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Blog by Ambassador Mulhall on Black '47: Ireland's Great Famine and its after-effects

Black '47: Ireland's Great Famine and its after-effects 

Blog by Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, 3 December 2018

When I spoke at the Washington premiere of Black ’47, a new film set during the Great Famine of 1845-49, I decided to delve into the historical background to this 19th century Irish trauma. In preparation for my remarks, I spent some time reacquainting myself with an era I had not looked into seriously for quite a few years. This blog has been written with a view to highlighting for an Irish-American audience the significance of the Famine for Ireland - and for America.   

Ireland's Great Famine may be a footnote in 19th century European history, but it is fundamental to an understanding of Ireland's story. What's more, the Famine had important implications for American society and for this country’s emergence as the world's leading economy in the period between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War 1. 

While there were many striking developments in Ireland throughout the 19th century - Robert Emmet's Rising of 1803, the achievement of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the Repeal movement of the 1840s, the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, the emergence of the Fenians in the 1860s, the land war of the 1880s and the rise and fall of Charles Stewart Parnell between 1880 and 1891 - nothing came close to the Famine in terms of the scale of its short-term and long-term effects. Its immediate impact was devastating. It was the last incidence of mass hunger in the western world. 

When potato blight made its appearance in Ireland in the second half of 1845, it caused a partial failure of the potato crop on which so many Irish people were dependent. When the blight returned in 1846 with much more severe effects on the potato crop, this created an unparalleled food crisis that lasted four years and drove Ireland into a nightmare of hunger and disease. It decimated Ireland's population, which stood at about 8.5 million on the eve of the Famine. 

It is estimated that the Famine caused about 1 million deaths between 1845 and 1851 either from starvation or hunger-related disease. A further 1 million Irish people emigrated. This meant that Ireland lost a quarter of its population during those terrible years. The Famine’s impact was most severe in the west of Ireland where some counties lost more than 50 per cent of their population. 

The Famine’s immediate impact in terms of mortality and population loss is clear. The Famine's longer-term economic and political effects require some interpretation. The most consequential of these was mass emigration from Ireland, which persisted for decades after Black ’47.  Indeed, it is only in recent decades that Ireland has experienced net immigration. This massive outflow of people had serious economic and social consequences.

It is true that Irish people had been emigrating in growing numbers in the first half of the 19th century. Some 1 million crossed the Atlantic between 1800 and 1845.  But the Famine turned this flow into a flood.  As one historian has pointed out, more people left Ireland "in just eleven years (in the 1840s and '50s) than in the preceding two and one-half centuries." After 1845, emigration became something of a norm in certain parts of Ireland. 

6 million people left between 1841 and 1900. This figure exceeded the total population of Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century. By 1901, Ireland's population had been cut in half, to just 4.4 million. Indeed, the population of the island, although it has been on the rise since the early 1960s, is still short of 7 million. This makes Ireland one of the few countries in the world to suffer population decline over the past 170 years when the world’s population has increased more than six fold.

Dispute about the causes of the Famine has had a long afterlife. From the word go, Irish nationalists laid the blame squarely at the feet of the British Government and saw it as an invincible argument in favour of self-government. Historians tend to be more understanding of the undoubted inadequacies of the Famine relief effort on account of the unprecedented scale of the tragedy that beset Ireland.    

Whatever view is taken about responsibility for the Famine, the fact that it had such catastrophic effects engendered a profound sense of grievance that became a death knell for the Union between Britain and Ireland. It is true that the Union survived for seven decades after the Famine, but that was because Britain was the strongest State in the world at the time and was not for turning on the Union no matter how much discontent there was in Ireland. It took the effects of a world war and a dramatically changed international environment to give Ireland an opportunity to win its independence. 

The United States also felt the impact of the Irish Famine, as it became the principal recipient of the mammoth exodus that ensued. About two-thirds of all Irish emigrants in the last six decades of the 19th century came to this country. Most Americans today who have an Irish family background are descended from those who arrived here at that time. 

Together with the 5 million Germans and the millions of Scandinavians who arrived alongside them, Irish immigrants changed the demography of this country. As the historian David Reynolds puts it: "During the decade from 1845 the United States opened its doors to 3 million people, proportionately the biggest influx in US history ... Although many Germans settled in rural areas, the Irish flocked overwhelmingly to America's burgeoning cities … ". 

The Irish met with resistance from nativist movements in a country that had hitherto been populated primarily by people of British stock. Irish newcomers, with their poverty and their Catholicism, were seen as a threat to the established order. In 1844, there were deadly riots in Philadelphia during which lives were lost and Catholic Churches were burned. The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was founded in 1850. It later became known as the ‘Know-Nothings’ and eventually the American Party, which was anti-Catholic and hostile to immigrants, especially the Irish.  After some initial electoral success, this political movement fizzled out as divisions about race took centre stage. These lead to the Civil War in which Irish immigrants fought bravely and thus became part of the fabric of modern America, contributing to, and benefiting from, America's economic transformation in the closing decades of the 19th century. 

Hostility towards post-Famine Irish immigrants probably helped give them a sense of cohesion as they sought to make their presence felt in American politics. The memory of the Famine, and the continued flow of arrivals from Ireland, also helped keep Irish immigrants connected with their homeland. Indeed, they became a notable factor in Irish politics, supporting Irish nationalist movements, supplying them with financial and moral sustenance. Irish Americans helped keep the desire for Irish independence alive during those difficult post-Famine decades.  

Writing back in the 1970s, the historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh summed up Irish America’s influence on Ireland beautifully:

“The struggle was destined to a protracted and, at times, frustrating one. But the sons and grandsons of the famine exiles were determined to see it through to the end ... Only then could the accusing ghost of ‘black ‘47’ be finally laid.” (Ireland before the Famine, p. 227).

The continued existence of an Irish American identity is a legacy of the Irish famine and its aftermath with the formation of an extensive Irish community that was both determined to assert its position within American society and also to retain its affiliation with its ancestral homeland. 

The film Black ‘47, does a great service in bringing the Famine to the big screen for the first time. It is a fine dramatic film and well worth watching for its own sake, but it does also serve to remind us of the scale and severity of the Great Famine, and of its enormous significance for the subsequent history of Ireland - and of Irish America.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States