The Irish Famine: natural disaster or genocide?

The Irish Famine: natural disaster or genocide?
Ireland’s Great Famine, Britain’s Great Failure William H. A. Williams (Anthem Press, £80.00/€94.00)

It is impossible to write about certain matters, even in a scholarly context, without feelings of outrage.

The Irish Famine of 1845-49, the subject of this new book by William H. A. Williams, an American historian who taught at University College Dublin in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is a case in point. Dr Williams, however, avoids being overwhelmed with outrage in his study of this seminal event in Irish history. His book is exhaustively researched, and the result is a wide-ranging and carefully balanced analysis of the Famine.

The demographic consequences of the Famine are well known, but bear repetition here. Ireland’s population was 8.175 million in the 1841 census and is estimated to have risen to over 8.5 million by 1846, but declined to 6.55 million in the 1851 census – a loss of at least two million, roughly a quarter of the population. While official statistics are incomplete, it is thought that about a million people died during the Famine. The other million emigrated – and the exodus continued afterwards.


Williams records that a total of 2.1 million Irish people fled the country between 1845 and 1855, and by 1900 some five million people had emigrated. This left Ireland’s population at about 4.5 million in 1900, approximately where it had been in 1790. The population of Ireland today, including Northern Ireland, is estimated at 6.9 million – approximately 1.5 million short of the 1846 figure.

The rapid rise in Ireland’s population between 1790 and 1845 – an increase of nearly 45% – and the over-dependence of the rural population on the potato for sustenance created conditions that were unsustainable. Irish society was already in crisis before the advent of the potato blight.

The Famine arguably precipitated changes in Irish society which would have happened in any event, but they would have happened more gradually and with less human suffering. As Dr Williams points out, “it makes a difference whether events span decades or are concentrated within a few years”. He quotes one authority as suggesting that the country’s population would have fallen to the levels actually reached by 1900 even without the Famine. He comments: “In this sense, perhaps the ghost of Malthus did hover over rural Ireland.”


The government’s wholly inadequate response to the Famine is what has given rise to the charge of genocide. John Mitchel wrote thus in 1861 that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine”. While not dismissing this argument, Dr Williams wisely observes that “responding to disasters is seldom a simple matter” – and he draws a parallel between the failure of successive British governments under Peel and Lord John Russell to meet the very considerable challenge of the Famine with the blundering of the US government in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.


The misplaced priority of the British authorities at this time was to protect the UK Treasury and the British taxpayer from the burden of funding Irish relief, and their laissez-faire ideology provided intellectual – if not moral – justification for their reluctance to intervene. Nevertheless, Dr Williams concedes that “a quick, painless solution to the crisis did not exist … Nothing could have spared Ireland’s poor from some degree of disruption, death and panicked emigration.”

Dr Williams, therefore, sees the Famine as “Britain’s Great Failure” – a failure of public policy. It was not genocide, but equally it was not simply the result of a natural disaster.

Moreover, he emphasises that it was the Irish poor – not the “Irish people” – who were “starved and driven out”. For the Irish upper and middle classes, Catholic as well as Protestant, life during the Famine went on pretty much as before. The framing of the Famine in nationalist terms by John Mitchel and others – to quote Williams, “as England against Ireland, the landlords against the people and, by implication at least, Protestants against Catholics” – is wholly misleading, though sadly it remains part of our popular memory and still provokes anti-British sentiment both in Ireland and among the descendants overseas of those “driven out”.


Dr Williams credits his interest in Irish history to “conversations in the snug at Hartigan’s pub on Lower Leeson Street, the off-campus headquarters of UCD’s male historians” during the years when he taught American history in Dublin.

The UCD history school at that time was a particularly talented one, and Williams notes that two of its luminaries – R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams (no relation of his) – had edited a volume of essays entitled The Great Irish Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52, published in 1957. This was the first scholarly study of the Famine. There is now a substantial corpus of work on the subject, and Dr Williams’ book is a valuable addition to it. His wide perspective on Irish society before, during and after the Famine enriches our understanding of the catastrophe that befell Ireland in the years 1845-49.