Global Legacies of the Great Irish Famine

Transnational and Interdisciplinary Perspectives

by Marguerite Corporaal (Volume editor) Christopher Cusack (Volume editor) Lindsay Janssen (Volume editor) Ruud van den Beuken (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection XII, 354 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 60


The 150th anniversary of Ireland’s Great Famine in the 1990s generated a significant increase in scholarship on the history of the crisis and its social and cultural aftermath. Two decades later, interest in the Irish Famine – both scholarly and popular – has soared once again. A key event in Irish cultural memory, the crisis still crops up regularly in public discourse within Ireland and among the Irish diaspora. This volume, containing essays by distinguished scholars such as Peter Gray, Margaret Kelleher and Chris Morash, offers new perspectives on the Famine and its contexts. Addressing the challenges and opportunities for Irish Famine studies today, the book presents a stimulating dialogue between a wide range of disciplinary approaches to the Famine and its legacies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Figures
  • Tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • Marguérite Corporaal, Christopher Cusack and Lindsay Janssen: Introduction
  • Famine Memory: Politics and Literature
  • Irish Studies and Famine Memory
  • New Directions
  • The Outline of this Volume
  • Section I: Rewriting History
  • Margaret Kelleher: The ‘Affective Gap’ and Recent Histories of Ireland’s Great Famine
  • New Famine Histories and the ‘Fiction-Effect’
  • Revisiting Earlier Historiography: ‘The Generation After’
  • Famine and its Affective Economies: Why Gender Matters
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgements
  • Peter Gray: The Great Famine in Irish and British Historiographies, c. 1860–1914
  • Mitchel’s ‘History’
  • O’Rourke and Catholic Famine History
  • Irish Liberal Interpretations
  • Froude, Goldwin Smith and the British View
  • Conclusion
  • Andrew G. Newby: ‘Rather Peculiar Claims Upon Our Sympathies’: Britain and Famine in Finland, 1856–1868
  • Damage Limitation: Britain and Finland in the late 1850s
  • Humiliating the Tsar: The 1862 Crisis
  • Stretching Forth the Hand of Help: British Relief Efforts in 1868
  • Conclusion
  • Peter Slomanson: Cataclysm as a Catalyst for Language Shift
  • Societal Reorganization in the Wake of Disaster
  • Self-Imposed Linguistic Repression as a Collective Response to Cataclysm
  • Correlating Language Shift with Other Changes: The Need for New Interdisciplinary Research
  • Conclusion
  • Section II: Rereading the Classics
  • Gordon Bigelow: Anthony Trollope’s Famine Economics
  • Capitalism without History
  • Hamlet without the Prince
  • Chris Morash: ‘Where All Ladders Start’: Famine Memories in Yeats’s Countess Cathleen
  • Yeats and Minor Literature
  • The Famine and the Countess
  • ‘Where All Ladders Start’
  • Section III: Commemorating the Dead
  • Jonny Geber: Reconstructing Realities: Exploring the Human Experience of the Great Famine through Archaeology
  • Famine Archaeologies at the Kilkenny Union Workhouse
  • The Bioarchaeology of the Poor and Destitute
  • The Human Experience of the Great Irish Famine – A Painful Endurance of Scurvy
  • Telling Their Story
  • Conclusion
  • Melissa Fegan: Waking the Bones: The Return of the Famine Dead in Contemporary Irish Literature
  • Sending Them off Mean: Famine Funerals in Irish Literature
  • Haunted Cabins and Ghost Estates in Contemporary Famine Novels
  • Spectres of Famine
  • Section IV: Spacing the Famine
  • Declan Curran: Geographic Scale and the Great Famine
  • Geographic Scales
  • The Mahon Murder in Context
  • Repercussions of the Mahon Murder across Scales
  • Conclusion
  • Paul S. Ell, Niall Cunningham and Ian N. Gregory: No Spatial Watershed: Religious Geographies of Ireland Pre- and Post-Famine
  • Ireland’s Religious Geographies in 1834
  • The Famine Period: Religious Change 1834 to 1861
  • Longer-Term Religious Change after the Famine
  • Conclusions
  • Acknowledgements
  • Section V: Atlantic Connections
  • David Sim:Philanthropy, Diplomacy and Nationalism: The United States and the Great Famine
  • Jason King: The Remembrance of Irish Famine Migrants in the Fever Sheds of Montreal
  • Coffin Ships and Fever Sheds
  • Textual and Visual Mediations of Famine Memory
  • Anxiety of Proselytization
  • Fever and Festivity
  • Famine Memory and the Elision of Ethno-Religious Conflict
  • Conclusion
  • Mark G. Mcgowan: Contemporary Links between Canadian and Irish Famine Commemoration
  • The Historical Context of the Famine in British North America
  • Commemoration of the Famine
  • Ireland Park
  • Conclusion
  • David Lloyd: Afterword: The Afterlife of the Untimely Dead
  • Bibliography
  • Journals and Newspapers
  • Archives and Manuscript Collections
  • General Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

