The Great Irish Famine: Worse Than Genocide?

The Famine statues in the Dublin Docklands. Photo by Andrew Diamond

(above) The Famine Memorial in the Dublin Docklands. Photo by Andrew Diamond

By Dennis J. Clark

Reprinted from Irish Edition July 1993 to Sept 1993


It is often alleged that Irish Americans have a distorted view of Irish history, and that they have exaggerated and morbid fantasies about the conditions under which their forebears in Ireland lived.

This is especially true concerning the Great Famine of 1846-1847 and the subsequent years of disastrous social collapse and emigration that attended the failure of the potato crop.

Some are unwilling to use the term “famine” and insist upon the term “starvation,” and they recount the fact that up to 80 ships a day left Ireland during the hunger crisis with foodstuffs and produce that went to England’s markets.

James Coyne, a prominent member of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Philadelphia, for instance, refused to use the term famine during planning for the erection of a monument to memorialize the 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger, and insisted on the term starvation. He contended that the disaster was utilized by England to help destroy the Irish victims.

There are many families in America with distinct family memories of Famine experiences. Indeed, considering that it was those who were forced to emigrate who were likely to have the most vivid recollections of privation, it is understandable that Irish Americans would seem to have the most palpable recollections of the disaster’s events.

One woman who was born in Limavady, County Derry and who emigrated to the Kensington district of Philadelphia recalled:

“What did we eat? Well, just potatoes…When the potatoes rotted that was the hard times! Oh, yes, I mind the famine years. An’ the cornmeal the ‘Mericans sent…we didn’t know how to cook it…Maria, she was one of the twins – she died the famine year of the typhus, and, well she sickened of the herbs and roots we eat – we had no potatoes.”

The memory of a dead sister is no fantasy. One can summon forth similar memories even a century after the eyewitnesses have passed on as part of the family recollections of people with Irish backgrounds.

Yet, an historian like Theodore Hoppen in one of the three brief mentions of Irish Americans in his Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity says in speaking of the support of Irish Americans for militant Irish nationalism that “…distance and ignorance can lend enchantment to the politics of death.”

Apparently patriotic British subjects never permitted distance or ignorance to lend enchantment to the imperial politics of death that were involved with the Great Famine. J.M. Goldstrom in an essay in Irish Population, Economy and Society decries the fact that “…too many writers of Irish history have permitted the plight of the starving peasant to determine their perspectives…“ on the Great Famine.

Apparently to regard the Famine from the viewpoint of the victims is an unacceptable approach. Perhaps regarding it from the perspective of landlords living in London or rapacious land grabbers in Ireland would be a more balanced outlook.


“It (the Famine) was part of a continuum of misrule,
endemic poverty and repression…”


A most important principle for evaluation of this great event, a Famine that cut Ireland’s population from eight million to four million in about a decade and that sundered its history, is to try to see the disaster in the context of the broad range of modem Irish history. The famine was not just an event that occurred of itself disconnected from the economic, political and social life of the country. It was part of a continuum of misrule, endemic poverty and repression that laid in the nation the preconditions for catastrophe.

Even this statement is controversial, however, for Cormac O’Grada has written that, “…The pre-Famine economy, for all its problems and injustice, did not contain the seeds of its own inevitable destruction.” The key word is “inevitable.” The Irish economy may not have been inevitably programmed for failure, but it was surely weak enough so that an intervention like the failure of the potato crop would devastate it.

O’Grada has also written that, “The political dimension of inequality should not be overlooked, though. The poor in pre-Famine Ireland had no political voice of their own, nor were their interests well represented by politicians.”

This should alert us to the fact that famine is deemed to be in almost all modem cases a political problem and not simply an agricultural event or a result of some immutable forces of market economics.

The unreformed and unjust land system under the Irish landlord class, the impact of modernization of transport and commerce, the dependence of small tenants and the landless on one crop, the obligation to pay rents, and the lack of economic alternatives all go together as matters for evaluation of the Famine crisis.

Social instability, the isolation of such areas as County Mayo and County Clare and the ineptitude of the Dublin Castle rulers add to the factors attending the great event. It is an accumulation of forces that presaged catastrophe, and it is true that some of the immediate forces were beyond human control, such as the potato blight itself.

It is this complexity that argues for a broad understanding of the Famine, for an assessment that goes beyond the 1840s and sees as far as feasible the entire situation into which Ireland had been degraded.


