The International Legacy of the Irish Potato Famine

by JoHarrington

Between 1845-1851, the British attempted a genocide of the Irish by starvation. It's a mistake to think that it's over now. The on-going effects are still felt globally.

There's a common fallacy which separates historical events from each other. Isolating each period or incident into a self-contained box. When it's over, it's over. Only historians need concern themselves with the details now.

But that's never been how the world actually works. A domino is flicked and the ensuing toppling patterns continue on for a long time. Perhaps even centuries. Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings becomes a hurricane across the globe.

The Great Irish Hunger was sated when the Late Blight ended. That was only the prologue. This tale is still unfolding. It's way too soon to determine how it will end.

Little Legacies of the Great Irish Hunger

The Irish Potato Famine is generally thought to have been over in 1851. If so, then why am I still running into aftershocks in the winter of 2013?

Last night, on Wizzley, I noticed a sudden sharp rise in readership of a specific article.

It was my timeline of the Great Hunger in Ireland, and the traffic was all coming from a Facebook group: Irish Holocaust - Not Famine. The Push to educate in facts.

These are 21st century people using modern social networking to pick over the facts of a genocide.

They were not there. At best, its nearly 24,000 members could only be the great-great grandchildren of people who were children at the time of the Hunger.

Yet the fury in their comments and conversations is palpable.

They would not be there if the history had not happened. The legacy of the Great Irish Famine goes on.

A few weeks ago, I paused before a memorial, festooned with flowers, in the ground of St Philip's Cathedral in Birmingham. It was the anniversary of a series of pub bombings in the city, back in 1974, which killed 21 people and injured 182. That was nearly forty years ago, but real grief laid those bouquets and wrote the messages upon them. Bereft loved ones are still hurting.

The bombs were planted by the IRA, a group whose convoluted history can be traced all the way back to the Young Irelanders movement in the 19th century. It was the Great Hunger which transformed those freedom fighters from peaceful pamphleteers to violent activists.

When the Young Irelanders rose up, in Limerick and Tipperary, in 1848, they did so in angry, desperate reaction to the genocide all around them. But their armed rebellion set in motion a series of actions and events, which would eventually result in a memorial erected in the grounds of St Philip's Cathedral.

For those who fought - and continue to fight - in the IRA; for those who died in Birmingham; for those who selected their floral tributes; and for me, who stumbled across the display, the Great Hunger is not over.

Books about the Fight for an Irish Republic

The Great Hunger radicalized the struggle for Irish independence. Disdaining Daniel O'Connell's peace for violence, and acting as a rallying call for future armed rebellions.

The Great Hunger and the President of the United States

President Lincoln personally donated money to help the Irish as they starved, but that's not what we're talking about here.

When President Kennedy kept his cool during the Cuban Missile Crisis, then was shot in Dallas, the Irish Hunger was still on-going. 

When President Reagan yelled, 'Tear down this wall!' at the height of the Cold War, the Famine played its part.

For neither president would have been there to take center stage in such historic events, if their ancestors hadn't starved. 

Patrick Kennedy fled, aged twenty-five, from the carnage of Dunganstown, Wexford.

While Michael O'Regan had battled throughout the famine, as a tenant farmer in Ballyporeen, Tipperary. Even as the worst of the Great Hunger passed, he couldn't see how his family could survive.

They both joined the millions entering into the Irish Diaspora.

During this period, well over half of the immigrants entering America were Irish. It continued well into the next few decades, as Ireland struggled so hard to recover from its losses.

By 1861, many of the Irish men were met at the docks, as they disembarked, and immediately press-ganged into joining the military. They fought and died in the American Civil War, with many historians crediting the influx of Irish for the Yankee victory. Meanwhile, their wives and children were left to fend as best they could.

They swamped the former colony states and took over half of Manhattan in tenements. Their descendants were to significantly shape the future of the whole USA.

And three of them were to become its president.