| ix →

Figures and Tables


1. Severe destruction of the mandible of a five- or six-year-old child resulting from tuberculosis.

2. Circular notches on the anterior teeth in the dentition belonging to a thirty-six- to forty-five-year-old male, which are indicative of habitual clay-pipe smoking.

3. The skull of a ten- to eleven-year-old child displaying considerable porotic lesions of the right temple caused by micro-trauma generated by scurvy.

4. Examples of the numerous child skeletons from the Kilkenny mass burials, including the remains of a four-year-old (left), and two five-year-old children (middle and right).

5. The thirty-two dioceses of the Church of Ireland in 1834.

6. Religious groups as proportions of the entire popu­lation at Church of Ireland diocese level in 1834: Catholics (top left); Church of Ireland members (top right); Presbyterians (bottom left); Other Protestant Dissenters (bottom right).

7a and b. Cartograms showing the proportion of Catholic and Protestant populations at Church of Ireland diocese level in 1834.

8. Population change in Ireland at provincial level between 1821 and 1911. ← ix | x →

9. Population change at barony level between 1841 and 1861.

10. Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian proportions of the entire population at 1834 Church of Ireland diocese level in 1861.

11. Percentage change in Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian populations between 1834 and 1861.

12. Fourth-class housing as a percentage of all housing at barony level between 1841 and 1861.

13. Catholics as a proportion of the entire population at county level in 1861, 1881, 1901 and 1911.

14. Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian as a proportion of the entire barony population in 1861 and urban and rural districts in 1911.

15. Change in numbers of Presbyterian families by county, 1871–1911.

16. Théophile Hamel’s Le Typhus (Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel/Museum Marguerite-Bourgeoys 1848).

17. Detail of Théophile Hamel’s Le Typhus (Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel/Museum Marguerite-Bourgeoys 1848).


1. Total migration from UK ports to British North America, 1843–1848.

| xi →


The basis for this volume was laid with our conference Global Legacies of the Great Irish Famine: Transnational and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, held at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, in March 2013, as part of the ERC-funded research project Relocated Remembrance: The Great Famine in Irish (Diaspora) Fiction, 1847–1921 (grant agreement no. 262898-FAMINE). Most of the chapters in this volume were first presented as papers at this conference.

We would like to acknowledge the generous financial support given by several partners, which was vital for the realization of the conference and this volume: the European Research Council, the Embassy of Ireland in the Netherlands, Radboud University’s Department of English, and the university’s Institute for Historical, Literary and Cultural Studies.

We would like to thank all contributors to this volume for their effort, insights and stimulating scholarship. We are also beholden to all our peer reviewers, whose efforts have helped further improve the quality of this volume. We would also like to thank Anna Siddle for compiling the index. Finally, we are grateful to Eamon Maher, series editor for the Reimagining Ireland series, and Christabel Scaife, our editor at Peter Lang, for their support of this publication and their guidance throughout its development.