Kevin O’Neill, head of the Irish Studies program at Boston College, has studied poverty in the West of Ireland in the 19th century. In reviewing a book by David Arnold entitled Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change, he has written, “…to limit our attention to the dramatic moment of anguish obscures the structure within which the moment occurs.”

That is, we dare not lose sight of the overall conditions that surrounded the Famine experience. What are some of those conditions for those interested in this subject?

  1. The reduction of the status and competence of the Irish population by confiscation and exclusion from political participation.
  2. The social debilitation of the Irish by the institutional domination of an overlord class that carried out antagonistic cultural and economic policies.
  3. The stultification of native initiative and institutions by repression.
  4. Decimation by neglect of the most vulnerable elements in Irish society.
  5. The implementation of policies leading to successive ruinations of Irish enterprises.

And, it must not be forgotten, that such a regime cannot function without the collaboration of portions of the subject people, so that the collusion of native Irish landlords and leaders in this subjugation and abuse of their own people was a constant feature of the process.

There can be little doubt that Irish conditions were peculiar. Poverty, for instance, was viewed as a result of the Irish character by the rulers of the island. Ned Lebow in an essay of “British Images of Poverty in Pre-Famine Ireland” quotes Thackeray as writing in 1843, prior to the Famine, that “The traveler is haunted by the face of popular starvation.”

Stereotypes of Irish lack of initiative relieved the contradiction between British actions and Irish impoverishment in the eyes of British opinion leaders.

Keeping in mind that the Great Famine was a culmination rather than an aberration, it is appropriate to note that Sir William Wilde accounted for a whole roster of partial or extensive Irish famines. Just recalling those succeeding the rebellions of the 1640s and confining consideration to the 17th to 19th centuries, there are famines listed for 1646, 1651, 1690, 1728-29, 1739, 1740-41, 1756, 1766, 1782, 1798, 1822, 1825, 1831, 1833 and 1835.

Details of these hunger times can be reviewed in E. Margaret Crawford’s Famine: The Irish Experience: 900-1900.

Studies of localities make the conditions even more clear. In County Clare, for instance, Timothy P. O’Neill writes that the story of poverty in Clare is one of “starvation, pestilence and simmering violence.” In this county alone over 45,000 people died in the 1846-47 Famine.

What is clear from such recitations is that Ireland had, as a result of its conquest and previous history, been made acutely vulnerable to food losses due to war, climate and agrarian failures. It was by the 19th century a society of deformity.

But, how does this pertain to genocide? The concept of genocide is really of only relatively recent invention, although the practice itself has a long history. The United Nations Convention on Genocide, adopted by the General Assembly on December 9,1948, was an effort to codify in international law the meaning of the term.

It states, “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. killing members of the group;
  2. causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part;
  4. imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; i.e.- forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Did British rule in Ireland have the “intent” to do any of the things listed? Certainly the repeated wars of conquest that led to famines, especially in Tudor and Elizabethan times, had an explicit destructive character. Steven Ellis in his book on Tudor Ireland: Crown, Community and the Conflict of Cultures: 1470-1603 gives ample evidence of the intentions to conquer the island.

The record, however, is unclear as to consistent intent. Amid the initiations and failures of policy, half completed confiscations, aborted colonizations and general neglect and corruption over the generations, the determination of Ireland’s rulers can be seen to be variable. The overall effect was malignant, truly, but the concepts of extermination and destruction of the Irish were not always clear.

It is this lack of clarity that, in itself, is the most harrowing part of the record. The actions of the conqueror left room for almost anything to occur. England’s pattern of “muddling through” wrought havoc. Genocide as a government policy moves toward a goal. Britain’s long-term rule led to multiple disasters of war, oppression and social denigration.

Intermittently there were efforts to kill, cause harm and inflict measures to bring about the destruction of the Irish, but the measures were repeatedly diffused or frustrated by British failure or Irish resistance. But, it was the protracted nature of the depredations that distinguish them from a public policy of genocide.

They were not an episode or a limited period of victimization. Rather, they were an entire era and history of exploitation and destruction.

In this sense, they were worse than genocide, which has a regime and definite goals. The Irish were subjected to a colonial rule that wandered through morasses of misery and deprivation, staggered among political transitions, lurched from one crisis to the next.


It is probably not possible for any government to sustain a genocidal policy over a long time.

