An Gorta Mór - The Great Hunger - The Great Irish Potato Famine:  Irish Genocide on a Long Fuse



No one who is alive now was alive then.  No one who is alive now is to blame for what happened then.  A rational mind will recognize a recitation of long past events as history.  Not incitement.  However, whether we call it An Gorta Mór (1), the Great Hunger, the Great Irish Potato Famine, or simply the Irish Famine, nothing can change the fact that this Irish genocide was man-made and, originally, intentional.


The Methodology of Genocide Before Hitler


Early confiscations of Irish land in the 17th century were intended to wipe the Irish off the face of the earth.  Although many of us today (as urbanites and suburbanites) have forgotten the fundamental truths of agrarian society, people who live on the land understand that if you drive people off the land, deny them access to their crops, they starve and die within weeks, if not within days.  This technique was the main method of mass-murder used in the Munster genocide of the 1580s and Mountjoy's genocide of 1600-1603 throughout Ireland. 


Cheaper than bullets, more effective than swords, Mountjoy's method succeeded mercilessly and indiscriminately where Essex had failed by fighting honorably:


‘’D’éirigh leis polasaí gorta a chur i bhfeidhm chomh héifeachtúil sin gurbh éigean d’Ó Néill agus dá chomhghuaillithe géilleadh.’’ (2)

‘’He was able to put into effect a policy of hunger so effective that it was necessary for Ó Néill and his allies to surrender.’’


An Unlikely But Temporary Savior


By chance, however, the late 16th century introduction of the potato into Ireland saved a minority of the Irish population of this period.  This super-crop can be grown in remarkably small patches of waste-land (ditches, bogs, the side of the road) in sufficient mass to feed many more than can be fed by conventional crops grown in equivalent amounts of good land.  Increasingly, waste-land was all that was left for many Irish, and they used it as best they could.




As a result of the Irish athchoncas or réconquista of the 14th through 16th centuries, the Irish had taken back nearly all of their land except for a small pale around Dublin.  But confiscations of Irish land by the Stuarts and Cromwell’s Commonwealth took their toll.  By the 1660s, the Irish owned little more than one-fifth of Ireland’s land. (3)    After the Disasters of Aughrim and Limerick, they owned about one-seventh. (4)    This continued to decrease throughout the 18th century under the Penal Laws.  Search the internet and you’ll find a consensus that the Irish owned only 5-10% of Ireland’s land by the end of the 18th century.  Too little to feed so many.  Massive starvation struck Ireland again and again in the 18th century, sometimes on a scale approaching that of the Great Hunger of the 1840s.   


The Intended Blow Finally Falls


By the 1840s, the population had increased to more than 8 million and ‘’the potato was the sole food of about one-third of the Irish people; it was a crucial component in the diet of a considerably larger number.’’ (5)  ‘’In 1841 about two-thirds of this huge population depended on the land for a living.'' (6)            


Understandably, therefore, when the potato died en masse beginning in 1845, the Irish died en masse.  Near-total dispossession effected over the course of more than 200 years of foreign rule meant that the British governments of the 1840s could not have saved them all, even with the best will, which didn't exist anyway.  Influenced by the ‘’Principles of Political Economy’’ expounded by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, the new British government which came to power on June 30, 1846 refused to help. (7)  More than a million died in misery.


Irish genocide on a long fuse, a fuse lit in the 17th century.





1.  The correct spelling is An Gorta Mór, not An Gorta Mor.  Gorta means 'hunger'. Mór means 'great'.

2.  Collins, M.E. agus Mícheál Ó Siochrú.  Concas & Coilniú.  Baile Átha Cliath:  Oifig an tSoláthar i gcomhar le Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1976, p. 44

3.  Moody, T.W. and F.X. Martins, editors.  The Course of Irish History.  Cork:  Mercier Press, 1967.  p. 205

4.  Wallace, Martin.  A Short History of Ireland.  New York:  Barnes & Noble Books, 1986, p. 57

5.  Ibid., p. 203

6.  Ó Tuathaigh, Gearóid.  Ireland before the Famine:  1798-1848.  Gill History of Ireland Volume 9. Dublin:  Gill and MacMillan Ltd., 1972.  p. 129

7.  Moody and Martin, The Course of Irish History, p. 269





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