May 2014

| 1 →



Fifty years after the crisis had ended, historian William Patrick O’Brien predicted that ‘[i]n the future annals of Ireland a chief place will always belong to the year 1845 […] as the commencement of the GREAT FAMINE’.1 Indeed, the cultural legacies of the Great Irish Famine continue to play a fundamental role in public discourse well into the twenty-first century. Recent years were marked by a more extensive, international remembrance of the Famine past, to which the Irish government’s 2009 introduction of an annual National Famine Commemoration Day and a parallel international event, the opening of Dublin’s Jeanie Johnston, Tall Ship and Famine Museum in 2010 and the foundation of a Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in 2012 all testify.

The Great Famine also continues to crop up as a ‘figure of memory’2 in debates surrounding the Irish financial crisis following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. In December 2013, announcing that Ireland would no longer require the support of the Troika to weather the bust, Finance Minister Michael Noonan declared that Ireland’s financial crash was ‘the greatest crisis that this country has experienced since the famine.’3 Politicians like ← 1 | 2 → Noonan are not alone in their use of the Famine as a point of reference to describe the scale of the current crisis. Tim Pat Coogan, in his controversial popular history The Famine Plot (2012), draws connections between the financial crisis and the Famine, stating that the Famine is a ‘stark warning to today’s Republic of Ireland’s citizenry of what can happen when a country has no government of its own and must rely for its sustenance on the droppings from the table of a wealthy neighbor’.4 According to Coogan, ‘Caitlín Ní Houlihan currently stands in a dole queue in Brussels to receive handouts from the European and International Monetary Funds’, and the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) essentially follows a ‘procedure dictated by the Encumbered Estates Act during the Famine’.5 The link has become so commonplace that its use can seem gratuitous, for rhetorical effect; thus The Fall of the Celtic Tiger, a recent Oxford University Press publication, refers to the Famine just once, in its opening paragraph, without elaborating the analogy:

The year 2008 will be known as the year of the great financial crisis, just as 1847 has gone down as ‘Black 47’, the year when the Great Irish Famine peaked. ‘Black 47’ involved a massive loss of population and a debilitating legacy of emigration. ‘Black 2008’, while not as catastrophic in human terms, caused extensive damage to a sizeable part of Ireland’s economic fabric and had major repercussions for all parts of Irish society.6

Such cavalier allusion to a demographic catastrophe on the scale of the Famine indicates the need for a continuing critical interrogation of the workings of cultural memory, as these instrumentalizing references to a ← 2 | 3 → historical event attest to the fact that memories are transformed in each act of recollection and are always informed by present and future concerns, thus changing ‘continually and dynamically’.7

Famine Memory: Politics and Literature

Of course, similar discursive appropriations have been central to the memory of the crisis since the Famine itself. Indeed, as Chris Morash suggested in 1995, our notion of the Famine is itself fundamentally a ‘retrospective, textual creation’,8 filtered through generations of usually politicized discourse.9 Nationalist writers such as John Mitchel, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Michael Davitt harnessed it for rhetorical effect, instrumentalizing the memory in the service of nationalism. Later crises were characterized in terms redolent with Famine memory; thus, the Land Wars and the famine of 1879–80 were often represented as indirect effects of the Great Famine.10 ← 3 | 4 →

