Video: Ireland’s Great Hunger and the Irish Diaspora

“Did the old songs taunt or cheer you
And did they still make you cry?
Did you count the months and years
Or did your teardrops quickly dry?”

From the song, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ by The Pogues

Those living in mid-19th century Ireland faced dire circumstances, as a “fungus-like infection” destroyed Irish potato crops. However, the crisis was caused more than a crop failure, it revealed the consequences of discriminatory social, economic, and political policies that were tied to British control of Ireland. These came together to create what is often called the Great Famine or the Great Hunger. Despite the devastation of potato crops, historians explain that colonial business relationships led farmers to export food to Great Britain. “In cases such as livestock and butter, research suggests that exports may have actually increased during the Potato Famine.” As a consequence of the famine, and the policies that supported British colonization of Ireland, life expectancy in dropped almost in half, to just over 19 years. Millions more died from hunger, and hundreds of thousands took to the seas to start new lives.

In A Different Mirror, Ronald Takaki explains that the situation, even before the potato blight led many to leave their homeland to start new lives.

“By the thousands, Irish were leaving for America, where there was ‘room for all – employment for all and success for many.’ Letters from friends and family in the United States glowingly described riches ‘growing like grass’ and the boundlessness of a country where there was no tyranny or oppression from landlords. Between 1815 and 1845, one million Irish came to America” (134).

When the Potato blight hit in 1845, the exodus sped up. In the 10 years between 1845-1855, through death and migration, Ireland lost a third of its population. One million Irish traveled aboard what became known as coffin ships to the U.S., desperate to make it to the promised land. During this period, the Irish population in cities across the Northeast, including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, grew rapidly, leading the number of Irish to exceed that of all other immigrant groups. As they arrived, Irish immigrants were greeted in the popular press with anti-Irish and anti-Catholic stereotypes, often taking the form of political cartoons. According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, “fueling anti-Irish attitudes was the view that the Irish were a nonwhite, racially inferior group, a view informed by existing British attitudes that saw Irish physical and social attributes as dangerous and subhuman.” The perception of the Irish as both inferior and a threat culminated in the Irish, once again being oppressed, as they were famously discriminated against on the job market with some signs reading “No Irish Need Apply.” At the same time, resilient Irish immigrants, like those before and after them, began to make new homes for themselves.

In 1997 British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered an apology for the actions of the British government during the famine. He proclaimed:

“The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people.”

The film below, streamed through PBS, explores the impact of the causes, impact, and consequences of the famine.