Three?  Let's not forget that Falmouth Kearney also fled the Famine from his native Moneygall, Offaly. He arrived in America in 1850, and his descendant is the current President of the United States, Barack Obama.

St Patrick's Day Parade in New York City 2013

I've included this to demonstrate the strength of political feeling - and the huge Irish presence - in New York today. The commentator is a little awry on some of his facts...
Everyone the world over associates St Patrick's Day with Ireland. But the parties, parades and celebrations began in the USA with Irish-Americans longing for home.

During 1984, President Reagan embarked on a four day state visit to Ireland.

This was the period when IRA paramilitary maneuvers were at their zenith. Bombs continued to explode in mainland Britain, including one in Brighton, which nearly killed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Northern Ireland - and Belfast in particular - was practically a war-zone.

As a statesman, Reagan publicly condemned the violence, expressed support for the New Ireland Forum (which was going to bring about peace until Mrs Thatcher equally publicly insulted Irish Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald), but ultimately stated quite firmly that the USA would not interfere with the conflict.

It was a statement which must have been heard with incredulity in the higher echelons of the British government; and wry smiles throughout republican Ulster.

Just in case anyone else hadn't quite caught up with the plot, the reality was made stark later in the year. The US Department of Justice won a court battle to officially name the IRA as 'foreign principles', in other words allies worthy of assistance.

For decades, fund-raising amongst the American public had been the primary source of finance for the IRA. All those descendants of the Great Hunger's migration were more than willing to put their hands in their pockets to continue the great fight.

The USA was where Michael Collins sold all of those bonds to finance the new Irish Republic in the 1920s. (And it was the first foreign nation to accept Eire as an independent state.)

Now one more Famine descendant made it a downright obligation. That legal battle forced the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID) - a US body - to openly fund the IRA. That bomb which nearly took out Mrs Thatcher was paid for in America.

Thus the legacy of the Great Hunger went on.

Books about the Irish Diaspora to the USA

Unable to survive in their native Ireland, millions of people took the coffin ships to America, Canada and Australia. Their sheer numbers changed those countries forever.

The Impact of the Great Hunger on Australian Democracy

For much of the 19th century, Australia was viewed largely as a dumping ground for British convicts. During the Famine, Irish immigrants swelled the population.

Outside Ireland, the country with proportionally the largest Irish population is Australia. Only 19,000 emigrated there during the Great Hunger, but there were fewer people in the colonies at the time.

It turned into a significant influx, which the Australian government struggled to accommodate. Yet those Irish immigrants settled, joining substantial numbers of countrymen and women who had arrived before, or would come later.

An estimated 10.4% to 30% of Australians today can claim Irish ancestry.

Back in the 1840s, hundreds of settlers - fleeing from the Famine in County Clare - ended up in Australia's Clare Valley. The clue is in the name.

It's them who we have to thank for all the wine that is produced there. Reisling, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon all owe their existence in Australia to the Great Hunger.

A highly significant member of the Irish Diaspora into Australia was Peter Fintan Lalor. He'd survived the ravages in County Laois, but only through rescue packages sent home from his three brothers in America.

By 1852, Peter and another brother Richard decided that they could no longer stay in Ireland. They opted to emigrate to Australia for fear of being caught up in the American Civil War. He was to find that battles awaited in his new homeland too.

On December 3rd 1854, a large group of gold miners built a stockade on Bakery Hill, Ballarat in Victoria. One of their number had designed a flag to represent an independent Australia. Known as the Eureka flag, it was the first time that the Southern Cross was raised to represent the country.

The majority of those behind the barricades were Irishmen, who had recently arrived to save themselves from the Famine. Their leader was Peter Fintan Lalor.

The ensuing battle, between the Eureka Stockade and the Colonial Forces of Australia, was a bloody affair. Twenty-two of the 120 miners were killed, while the majority were badly injured. When reports hit the newspapers, it outraged the general population for what was deemed over-zealous brutality on the part of their British overlords.