The seemingly uncomplicated use of mnemonic images of the Famine to enhance the political credit of later colonial struggle and give figurative shape to later periods of hardship was not limited to political tracts and nationalist historiographies; an extensive body of poetry and (popular) fiction on the Famine worked with similar narrative techniques.11 Examples of texts using these strategies include Mary Meaney’s The Confessors of Connaught (1865), which suggests that during the early 1860s the vulnerable position of Catholic tenant farmers who are pressured into conversion by their Protestant landlord is a direct continuation of miseries endured during the ‘great famine of 1846’ during which proselytism thrived. Recollections of the dire effects of the Famine – ‘its persecuting landlord tyranny, its depopulated fields, its levelled villages, its proselytising poor-houses’ – are moreover evoked to fulminate against England’s current ‘imperial legislation’.12 In a later example, William C. Upton’s Uncle Pat’s Cabin (1882), it is the specific memory of the Famine which gives shape to the plight of the Irish land labourer, or ‘the Lazarus of the World’ in early 1880s Ireland. Similarly, William O’Brien’s When We Were Boys (1890) features monologues voiced by a strongly Fenian adolescent, which rehash memories of Famine suffering to provide the ultimate justification for the future Fenian Rising.13 Thus, the representation of the Famine becomes what Kevin Whelan would call ‘radical memory’, which is oriented towards ← 4 | 5 → future goals rather than past or present concerns.14 These examples show that such legitimizing strategies proliferated both temporally and spatially, and further examples are rife. Patrick Sheehan’s 1915 novel The Graves at Kilmorna also embeds the Fenian Rising in the memory of the Famine,15 while fiction published by Irish-American authors such as Mary Synon and John Brennan focuses on the intersections between ethnic self-identification, assimilation in the host society, and transgenerational memories of the Famine.16 Moreover, for the past decades, the Famine has resurfaced continuously in both fiction and poetry, often to imagine a symbolic link between Ireland past and present, as in Seamus Heaney’s famous poem ‘At a Potato Digging’ (1965), which envisages a lasting connection, both in the land and in the people, between the 1840s and today: ‘Stinking potatoes fouled the land,/pits turned pus in filthy mounds:/and where potato diggers are/you still smell the running sore.’17 This topos is also central to Eavan Boland’s seminal ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’ (1994), in which the past is inscribed on the landscape in the shape of a famine road,18 a trope which can itself be traced back to nineteenth-century authors such as Emily Lawless.19 ← 5 | 6 →

Irish Studies and Famine Memory

What is implied by these examples and more recent references, such as the offhand remarks by Minister Noonan and Tim Pat Coogan, is that mnemonic constructions of the Famine have exercised – and continue to exercise – great influence on Irish self-configurations. The memory of the Famine was and is mediated across generations and transcends the boundaries between communities. In turn, the event has become part of communal self-conceptions:20 the Famine is recontextualized in ‘new social constellations and political contexts’21 by Irish emigrants and their descendants and thus has transcultural afterlives. A particular longue durée memory of the Famine thus still figures large in Irish public discourse as a manifestation of a long tradition of similar analogies, and functions as what Oona Frawley calls a ‘memory crux’:

A memory crux, unlike other historically ‘important’ dates and/or events, is marked by something else, some recurring fascination: the sense that a major cultural change is indicated by it, inspired by the specter of trauma, and, crucially, by a sense of differing interpretations of the crux running up against each other over and over again.22

The memory of the Famine is not stable; it mutates and is transformed depending on the context in which recall takes place. As such, several ← 6 | 7 → questions arise to which this volume will attempt to provide answers. When and how are these events disconnected from their original discursive, temporal and spatial contexts and how are they harnessed to shape the representation of events of another order? How should scholars respond to this unreconstructed appropriation? Moreover, as Andreas Huyssen observed in 2003 in an influential essay, scholars should not focus exclusively on cultural memory at the diasporic or the national level, but should rather study the interrelations between ‘diasporic memory and the memory formations of the national culture within which a given diaspora may be embedded’.23 Consequently, additional questions present themselves: in what ways do the legacies of the Famine still endure over time and in communities outside Ireland, and what is their global significance today? To what extent do memories of the Great Famine intersect and interact with other bodies of cultural memory, such as those of other immigrant communities in North America, possibly to become what Michael Rothberg has called ‘multidirectional memory’?24 The significance of such questions concerning the transmission and reconfigurations of Famine memory remains undiminished in the face of the recent wave of bestselling popular histories of the Famine, including Coogan’s The Famine Plot, John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking (2012) and Enda Delaney’s The Curse of Reason (2012).25

Several developments in both the broader field of Irish Studies and Irish Famine Studies more specifically undergird the work collected in this volume. In recent years, Irish Studies more generally has seen the proliferation of comparative works which juxtapose Irish concerns with other themes ← 7 | 8 → and contexts, often assuming a metacritical dimension to reflect not only on the objects of study themselves but also to interrogate the epistemic processes and tenets of Irish Studies. Recent examples include works such as the four-part Memory Ireland series edited by Oona Frawley (2011–2014), Life on the Fringe: Ireland and Europe, 1800–1922 (2012), edited by Brian Heffernan, and comparative works spanning the Atlantic such as The Black and Green Atlantic (2009) edited by David Lloyd and Peter D. O’Neill, and The Irish in the Atlantic World (2010), edited by David T. Gleeson. This approach is also becoming established in Irish Famine Studies, as attested by comparative studies such as Holodomor and Gorta Mór (2012), edited by Christian Noack, Lindsay Janssen and Vincent Comerford, and Famines in European Economic History (forthcoming 2014), edited by Declan Curran, Lubomyr Luciuk and Andrew Newby.

