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The Great Irish Famine - 'In Our Time', BBC Radio 4

On Thursday 4 April, Dr Niamh Gallagher, joins fellow historians, Cormac Ó’Gráda (UCD) and Enda Delaney (Edinburgh), to discuss the Great Irish Famine on Radio 4's, ‘In Our Time’, hosted by Melvyn Bragg.

Skibbereen by James Mahony, 1847On Thursday 4 April 2019, Dr Niamh Gallagher, lecturer in British and Irish History at the University of Cambridge, joins fellow historians, Cormac Ó’Gráda (UCD) and Enda Delaney (Edinburgh), to discuss the Great Irish Famine on Radio 4 show, ‘In Our Time’, hosted by Melvyn Bragg.

The potato blight, Phytophthora Infestans, which struck Ireland in September 1845, had all the effects of a ‘nuclear explosion’ upon Irish society (Bartlett, 2010).  By 1851 it had killed one million people, and a further two million people had emigrated by 1856.  Within the space of ten years, Ireland’s population had declined by almost one quarter.  It would in fact never recover: Ireland is the only country in Europe today that has fewer people than it did in 1845.

But how did this catastrophic event happen?  Why was its impact on Ireland so severe?  And, most controversially of all, why was it allowed to happen?  Ireland at the time was a part of the United Kingdom and was next door to the ‘workshop of the world’.  Unlike the more recent devastating famines in Africa (Biafra, Ethiopia, Chad, Darfur and Somalia), or the earlier Ukrainian Famine of the 1930s, the Great Irish Famine did not occur in environments characterized by political instability, civil unrest or authoritarian rule. It occurred on Britain’s watch - something which Irish republicans would never forget.

Close to one half of the Irish population was dependent on the potato as a dietary staple when the potato blight struck Ireland in 1845, many of them exclusively.  Gallagher, Ó’Gráda and Delaney discuss why the Irish were so vulnerable to famine, and how mass poverty, a growing population, and the peculiar system of land tenure in Ireland conspired to provide a context in which the famine could spread.  They look at how the British government responded to the emergent crisis within Ireland, and how political philosophies, policies and specific actors served to accentuate, rather than to contain, its devastating ramifications - a subject that has remained highly controversial in the last 150 years ever since the Irish radical, John Mitchel, accused the British government of ‘genocide’ for its response to famine relief.  Workhouses, public works schemes, soup kitchens, mass death and disease are part and parcel of the history of the tragedy, and the discussants talk about what life was like for those who suffered, died and escaped from Ireland during the famine years, as well as those people who avoided, and even benefitted, from the calamity.

The consequences of the Great Famine are equally significant.  It transformed the social structure of rural Ireland, and provided an important context for the political reform sought later in the century.  Though emigration from Ireland was already 100,000 people per annum on the eve of the blight, massive, sustained emigration from the island of Ireland became the norm during the famine years and thereafter, helping to create an Irish nation overseas, with large numbers of Irish immigrants establishing communities within the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia. These diasporas continue to play an important role in those countries (and in Ireland) today. 

You can tune into Thursday’s show at 9 a.m and again at 21.30.  It will also be available as a podcast, which can be downloaded from the ‘In Our Time’ app or website, or listened to online.   Visit for more information.

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