Why study the Irish Famine?
Throughout history, Ireland was no stranger to Famine but it was the 1845-49 Famine that most affected the people of Ireland and their relationship with Great Britain. The potato crop failed in three years out of four. All contemporary accounts emphasise the horrific conditions:
‘cowering wretches almost naked in the savage weather prowling in turnip fields ... little children, their bodies half-naked, their faces bloated yet wrinkled and of a pale greenish hue [colour] ... children who could never, oh it was too plain, grow up to be men and women.’
Some one million died of hunger or disease and another million left Ireland, embittering relations between the peoples of ‘these islands’.
Assessing conflicting interpretations
Some historians see the disasters of those years as the culmination of a long-term crisis resulting from rapid population growth against a background of economic decline.
Others, noting the levelling off of population growth, the rise of new industries and improvements in communication, maintain that the failure of the potato was a massive external blow dealt to an economy that had just begun to adjust to changing conditions.
The lively debate as to how far the Famine was a turning point in Ireland’s social and economic development is more than often overshadowed by a bitter political debate as to how far the Famine constituted an indictment of British rule in Ireland.
Daniel O’Connell, the Irish leader, told the House of Commons:
‘Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. I solemnly call on you to recollect that I predict with the sincerest conviction that a quarter of her population will perish unless you come to her relief.’
Indeed, the Famine exposed the equivocal nature of the Act of Union of 1800. The Union had been intended to resolve the complexities and ambiguities of Anglo-Irish relations but it served to create other problems. The Famine starkly posed the question ‘How equal were the different parts of the United Kingdom?’ and provided a driving force for Irish nationalism.
Enjoying a rich range of resources
Children enjoy a rich range of resources on the Famine - official and personal documents, historical novels, poetry, pictures, internet sites, music and song.
The value of visual sources, particularly pictures of Famine evictions, in transporting children back to the past - warts and all - is enhanced by listening to songs, like ‘Skibbereen’, which dramatise the Famine’s impact on people’s lives.
Such powerful sources also help to ‘counterbalance the ‘chocolate box’ image of the Victorian period which children may receive from visits to heritage sites, living history activities, and costume dramas’.
Besides harrowing stories, there are examples of personal triumph midst adversity and outstanding altruism, including the collection by the impoverished Choctaw Indians of $170 dollars for famine relief in Ireland.
Another uplifting tale is told in Under the Hawthorn Treeby Marita Conlon-McKenna (O’Brien Press, 0-86278-206-6). The first of an award-winning trilogy, it is a gripping tale of how three children are left to fend for themselves during the Famine. Starving and in danger of the dreaded workhouse, they escape in the hope of finding the great-aunts they have heard about in their mother’s stories. With tremendous courage they set out on a journey that tests every reserve of strength, love and loyalty they possess.
Less able and reluctant readers are assisted by a Channel 4 film of the book, some excellent ‘easy readers’ (such as The Great Hunger by Malachy Doyle, Franklin Watts, 0-74963-447-2, and Famine by Arthur McKeown, Poolbeg, 1-85371-505-0).
Delivering the National Literacy Strategy
Under the Hawthorn Tree is also widely used in Years 5 & 6, mainly in the Literacy Hour, but also for cross-curricular work, particularly in History as part of the study of Victorian Britain.
In one Staffordshire school a scheme for the Literacy Hour over three weeks amply met the requirements of the NLS and also informed other areas of the curriculum. In one Sefton school the novel inspire an eight-week bloc of work on Ireland.
Involving the whole school
In one Warrington school, Under the Hawthorn Tree prompted both abroader study of the Famine in Years 5 & 6, and an investigation of migration by the whole school, as children and parents traced their Irish ancestry.
Handling sensitive issues
Perhaps the most difficult issue to handle in the classroom is the questionof whether the British government could and should have done more tohelp people during the Famine.
Successive British governments took three main measures to provide famine relief. They imported grain, Indian corn; set up public works for people to earn money to buy food; and offered a form of a porridge called ‘stirabout’ in soup kitchens.
This government aid was in addition to the shelter provided by overcrowded workhouses and the relief given by private charity, most notably by the Society of Friends (Quakers).
Many people thought that the British government did not do enough to help relieve the suffering in Ireland. They believed that the government could have stopped the export of food from Ireland and could have given more money to relieve the suffering instead of making people earn money on public works.
The government’s actions were, however, limited by two factors: the policy of laissez-faire, the Victorian belief about the proper role of government and the suspicion of the Irish harboured by leading figures in England. They thought that the Irish were exaggerating the extent of suffering to extract money from England.
The issue of ‘State aid or Self-help’ has been imaginatively addressed through Drama, acting out, for instance, cartoons from Punch, such as ‘Union is Strength’, 17 October 1846. John Bull (England) presents his Irish ‘brother’ not only with food but also with a spade to help him ‘to earn your own way of living’. Punch assumed that self-help was a priority and came to see Irish indolence for the continuing catastrophe.
Another difficulty is trying to convey the devastating impact of the Famine by comparing the Irish countryside before and after. One way of doing so is to look not only at the grinding poverty endured by the poor but also at the exuberance of the folk tradition in music and dance for which pre-Famine Ireland was renowned.