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The Great Famine: Introduction
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Few topics of Irish history have attracted as much popular interest as the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849. Wherever the Irish diaspora reached, the Famine is never far beneath the surface. Over the years, various people have argued that the famine had a single cause: whether that be a Malthusian overpopulation by the Irish working class or a genocide by the government. However these approaches over-simplify the fact that there are few topics of Irish history with a more fundamentally multidisciplinary cause as the Great Famine. A full understanding of the causes and consequences of the Famine requires a study of political science, economics, demography, dietary science, sociology and agriculture. Research is made all the more difficult (or colourful, depending on your viewpoint) by the lack of reliable statistics from the era.

It is worth quoting the foreword to the 1956 book "The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52" (Dudley-Edwards and Williams) which was written to commemorate the centenary of the Famine. "It is difficult to know how many men and women died in Ireland in the famine years between 1845 and 1852. Perhaps all that matters is the certainty that many, very many died. The Great Famine was not the first nor the last period of acute distress in Irish history. The Great Famine may be seen as but a period of greater misery in a prolonged age of suffering, but it has left an enduring mark on the folk memory because of its duration and severity. The famine is seen as the source of many woes, the symbol of the exploitation of a whole nation by its oppressors. If only because of its importance in the shaping of Irish national thought, the famine deserves examination. But it was much more than a mere symbol. The economic and social influences of the famine were considerable; many of the most persistent trends in modern Irish life emerge with the famine, while the years of distress also saw the end of a phase in the agitation for national self-government. In Irish social and political history the famine was very much of a watershed. The Ireland on the other side of those dark days is a difficult world for us to understand, the Ireland that emerged we recognise as one with problems akin to our own."

This section of The Ireland Story web site, dedicated to the memory of the Great Famine, does not claim to be a definitive study. Rather, it is a detailed introduction to a topic which has shaped Irish history fundamentally. Please read as many of the sections as you can, because a true undertanding of the Famine comes only through recognition of the powerful complexity of its causes.

> Next > Prelude to Famine 1: Agriculture >

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