Three years later, in November 1857, a bill was passed awarding universal (white) male suffrage. It came as a direct result of the Eureka Stockade and it is viewed now as the beginning of democracy in Australia.

It would not have happened if Peter Lalor had not been starved out of Ireland, nor any of his supporters with him. The effects of the Great Hunger reverberated there.

Books about the Irish Diaspora into Australia

The Irish Famine wasn't the only reason for the exodus into the country, but it was a highly significant one.

The Consequences of the Irish Famine Around the World

I'd love to go on, but there's way too much to tell.

I have merely shared disparate stories, picked from the multitude that rippled out from the Great Irish Hunger. There are countless more touching our lives even now.

Every time an Australian votes, or President Obama acts, or a party is held in a New York Irish bar, or a flower is laid on a British memorial slab, then this on-going historical tale plays out. The Victorian genocide against the Irish still echoes a distant beat in the modern day.

Look around you and trace the patterns back. It was a Hunger that shook the world.

Updated: 01/09/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

How has the Great Irish Famine affected you?

JoHarrington on 12/24/2013

I guess a lot depended upon the circumstances back in Ireland. While it was dire for many, for some it really was terrible indeed, particularly when they had been kicked out of their homes.

frankbeswick on 12/23/2013

Some went piecemeal, but some families went as groups. My mother's gran's family came from Sligo, and her family went along with her uncle's family and their cousins. all went as a clan and headed for Manchester.

JoHarrington on 12/23/2013

I didn't know that, re the redefinition of words. It just shows how the Hunger had an effect upon the lexicon too.

Though I knew that families tended to emigrate piecemeal, with younger people following in the trail of older siblings, then parents following, I'd not extrapolated that to realise that there were clusters from one area. I know that Tipton, in the Black Country, had a sizable community of people from Tipperary. 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' was written by a lad from Tipton with reference to his grandmother.

Yes, you do have to feel for poor Welsh Brunty, never quite knowing his roots.

frankbeswick on 12/22/2013

As a historian you might be interested to know that even today some elderly Irish tend to call an occurrence of blight, however small, a famine. My ninety three year old mother in law, who comes from County Mayo and was the daughter of a farmer, told me that there were cases of potato famine when she was young. That was the 1930s. She did not think that there was starvation, but famine was the term that she used.

You might also be interested to know that among the Irish there are established immigrant trails. For example, the Catholic community of Stretford, where I live, contains a disproportionately large number of people who originate in Mayo [hence my in-laws] whereas the Irish community in Leeds has many from county Tyrone. It is due to people going where they already have friends and relatives, and the roots of this may go back to the famine emigrations.

A language like Welsh! This could be Cornish, Manx or Breton.

JoHarrington on 12/22/2013

The Brontes weren't even Anglo-Irish. Their mother was Cornish. Kerno-Irish? Downright Celtic anyway!

There's an argument to be made that there's some Welsh blood in there too. You know how Heathcliff was found on a Liverpool dock, unable to speak English and generally disheveled? That came from real life. It was Patrick's father or grandfather, who washed up on an Irish shore as a young boy. He spoke a bizarre language, which someone said sounded like Welsh.

Therefore the boy was named Welsh and taken in by the Brunty family. He was way too young to tell them anything about himself, hence Welsh Brunty remained his name.

Pembrokeshire remains a very English corner of Wales. Those early Norman settlers were required to keep hold of it, as it secured a section of the west Welsh coastline, which could be used to attack Ireland. There were fears that the Welsh might intervene otherwise. Though I agree that Celtic unity has historically been a myth.

When the Norman colony nearly died out. Loads of Dutch settlers were imported there instead. Then English. Pembrokeshire has always been very resistant to incorporating anything of the Welsh language.