It is possible for a succession of governments to botch colonial schemes and engage in repeated destructive policies over generations. This Britain did, and it is this that constitutes an historic crime of proportions that exceed a definitive enactment of genocide. It is in this context that the Great Famine of the mid-19th century must be evaluated.

The argument is shifted somewhat if the issue of responsibility is made less impersonal, less a feature of abstract government policy and action. Richard L. Rubenstein in his book The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overcrowded World considers the Great Famine in the light of modem genocidal tragedies. He states, “…a government is as responsible for a genocidal policy when its officials accept mass death as a necessary cost of implementing their policies as when they pursue genocide as an end in itself.”

He delineates the British view of Ireland as a conquered territory, and the 19th century leadership’s views that government should not interfere with economics, that the right of property was supreme above the rights of tenants, and that evictions were the “absolute right of landlords” as Lord Brougham told Parliament.

From this perspective the officials of the Crown in Ireland would certainly be guilty of genocide. It is with this kind of judgment that the British historian A. J. P. Taylor agreed when he entitled his book review of Cecil Woodham Smith’s The Great Hunger “Genocide,” and accused the rulers of England of the 1840s of that horror.

Against this charge is the record of relief that was instituted by the Crown to assist those in need. Amid the chaos of hungry striving it was difficult to mount effective relief efforts.


“…some half a million people were evicted as pasturage replaced tillage in a process as close to “ethnic cleansing” as any Balkan war ever enacted.”


Canon John O’Rourke, writing in 1874 and recalling the conditions of the 1840s, was harshly critical of the public works relief measures because they were not devoted to raising food or producing anything, since that might compete with private interests. Those who could obtain relief work labor often had to beg for it and accept pittance wages, for the funds appropriated could not fill the need. The dreaded conditions in the overcrowded and disease-ridden workhouses were all but a sentence of death for those seeking refuge in them.

Cecil Woodham Smith and others have well documented the wretched shortcomings of the relief efforts by the Crown.

James Donnelly, the foremost American expert on the Famine says that the parsimonious administration of relief actually drove up the death rate. Food riots, stealing, extortionate prices for what food there was, and the incapacity of insolvent landlords to match government funding all contributed to the misery.

Beyond the struggle for food was emigration for tens of thousands. Many of those emigrating were forced to it by eviction. Even in the midst of starvation evictions continued.

Robert Scally of New York University in brilliantly detailed research has traced the eviction of starving tenants from Ballykilcline in County Roscommon. This was a community that had been coherent and carried out a ten-year legal battle to retain the tiny holdings from which the tenants were eventually swept in 1847. This is only one example of vicious landlordism. The Famine accelerated the evictions.

W.E. Vaughan estimates that 90,000 evictions occurred between 1847 and 1889 as the holdings of the Famine dead were consolidated and whole townlands “cleared” of rural poor.

This means that some half a million people were evicted as pasturage replaced tillage in a process as close to “ethnic cleansing” as any Balkan war ever enacted. Vaughan estimates that 50,000 of these evictions took place between 1847 to 1850 during the starving time.

David Cannadine in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy gives figures for land ownership in Ireland in 1880 for estates of more than 1,000 acres. He calculates that a mere 3,745 landlords owned more than 15,000,000 acres, and much of these gross holdings can be attributed to evictions and post-Famine consolidations.

The tradition of mass emigration established in Famine times has long distorted Irish social life. It is another subject of great complexity. It need only be noted here that the emigration of the Famine years was a horrendous experience before, during and after embarkation for multitudes of stricken people.

If anybody has a right to judge the misfortunes of the Famine victims, it is their own descendants in America whose families bear the stories of that desperate flight.

Robert Harris, writing in The Times of London (May 31, 1992) said “In October 1941, the Nazis began the systematic extermination of a race: no act of surrender, no amount of collaboration, no retreat, nothing could save you if you were born a Jew.” The actions of the Crown in 1847 and subsequently were not so systematic, but the same lack of escape prevailed for the Irish.

In an article on the cry for trials of former Nazis living in England who were accused of war crimes many years after World War II, the British publication The Economist editorialized (December 16, 1989) that, “Some crimes are too foul for human forgiveness; some lessons too serious ever to be forgotten.” Indeed.

Author, historian, activist Dr. Dennis J. Clark wrote for the Irish Edition since it was founded in 1981 until his death in 1993. He is the author of 11 books including “The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience” and “Hibernia America.”