Why do some people call the Irish famine ‘the Great Hunger’?

The Great Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, occurred in Ireland in the 1840s. It was triggered by a blight on the potato crop, which around 40 percent of the Irish people depended on, and resulted in around one million deaths. But why do some people call it 'the Great Hunger'?

A group of worshippers praying in a chapel in Ireland, during the Irish famine, c1848.  (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Why do some people call the Irish famine ‘the Great Hunger’? Historian Christine Kinealy addressed the question on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. Her answer is transcribed below…

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It’s a complicated question and a very complicated answer. Not everyone accepts the term ‘Irish famine’ even in Ireland, where I was educated, although it generally is called the Irish famine. I now live in America, and most Irish-Americans prefer to call it ‘the Great Hunger’.

In America, people have explained to me that they don’t like to use the word ‘famine’ because it implies an absolute shortage of food. We know that there was a shortfall in food supply, this is for certain. We also know that despite this – and this occurs in many famines, not just in Ireland – massive amounts of food continue to be exported from Ireland from 1845 onwards. Some people say that people would not have starved if that food had been kept in Ireland. Therefore, to say it’s a ‘famine’ is inappropriate.

From my perspective as a historian, famine means more than just triggered by a potato blight disease. Famine is a process. And when I think about the Great Famine in Ireland, I think about it in terms of centuries of colonisation and in the context of a country where the poorest people were marginalised, dispossessed of the land and forced to depend on potatoes. For me, famine isn’t just about immediate food shortages; famine is a political process.

So for me, I use the term ‘famine’. I use ‘Great Hunger’. I use them both. But I also see why some people feel very strongly about the term, ‘the famine’.


Listen: Christine Kinealy answers listener questions on the devastating famine that struck Ireland in the mid-19th century

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Answered by Christine Kinealy on the HistoryExtra podcast. Listen to the full interview here