Your Northern Irish Protestant lady doesn't surprise me one bit. As an historian, I'm forever meeting people who know nothing about why they are where they are.

frankbeswick on 12/22/2013

Now the fact about Bronte is interesting, and I knew it not. We can now add the Brontes to the list of Anglo-Irish writers. There have been so many able writers from this group.

I was not aware that there was anti-Irish feeling in parts of Wales, but Celtic solidarity has always been a bit of a myth. Interestingly, the first Normans in Ireland came with Strongbow de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, and he took a mixture of Normans and Welsh with him. Many English settlers followed, particularly in Strongbow's domains of the South East.

There are too few British who know any Irish history. An ex-colleague of mine, a science teacher, pleasant woman, Northern Irish Protestant, surprised me when she did not know why the Protestant/unionists in Northern Ireland had all the best land. I thad to explain the sixteenth century settlements and the land grab that happened.

JoHarrington on 12/22/2013

Bizarrely, I've read some reports where the Welsh - in the west and south - could be anti-Irish too. This was only where jobs were scarce and the Welsh themselves besieged by the sort of mentality that you highlighted in your comment. It was less to do with the Irish as a nation, and more to do with half-starved and desperate groups of people wandering around the Welsh landscape.

Patrick Brunty felt the need to change the spelling of his name to Brontë. He was Irish born and bred, but now resident in England. Brunty and Brontë were pronounced the same, but the first was undeniably Irish, while the second looked German. Then his literary daughters went and made the name famous.

frankbeswick on 12/22/2013

The blight certainly hit the Scottish Isles after it arrived in Ireland and then it reached the mainland.

Animosity to the Irish in Britain tends to be a very middle and upper class phenomenon. Many working class people tended to have less ill feeling, as they were living in the same communities as these supposedly inferior people. Catholics were intermarrying so much with the Irish that they were becoming a mixed ethnic group and could not have the same animosity to the Irish as others had. But middle class people often made a point of denying that they had Irish blood, as they identified with the British power structure, which was anti-Irish, as it was in possession of Irish lands. We had a lad at school when I was sixteen, whose name was Sullivan, but who totally denied having Irish blood.

What also got involved was racial theory. The theory of Nordic/Germanic racial superiority evolved in France as a way of justifying the claims to superiority made by the French aristocracy, who are of Germanic descent. As the Germanic peoples were said to be superior, it became necessary for the English to prove themselves pure Germanic. Hence the theory that the Celts/Britons were all murdered or driven to Wales by the Saxons, but the Irish were irredeemably" Celtic" and hence in the racist view racially inferior. Clearly, being racially pure English implied superiority, and if you believe this you did not want your children intermarrying with supposedly racially inferior people.

JoHarrington on 12/22/2013

Frank - I've gone on about the arguments for and against calling it a genocide in another article. It's linked at the top of the right-hand scrollbar. So I won't repeat them here, if that's alright?

As for general xenophobia versus rich against the poor. Yes, the latter is usually how it works. But the rich tend to be the ones in control of information, so they can whip up hatred that way.

I don't think that the British people en masse detested the Irish, but they were certainly subject to a lot of propaganda in the press. It's a little like how the drip-drip of Islamophobia works now. The Irish were illustrated as baboons, or as drunken, lazy individuals, who'd rather take charity than work a day in their lives. A lot of people believed that.

Also several areas of Britain were also subject to famine at the time. They survived it because basically they had all of the food being shipped out of Ireland! That wasn't viewed as charity. It was seen as relief.

JoHarrington on 12/22/2013

Frank - You can add to this the practice of splitting all holdings equally between all children. In Britain, it tended to be the eldest son who got everything. In Ireland, everyone got their share. You can imagine how quickly even a large amount of land became small over just a few generations.

One of the really eye-opening things is that so many notes were taken on this particular Late Blight - and the devastation so clear for all to see - that it became the basis for much of our modern day knowledge about it. Over the years, that's obviously been built upon, but this is where that scientific study began. Just another unforeseen legacy!

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