National Famine, Ireland (1845 – 1849)


From 1845 to 1852, an agricultural failure dubbed the Great Potato Famine threatened to eradicate an ancient civilization on the outskirts of Europe. How does the loss of a single vegetable crop bring such devastation upon one nation? Colonialism again deprived the world of justice and the equitable distribution of resources. The blight that struck Ireland’s potato crop began when a fungus infestation, known as, phytophthora attacked the land’s primary yield. A million Irish people suffered from malnutrition, while another million choose to emigrate mainly to North America and Australia. Irish peasants suffering long under foreign occupation, were forbidden by oppressive laws and military sophistication, to feed themselves first. People appealed to the crown for tariff relief, while continuing to export livestock and other agricultural products. A British food shortage was unfathomable. Famine and blight awakened and galvanized the Irish nation around its sacramental character, just as the presence COVID-19 might do in the generation.  

In the opening days of COVID- 19 Albertans raced to grocery stores, filled with panic and distress. Threats of food shortages that seemed inconceivable only days earlier triggered strange social behavior. Household provisions, the current generation imagined were inexhaustible, suddenly disappeared off supermarket shelves. Travel concerns restricted access across international borders beckoning wintering snowbirds home. [1] Ironically, Canada manufactures and exports several household products many families take for granted. For example, sanitation products, such as bathroom tissue, became a hoarding obsession. People frantically put their faith and hopes into familiar supply lines, failing to reconsider exploitive systems that govern many Western democracies. Albert Einstein (1879 -1955) gave a popular definition that appropriately compared this type of behavioral meltdown, saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”[2] 

Famines develops more because of unjust politics, failed economics, and culturally seduced religion. Disraeli (1844), said; “You have a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, in addition to the weakest leadership in the world. That is the Irish question”.[3] Nevertheless, Ireland’s massive emigration along distinct religious lines involved people moving aboard from both the starving peasant population and the advantaged aristocracy. Each, however, held vastly different motivation. Approximately 50 percent of Northern Ireland’s six counties in Ulster’s province subscribed to various Reform Movement denominations. The remaining population, supported by a rural and agricultural economy, belonged to Roman Catholicism. From the 1600s, immigrants began arriving in the northeastern region, identifying culturally more with Britain, than the rest of Ireland. Northern Ireland became an enclave for national antagonism, propped up by an elite minority, who resisted majority rule. Democracy seemed ill equipped to resolve what essentially exploded into an uprising. Immigrants from a nation who produced the great Magna Carta found themselves no longer appreciated in their confiscated surroundings.[4] One person, one vote under this foreign-imposed political system, nearly always generated partially dysfunctional government. Some anti-mask and anti-vaccines advocates today wish to choose those laws to obey and which to oppose.   

Sir William Joynson-Hicks (1865 – 1932) famously reminded the world that behind the Ulster Unionists was the God of battles. “I say to the Prime Minister ... Fire if you dare! Fire and be damned!”[5] Such rhetoric occasionally resonates in Ulster from friends of the late and fiery Reverend Ian Paisley (1926 – 2014). British Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law (1858 – 1923) also learnt nothing from the Great Potato Famine. “I can imagine no lengths of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which one will not be ready to support them.”[6] Famine, pandemics, and social uprising inherently point towards a recommitment to the sacraments. During the Great Famine, Irish sentiment felt overtaken by British immigrants who control society’s politics and economics, but not the spirituality of this ancient people. 

In addition to physical distress, famines generate social and emotional illnesses that seem only to accentuate alcoholism, addiction, and depression. Few government agencies participated in social services during the Irish Famine, leaving a disproportionate responsibility to improve health upon the educated citizenry and church's outreach. Some Irish clergy engaged in public discourse that increasingly supported an armed response to the social diseases triggered by generational injustice.[7]

Marriages and families suffered separation, as many hope-depleted people considered a change of scenery, the only healing option. Many Irish set out for abroad to fulfill their dreams of healthier lives. With objectives achieved and lived out in their children, Irish immigrants successfully integrated into new societies. Only when hope vanishes does a sense of alienation and hostility towards the receiving society grow. Irish people realized their dreams for better living in the post-famine era by following the relocation route. Still, expatriates often left behind far more than they brought, discovering unwelcoming hosts and even worse conditions awaiting them. The people who remained turned to their churches, which served as both sacramental and social health clinics.  

Did culturally sharing the small Irish island, lead to violence?  Could multiculturalism have mitigated this tendency? Ireland eventually became a multicultural society, but during the Great Famine, political discontent grew widespread. Canadian philosopher C. Taylor (2011) wonders if the violence against a scapegoat minority represents a throwback to more primitive times. Taylor gives three descriptors of social power, commonly summarized by the term, oppression. When social power becomes excessive, it demands national purification and sacramental endorsement. During the Irish Famine, merciless exploitation favoring a one-sided distribution of economic opportunity prevailed. Spiritualists comprehend passion and resistance but cannot validate violence. Adopting Gospel values paves the way out of injustice and leads towards a more peaceful global society.

Religious affiliation proved a powerful motivator, whereas, decisive pastoral leadership might have quelled the Irish post-famine conflict. Religious nationalism can learn lessons from secularism’s greatest gift to modernity, namely tolerance and diversity. Struggle and violence often accompany the birthing of a nation, but a larger question looks at whether the terms of uneasy cohabitation eventually harvest diversity’s riches.  Who are today's prophets that a starving people might appeal? The Irish people throughout the potato famine prudently turned to their Celtic and Christian spirituality.

          In baptism, they share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission. They are “a                  chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s people, that [they] may declare the wonderful            deeds of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” [8] 


Pope Pius IX (1847) promulgated a papal encyclical entitled, Praedecessores Nostros (On Aid for Ireland), soliciting relief from suffering that the famine wreaked. The Holy Father’s encyclical appealed,on behalf of the Irish Nation, for both a temporal and spiritual response. The Pope called for three days of public prayers invoking the Father of mercies to set the Irish people free from this great disaster.[9] 











[1] A popular term for describing people from northern latitudes escaping winter weather.

[2] Derived from S. Pruitt (2018) Here are Six Things Albert Einstein Never Said.

[3] From British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on the “Irish Question” Derived from Hansard (1884) The State of Ireland. Vol 72 -998-1000.

[4] The Magna Carta (1215) represents a British royal charter of freedoms entrenching civil and religious liberties although early Medieval people quickly trampled upon both virtues.  Retrieved from the British library, (2020)

[5] Sir William Joynson-Hicks First Viscount Brentford, Minister of Health under Stanley Baldwin, From M. Shefftz, The Impact of the Ulster Crisis on the British Labour Party, Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies. Vol 5 no 3 p. 169.

[6] From A Bonar Law 1923, British Prime Minister. A speech from the House of Commons against Irish Home Rule. Derived from Your Dictionary 2020.

[7] The Republican Priests, Fr Michael Griffin, Fr Albert Bibby, and Fr Dominic O’Connor. From C. Dennis (2016) They’ve Fooled you Again, M. O’Flanagan, p. 187.

[8] From the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Article 1268.

[9] From the papal encyclical, Praedecessores Nostros (1847) On Aid to Ireland, p.5. Papal Encyclicals Online.

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