The Great Irish Famine. A Watershed in Irish History?

Essay, 2012
8 Pages, Grade: 2,0


“The famine left hatred behind. Between Ireland and England the memory of what was done and endured has lain like a sword. Other famines followed, as other famines had gone before, but it is the terrible years of the Great Hunger which are remembered, and only just beginning to be forgotten1 ”.

This statement by Cecil Woodham-Smith is a vivid example for one of the long-run effects of the Great Famine on Irish population and politics. By interpreting the inadequate measures of the British government to help the Irish people during the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849 as an attempted genocide, nationalist movements stoked hatred against the “blackhearted” British and such receptions of the Famine entered folk memory. It does not have to be mentioned that this hatred and these allegations had a further effect on Irish-British relations as well as on Irish politics.

In addition, there was not only a change in the island´s political and cultural landscape, but also in the economy and the demography of post-Famine Ireland. In the words of the female historian Mary E. Daly, “there is little doubt that the famine was a significant event in the nineteenth century Irish history, but its precise impact is a matter of some considerable debate2 ”. Indeed, nobody would nowadays question that the second half of the century confronted the people with completely different attitudes and conditions than in a pre-Famine context. Anyway, “the big question is to what extent the famine can be held responsible for these changes3 ”. Was the Great Famine a watershed in Irish history? Was it a complete turning point or did it just work as a catalyst for already existing and initiating tendencies and changes?

The aim of this paper is to briefly analyse the various changes in Irish politics, economy, population and culture after the Famine, and to discuss whether this dramatical event in Irish history was a watershed or not. Due to the given word limit, it has to be mentioned that this analysis can only take place on a very superficial level.

The most obvious effect of the Great Famine seems to be the decline in the Irish population. According to the historian Colm Tóbín, it is now more or less agreed that “around a million people died of disease, hunger and fever in the years between 1846 and 18494 ”. His colleague Mary E. Daly goes even further by ascribing the Famine the role of “a major breakdown of Irish society” in which “family structures, traditions of hospitality, the practice of basic hygiene all appear to have been temporarily undermined by the catastrophe5 ”. There had been a total failure of the potato crop in 1846 which was followed by a harsh winter, an autumn of 1847 when the potato blight was less virulent than before and the return of the blight in “full fury” in 18486. True to the motto “desperate times, desperate measures”, many people saw in emigration the only way to escape this horrifying nightmare. While in 1846 116.000 people left Ireland for North America and Australia, it were 230.000 in the following year7. The Irish did not only emigrate to Australia and the United States, but also to New Zealand, Canada and Britain. This increasing tendency of mass-flight immediately had a very strong demographic effect. “By 1851 the Irish population had declined 20 per cent from its 1845 level, standing at 6,5 million” and the total number of emigrants from Ireland between 1850 and 1910 was around 4.2 million8.

It can be seen that the demographic development in post-Famine Ireland is significant. However, it would be too simplistic to attribute these changes monocausally to the Famine. Karl Whelan for example argues that “the population decline brought by the Famine was significant, [but] it would not have had much effect on Irish population in the long run if normal rates of population growth had set in during the post-Famine period9 ”. While a lot of historians concentrated on lover marriage rates, marriages at older ages and patterns of fertility, Whelan states that “emigration was by far the principle cause of this decline10 ”. Daly also mentions “tentative evidence that birth and marriage rates were already falling before the famine” and adds that there would be absolutely no doubt about “that emigration had already risen to substantial levels by the early 1840s11 ”.

Given the fact that emigration and a lowering of the birth and marriage rates already took place in a pre-Famine context, it would be way too easy to ascribe these changes solely to the Famine. Without a doubt, the Famine had a huge immediate impact on the demographic landscape of Ireland, but it was not the only reason causing future depopulation. One tends to agree with Daly, who argues that concerning the demographic development, “the catastrophe of the famine would seem to have only accelerated trends which were already in train12 ”.

In addition, the Famine´s traditional place as a watershed in the economic and social development of Ireland is highly discussed among scholars. While some historians attribute the far-reaching effects of the falling proportion of labourers and cottiers in the population and the consolidation of the farming community monocausally to the Famine, historians like F.S.L. Lyons argue that “the critical situation which developed in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century was in a part a legacy from the previous century and in a part the outcome of a radical change in market conditions in the years after Waterloo13 ”. This would mean that the Famine was not a turning point, but rather a catalyst, speeding up already existing trends and tendencies. This corresponds with the opinion of Mary E. Daly. According to her estimation, “it seems probable that Irish agriculture would have experienced a shift towards livestock by the 1960s, famine or no famine14 ”. Therefore, in her opinion, the Famine cannot be seen as watershed, as it seems to have anticipated and accelerated changes, which would have happened anyway, but on a more gradual basis15. This would be rather a catalyst- than a watershed-theory.

Karl Whelan comes to another conclusion. According to his findings, “the Great Famine of 1845-55 may have had more far-reaching effects on subsequent Irish economic development than most economic historians have believed16 ”. He mentions two theories of how the depopulation associated with the Famine may have affected Irish industry in a negative form17. The first one, by O'Rourke in 1992, focuses on a so-called “brain-drain”, assuming that some of the best and brightest workers emigrated and thereby weakened the Irish economy. The second one, by Cullen in 1972, sees an important causal factor in the decline in the size of the home market for industrial goods. In addition, he argues that the population decline would have normally led to a substantial reduction in Irish industrial employment after the Famine. However, this was not the case, and he mentions evidence suggesting that “other economic development of this period, such as improved transportation networks and a growing demand for industrial products, tended to strengthen the forces encouraging a divergent outcome and thus may have reinforced the effects of the Famine to create a pattern of persistent depopulation and industrial decline18 ”.


1 Woodham-Smith 412.

2 Daly 117.

3 Ibid.

4 Tóbín 22.

5 Daly 115.

6 Lyons 30.

7 Ibid. 32.

8 Whelan 3.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. 4.

11 Daly 117; Lyons 32.

12 Ibid.

13 Lyons 22.

14 Daly 118.

15 Ibid. 119.

16 Whelan 19.

17 Ibid. 2.

18 Ibid. 3.

Excerpt out of 8 pages


The Great Irish Famine. A Watershed in Irish History?
University College Cork  (Department of Geography)
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ISBN (Book)
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Irland, Hungersnot, Irish Famine, watershed, Geschichte
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Julian Binder (Author), 2012, The Great Irish Famine. A Watershed in Irish History?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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