunger' nearly four million emigrated. This shift in population was unprecedented in Western Europe.

It is impossible to measure the psychological legacy of the 'Great Hunger', but the decimation of the population undoubtly left deep emotional scars. In the long and troubled history of Ireland and Britain, no issue has produced so much anger or embittered relations between the two peoples. The damaging charge against the British Administration was that: throughout the 'Great Hunger', it failed to stop corn exports (defined as all grains) from Ireland. This view was and still is overwhelmingly acknowledged as true by many Irish and Irish Americans, and has greatly influenced their perceptions of Britain's association with Ireland as a result.

The chief architects of this view were the Young Ireland intellectuals and Romantic Nationalists James Fintan Lalor (1807-1849) and John Mitchel (1815-1875). Their reports in The Nation, The United Irishman, and The Irish Felon from the period 1845-1848 respectively, formed the basis of this charge.

Previous to their pronouncements, many people, including the clergy, the uneducated tenant farmer and, of course, the equivocal officials of the British Administration, considered the "famine", "the will of God" and "a natural calamity".

The British government contended that the social structure might collapse if it distributed free food, and resisted all suggestions to do so. As speculators made fortunes, starving families roamed the countryside looking for work or begging for a meal while the export of grains continued.

In The Last Conquest of Ireland, (c1873), John Mitchel wrote: "During all the famine years, Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people; yet, a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo".

To remedy this situation, Lalor in 1848 demanded: "Our fair share of Ireland, our fair share of the earth, a house to live in that no one can tumble down, a happy home, the necessaries of life, all those things without which the world is worthless and existence itself a misery: these we must have and security for all these". Moreover, he wrote: "forever henceforth, the owners of our soil must be Irish...unmuzzle the wolf dog". Lalor's call for agrarian and national revolution was new; it promised action in place of frustration and suffering, and it grew directly out of the desperation caused by the 'Great Hunger'. The suffering of this catastrophe was deeply embedded in the minds of Irish emigrants and with it died all hope of accomodation with Britain. Reciprocal bitterness affected the Irish and became the hallmark of Anglo-Irish relations for decades to come. This reaction was, and still remains, particularly strong among many Irish and Irish Americans.

Modern revisionist scholars speculate that the amount of food exported was far from sufficient to feed the people and more corn was imported than exported. Regardless of their contentions, one cannot deny that the writings and speeches of John Mitchel and Fintan Lalor, and their contemporaries in the Young Ireland movement, Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Francis Meagher, and Michael Doheny, produced a tremendous and lasting impact upon the minds of the Irish at home and in America. Their ferver was transported across the Atlantic and made itself felt in neighborhoods and political wards throughout the United States.

The new phenomenon of an Ireland "beyond the sea" was a consequence of the dispersion of the population caused by the 'Great Hunger'. With the failure of the potato food supply of the country, emigration from Ireland burst forth in a great flood of humanity. In 1851 a peak figure of no less than than 221,000 emigrants to the United States was reached. These individuals formed the backbone of the "Irish Diaspora" and most agreed with John Mitchel's accusation of British treachery in "famine" relief. An enduring hatred of Britain was the main characteristic of Irish American nationalism; the popular ballad asserting "revenge for Skibbereen" was typical of this historical obsession.

Following the 'Great Hunger' and the collapse of the subsequent 1848 Rising, most of the remaining Young Ireland leaders who escaped arrest also made their way to America where they were welcomed by the Irish there. These individuals constructed the intellectual cradle that nurtured all subsequent Irish independence movements. The roots of the modern independent Irish nation can be directly traced to the ideas and writings of these patriots.

The Fenian movement was greatly motivated by the writings of Lalor and Mitchel. Two survivors of the 'Great Hunger' and the 1848 Rising, James Stephens (1825-1901) and John O'Mahony (c1816-1877), attempted to convince the three million refugees of Irish birth or descent living in the United States to contribute money and arms to support "the cause" and perhaps eventually, return to their homeland and join the fight. Stepens founded the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, later renamed the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and O'Mahony assumed leadership of the organization in America called the Fenian Brotherhood. Breaking away from the non-violent approach advocated by Daniel O'Connell's repeal campaign, the aim of this society was to create a secret military force that would drive the British out of Ireland by force of arms. The Fenian risings of 1865 and 1867 and the subsequent execution of the three "Manchester Martyrs" (Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien) produced popular support for the nationalist cause which became a recurrent theme in post- "famine" Irish politics.

The words of Lalor and Mitchel also inspired the actions of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) and the members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. At Westminster, Parnell became president of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain in 1877, president of the Irish National Land League in 1879, and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1880. He pursued constitutional politics in a manner that won him the approval of the Fenians committed to physical force and, as a result, formed a loose understanding with Michael Davitt (1846-1906) and John Devoy (1842-1928) known as the "New Departure" which stressed reform of land ownership. During the ensuing "land war" of 1879-1882 (which eventually led to the abolition of landlordism and the creation of a system of peasant proprietorship) the tenant farmers of Ireland defied their landlords for the first time. In the end, the landlords had to accept "dual ownership" with their tenants.  Likewise, their theories greatly influnced Michael Davitt and the Irish National Land League. Davitt said of Lalor: "he made the ownership of the soil the basis of the fight for self-government" in Ireland. He came to understand that the land struggle held the key to victory in Ireland, igniting the fire of self-determination by engaging the rural masses in national resistance to the Protestant Ascendancy landlords and British rule.

Their ideas ultimately brought James Connolly (1868-1916) and Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) together. Connolly described Lalor as: "a revolutionist and a rebel against all forms of political and social injustice". On the ownership of Ireland he declared: "That the private ownership by a class of the land and instruments of production, distribution and exchange is opposed to the vital principle of justice, and is the fundamental basis of all oppression, national, political and social". In The Sovereign People, Pearse boldly stated: "Let no man be mistaken as to who will be lord in Ireland, when Ireland is free. The people will be lord and master..." Their belief, spawned from the gross injustice of the 'Great Hunger', that the ownership of Ireland should rest with her own people, formed the basis of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (1916) and has inspired subsequent republican movements. Their theories of struggle are relevant today, as is their contention that the reconquest of Ireland by its people is the only true definition of Irish freedom.

The meaning of the "famine" to modern Ireland is complex and changing. For some, particularly Irish Nationalists and Republicans in the polarized context of Northern Ireland, the 'Great Hunger' continues to represent, as it did for Mitchel, the ultimate case of British oppression of the Irish people. In the Irish Republic the view is less extreme, but the idea of "famine" still runs deep in the Irish psyche. The continuing fact of mass hunger in modern developing countries has propelled Ireland to contribute more to "Third World" countries than other European nations. Irish international aid agencies have stressed the historic parallels between 1840's Ireland and the developing world. They are also committed to internationalizing the memory of the 'Great Hunger' and confronting idealogies that make such disasters possible. The Old Irish adage: "Being familiar with misfortune, I learn to assist the unfortunate", bridges the despair of the 'Great Hunger' with the triumph of Ireland's national rebirth.


This article was printed from the Rhode Island AOH State Board website.
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