From Irish Political Review: August 2008

Famine Figures

The Irish Times reported on July 22nd:

"Irish Famine victims to be commemorated

An expert group set up to consider ways to commemorate the Irish Famine will hold its inaugural meeting today. The National Famine Commemoration Committee, established by Community Affairs Minister Eamon O Cuiv, will decide how to mark the official Famine Memorial Day. It will be the first time the forgotten victims of the Irish Famine are to be remembered in an annual official memorial day.

The catastrophic failure of the potato crop in the 1840s led to the death by starvation of one million people while hundreds of thousands emigrated, sparking worldwide Irish diaspora. The devastating natural disaster left a lasting social and political legacy on modern Ireland.Ireland's population, which exceeded eight million in the Census of 1841, was reduced by approximately 1.5 million through death and emigration. Only 10 years later, the 1851 Census recorded a population of only 6.5 million. The Famine resulted in large Irish communities settling in countries like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and was also blamed for the decline of the Irish language."

Let's hope this Committee sorts out one basic question at long last—how many actually died?

The dead were not counted at the time and this report trots out the usual nonsense on the subject.

The fact is that both the 1841 and 1851 figures were wrong. The 1841 figures were an underestimate of population numbers by up to a third, and there was a very simple reason for this. The Irish people of the time, for very good cause, did not provide reliable information to any Government authority about themselves—and the science of census making was not developed enough to cope with that situation. The real number of the Irish population was probably about 10 million in 1841, taking a conservative estimate. That has been arrived at using other sources (as Cecil Woodham-Smith indicates).

On the other hand, the 1851 figures were an overestimate because, after the catastrophe, people became so desperate that they did the very opposite and over-counted themselves to maximise any assistance that might be available.

But there is another—and far more serious—way in which the Irish Times figures mislead. It takes a mechanistic approach and deducts the 1851 total of 6.5 million from the 1841 total of over 8 million and concludes that one and half million were lost.

Does the Irish Times think that people stopped breeding in 1841?

Between 1841 and the Famine of 1847 there were six years. That amounts to three-fifths of the span between censuses. There must have been a natural increase in each of these years.

It is well-known that the Irish were producing huge families at a young age under the rack-renting system. The Irish population was growing at a very rapid rate in the 1830-40s, at about 1.7% per annum because of the weakening of social restraints due to the breakdown of the traditional Gaelic society. This meant that by the time the Famine struck fully in 1847 the population had reached about 12 million. With the 1851 figure an overestimate this gives some idea of the real numbers that died. But even taking the 1851 figures as given, we're looking at a loss to Ireland of five and a half million people.

The Irish Times says one and a half million were lost, which means that it is 'losing' four million people—around the size of the country today!

On top of the misleading figures, a conceptual confusion is propagated. The Irish Times says that the Famine was a "natural disaster". But was it? Surely it was the potato blight which was the natural disaster? The Famine was man-made, or more accurately, Government-made. The virtual halving of the Irish population was very convenient to the British authorities: it made the Government's Irish problem manageable.

In a situation where there was abundant food of every description in the country there was no Famine. There was a 'Great Hunger' as it was correctly described at the time in Gaelic Ireland.

Rather than give a true weight to this catastrophic event, the tactic is to minimise it as far as it is possible to do so and then spread misleading ideas about it—which accords very well with British interests in the matter.

Let's hope that this committee does not keep repeating this type of nonsense and that Minister O Cuiv copies his grandfather who recognised that the best book on the subject was by Cecil Woodham-Smith and that Irish academics then as now were a dead loss (at best) on this subject. Otherwise we will continue to have a famine of real facts about the Famine as indicated by this initial report.

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