Genocide or Catastrophe?        
          What was it?  Holocaust/Genocide or Catastrophe?  This issue has recently dominated the discussion of the Famine by educators, States, Municipalities and School Boards.  It is an issue of high emotion but one which is also politically charged. On its playing field populist romantics confront revisionist historians, while empirical economists hope to temper the debate. The terms Genocide and Holocaust  themselves are highly charged. Their use must be reserved for events and acts for which they are ideally suited beyond a shadow of a doubt.  click here. for the menu

Menu of Genocide Issue

Revisionism Commemorative 
History Page 
click here 
To return to the main menu of Famine Issues click here
To return to the main menu of the Potato Famine Commemoration Pages click here

Empirical Study: Realistic Counter Revisionism
The Contributions of Cormac O' Gr/ada

Perhaps the most insightful work concerning the economic realities of the Famine is Ireland Before and After the Famine. By Cormac O’Gr/ada. (Manchester University Press, 1993. ) O’ Gr/ada’s study is  post- revisionist and empirical  in nature. It addresses both the excesses of the populist view that the famine was  an act of Genocide and those of  the revisionist view that it was totally an act of God. I find it very instructive that O’ Gr/ada’s  detailed and complex economic study  has concluded that the famine was  not in fact an act of genocide. O'Gr/ada however, does not explore the development of poor cultural relations between Ireland and Britain over the centuries which came before the famine. I would suggest that the "famine of good relations" helped to build the philosophies of economics and government in place during the Famine itself. Both Ireland and Britain contributed to that  angry environment.

I provide below O’ Gr/ada’s  conclusions for your consideration.

“The most strenuous efforts which human sagacity, ingenuity and foresight could at the time devise were put into requsition...The various social changes forced into action at that period (were) the means most fitted ultimately to ameliorate the social condition of the inhabitants”-Sir William Wilde

“No Government, Whig, Tory, or Repeal could have insulated the Irish poor against the effects of the potato blight.  The massive shock inflicted on the rural economy could not have been met, even with the best will in the world, without some excess mortality. In any assessment of the role of politics and ideology, that point must not be forgotten.”-p125

“The final irony is that when these ideologues played fast and loose with people's lives they did so not out of genocidal intent far from  it- but from a commitment to their own vision of a better world.  Even the unlovely Senior’s eagerness to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and Irishwomen was for the greater good of both survivors and “all that makes England worth living in”.-p128

(The Famine was)...”the outcome of three factors: an ecological accident that could not have been predicted, an ideology ill-geared to saving lives and, of course, mass poverty.  The role of sheer bad luck is important: Ireland's ability to cope with a potato failure would have been far greater a few decades later, and the political will and the political pressure, to spend more money to save lives greater too. Meanwhile, the shock of the blight's onslaught in the 1840’s would have challenged even the most generous of governments. If this post revisionist interpretation of events of the 1840’s  comes closer to the traditional story, it also keeps its distance from the wider populist interpretations...Food availability was a problem, nobody wanted the extirpation of the Irish as a race.”-pp. 137-8
To return to the top of this page click here
To return to the main menu of Famine Issues click here
To return to the main menu of the Potato Famine Commemoration Pages click here

Populism- Political Agenda, Revenge and Folklore Standing in for Fact

Current 20th century folk song reveals this harsh attitude of
revenge which flies against the facts of the matter:

                          "God's curse upon you Lord John Russell
     May your blackhearted soul rot in hell
     There's no love left on earth......... God's curse upon you Lord Trevalian
     May your great Queen Victoria rot in hell 'Til England and its Empire
     Answer before heaven  For the crimes they committed in Black 47 "-Black 47,Black 47

and another:

"There was no "famine"
See Irish people were only ALLOWED to eat potatoes......
....Schools go on about "Black 47"
On and on about "The terrible "famine""
But what they don't say is in truth
There really never was one "-Famine by  Sinead O'Connor

           What is the point of these lyrics of hatred and the inaccuracies they use to
make their point?
           The Retribution is also noted in the conclusion to The Great Hunger., by Cecil Woodham-Smith, Harper and Row, New York 1962. It is painful to think that due to
the lack of Irish Cooperation Hitler's Death camps were allowed months if not years
of continued operation. Woodham-Smith concludes:

"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 forgiven...
Time brought retribution.  By the outbreak of the second world war, Ireland was independent, and she would not fight on England's side.  Liberty and England did not appear to the Irish to be synonymous, and Eire remained neutral. Many thousands of Irishmen from? Eire volunteered, but the famous regiments of southern Ireland had ceased to exist, and the "inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers" was no longer at England's service. There was also a more direct payment.  Along the west coast of Ireland, in Mayo especially, on remote Clare Island and in the dunes above the Six Mile Strand are a number of graves of petty officers and able seamen of the British Navy and Merchant Service, representatives of many hundreds who were drowned off the coast of Ireland, because the Irish harbours were not open to British ships. From these innocents, in all probability ignorant of the past, who had never heard of failures of the potato, evictions, fever and starvation, was exacted part of the price  for the famine."- pp.412-413

To these casualties must be added those from the German death camps who perished
due to the extension of the war resultant from the withholding of Irish support and resources from  the Allied war effort. Ireland turned its back on these victims due to a "popular' view of the Famine. It is interesting to note that in O Gr/ada's empirical economic study that Britain
after the famine  reacted with exceptional generosity to the crop distresses in 1883,1890, 1894 and 1904. "While some of the extra generosity in this later period was due to economic growth, attitudes individuals and ideology surely played their part" Ireland Before and after the Famine.,p133). Retribution therefore was taken against a government which had already
reformed and had taken steps to provide considerable assistance. The populist approach
to history therefore, turns to the same hateful means that it found unacceptable in the acts
of others.
To return to the top of this page click here
To return to the main menu of Famine Issues click here
To return to the main menu of the Potato Famine Commemoration Pages click here

Revisionism- The Pendulum Swings Back-Sometimes too far back....

O'Gr/ada writes:

"Shattering dangerous myths about the past is the historian's main social responsibility.  In Ireland where popular history is an odd brew of myth and reality, there is still plenty for her  (or him) to do. Perhaps, then, a dose of  cold revisionism was necessary to purge the locals of a simplistic and hysterical "Our Boys" view of the Famine as a "dastardly" British plot?  The connection between "och/on och/on popular history and national resistance is  after all, real."-p99.Ireland Before and After the Famine

O'Gr/ada is correct when he suggests that at times this healthy revisionism has indeed
gone too far. The populist accounts such as that of Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger
which while not exactly accurate sources, were none the less attacked without mercy.
F.S.L. Lions however, in Irish Historical Studies called, correctly, for analysis based within the context of the times.  Liberal Republican/Nationalist authors such as Robert Kee's were accurately seen as promoting terrorism by providing an undue emphasis on the emotive, political and popular.
I see no problem in dealing with the emotive and populist uses of the famine however I would
suggest that their presentation should not be that of history but of reflective contemporary ethnography which is able to both treasure such opinions and conclusions as folklore while
relating them to the solid facts of the matter.

Daly wrote in the 1980s that (government at the time should) "perhaps be seen in a more sympathetic light that it is generally regarded....It does not appear appropriate to pronounce in an unduly critical fashion on the limitations of previous generations...A greater sympathy  with the Irish case would (not) have automatically guaranteed a dramatically reduced mortality"-The Great Famine. While speaking out against strategies of analysis the revisionists also attacked dramatic and  emotive writing styles.  The work of Donnelly, Mokyr and O'Neill (see bibliography) deriving from outside  of Ireland have dealt critically with issues such as claims of Genocide.

Clearly the famine has been utilized by authors in pursuit of political agendas.  The cultural
sensitivity of the interpretation of the famine has threatened those in search of the truth
with being branded as excuse makers and traitors. While it is correct to challenge the
emotive and populist it is important that such studies do not merely substitute an alternative
political  or cultural agenda for the one they wish to question. The answer is the production
of studies which are carefully founded upon statistics and primary information that leave
the emotive and populist agendas to works of fiction or contemporary ethnography.

To return to the top of this page click here
To return to the main menu of Famine Issues click here
To return to the main menu of the Potato Famine Commemoration Pages click here


Commemorative Counter Revisionism

To review this school of thought see our special section by clicking here.

To return to the top of this page click here
To return to the main menu of Famine Issues click here
To return to the main menu of the Potato Famine Commemoration Pages click here

The Menu of Famine Issues

The Famine 
Starving in a  
Sea of Fish 
Failure to Utilize  
Seafood resources 
Cultural or Logistical
Irish Celtic Culture 
Liability or  
To Return to the main History Page click here
To return to the main menu of Famine Issues click here
To return to the main menu of the Potato Famine Commemoration Pages click here

 Main Menu of Potato Famine Comemoration Pages

Potatoes and Fungus Potato Miscellany page. Fungus 
Late Blight Simulation Software  Potato 
Science Update  Potato Recipes
The Irish Potato Famine 
An Gorta Mor-
History of 
the Famine
Ideas for   
Famine Links
 About the Author and Webmaster              Help these Pages to continue

  To Return to the Main Page Click Here