These books take stock of matters which have long been at the forefront of Irish Famine Studies, including the debate surrounding the colonial status of Ireland and the widespread engagement with postcolonial theory,26 and the hot-button issue whether or not the British state’s response to the Famine could be considered genocide.27 Moreover, several ← 8 | 9 → important recent publications again confirm that Irish Famine Studies can be considered a discrete field of inquiry in its own right. The primary example of this, and perhaps the pinnacle of this development, is the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (2012), which collects an enormous – and enormously varied – amount of research on the catastrophe, juxtaposing numerous disciplinary approaches in the context of a collection of geographical data. As such the Atlas could be said to represent the many accomplishments of Irish Famine scholarship to date. Yet what it actually provides is first and foremost an overview of the field’s status quo rather than a meditation on its future directions or on continuing lacunae.

The groundwork for a critical exploration of the field has been laid by studies such as Stuart McLean’s The Event and Its Terrors (2004) and several essays by David Lloyd.28 A select number of recent volumes distinctly showcase this innovative critical dimension, most notably David Nally’s Human Encumbrances (2011) and Emily Mark-FitzGerald’s Commemorating the Irish Famine (2013). Nally’s study embeds the issues of colonial politics and governmental culpability in a sophisticated theoretical framework informed by Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, Amartya Sen, Mike Davis and others. While its conclusions do not deviate much from earlier work by Cormac Ó Gráda, Peter Gray, James S. Donnelly, Jr and Christine Kinealy, his work is significant for its theoretically consummate deconstruction of discourses surrounding the Famine and the critical reflections it offers on premises which have dominated Irish Famine Studies.29 Mark-FitzGerald’s important study provides an impressive analysis of recent Famine ← 9 | 10 → monuments across several continents, taking into consideration their artistic, historical, financial and rhetorical contexts, as well as their place in the genealogy of visual representations of the Famine. Engaging with established paradigms of cultural memory and trauma theory, she critiques both the ideologies underlying Famine memorialization and the critical positions of recent as well as established Famine scholarship. These studies are seminal explorations offering the kind of self-reflection that can carry Irish Famine Studies to the next level, a metacritical position that, in our view, still requires further development.


XII, 354
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
history crisis cultural memory diaspora
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. XII, 354 pp., num. fig. and tables

Biographical notes

Marguerite Corporaal (Volume editor) Christopher Cusack (Volume editor) Lindsay Janssen (Volume editor) Ruud van den Beuken (Volume editor)

Marguérite Corporaal is Assistant Professor of British Literature at Radboud University Nijmegen. She is the principal investigator for the ERC-funded project Relocated Remembrance: The Great Famine in Irish (Diaspora) Fiction, 1847-1921. With Christopher Cusack and Lindsay Janssen, she co-edited Recollecting Hunger: An Anthology. Cultural Memories of the Great Famine in Irish and British Fiction, 1847-1920 (2012). Christopher Cusack is a PhD candidate and instructor at Radboud University Nijmegen, where he is writing a thesis on literary memories of the Great Famine in Irish and Irish diaspora fiction from 1892 to 1921. Lindsay Janssen is a PhD candidate and instructor at Radboud University Nijmegen, where she is writing a thesis on cultural memories of the Great Famine in Irish and Irish diaspora fiction from 1871 to 1891. Ruud van den Beuken is a PhD candidate and instructor at Radboud University Nijmegen, where he is writing a thesis on memory, modernity and (inter)nationalist identities at the Dublin Gate Theatre from 1928 to 1957.


Title: Global Legacies of the Great Irish Famine
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367 pages