News Release

St. Patrick’s Day and the Irish Famine: An “Opportunity”?


St. Patrick’s Day is Monday.

CHRISTINE KINEALY, christine.kinealy at
Kinealy is author of Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers (2013), This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52, and other books on Irish history. She has recently been appointed founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University.

She said today: “St Patrick’s Day is celebrated throughout the world, and is an inclusive occasion when everybody is Irish for a few hours. One of the reasons why the Irish diaspora is so large and geographically spread lies in the tragedy of the Great Hunger of the 1840s. The Irish Hunger was triggered by a potato blight, but suffering was exacerbated by inappropriate and stingy relief policies. Consequently, in a period of just six years, over one million people died and an even higher number emigrated. Just as tragically, in the decades after 1852, high levels of emigration depopulated the Irish countryside. Today, the population of Ireland is smaller than it was in 1845.

“At the time of the Famine, Ireland was governed from London, by British politicians who, for the most part, regarded the food shortages as an opportunity to change and modernize Ireland. But Ireland didn’t modernize and the human cost of the policies was that people died. Tormented by hunger, they endured painful and protracted deaths, while vast amounts of food left the country, often under armed guard. Those who emigrated fled from starvation only to face hostility and prejudice in their new homelands. Inevitably, many blamed the British government for their exile.

“Irish folk memory refers to the Famine dead as having ‘mouths stained green’ — because their last meal was often grass. When eating our green bagels this week, and celebrating our Irish-ness, perhaps we should spare a thought for victims of famine and social injustice wherever they may be. And for those who, for economic or political reasons, are forced to leave their country of birth.”