The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 was not a genocide, and almost all serious scholars of Irish history agree with this assertion.
The word genocide was coined by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.” The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The British government did not cause the blight that annihilated the potato crop in Ireland. Rather, the fungus, phytopthera infestans, arrived via the Americas and spread widely enough to devour the potato crop in part during the first years of the famine, and in full during the worst years including “Black ’47.”
Intent is the overgrown canary in the historical coal mine on the question of genocide. No one denies the estimated one million deaths from starvation and disease, or the one million (possibly as many as two million) Irish people who emigrated to Britain, the United States, and Australia. In the crime of genocide, the “mens rea,” or guilty mind, is an essential element; without intent, genocide cannot exist, regardless of the number of people who died or fled the country. So, how do history scholars address the problem of intent?
Historians who operated from a nationalistic standpoint, most famously Cecil Woodham-Smith in her best-seller The great hunger: Ireland 1845-1845, indeed maintained that the British committed genocide against the Irish. In a review of her book, A.J.P. Taylor (who was a scholar of Germany) wrote that the British government was responsible for the death of two million Irish people. And, of course, as a reader of the “Irish Echo” noted in a letter to the editor, John Mitchel himself believed that the Great Hunger was an artificial famine. These accounts emphasize the “forced export” of grain, the impact of laissez-faire economic policy, and the callousness of Charles Trevelyan, the reviled assistant secretary of Her Majesty’s Exchequer.
Still, while there is truth in these assertions, accusations of genocide cannot withstand deliberate scrutiny. As much as Irish patriots and other Gaelophiles may want to condemn the British for the tragedy, and while the government certainly could have enacted more policies to attenuate the impact of the potato blight, the underlying cause of the Great Hunger was an act of god, not an act of humans. Accusations of genocide are based in animosity toward the former (and current, depending on perspective) colonial power, and not historical fact.
Two long-term positive developments in Ireland contributed to the severity of the Famine. The population of Ireland skyrocketed in the preceding 75 years, at least in part due to the abundance of the potato crop. Although twenty-first-century Americans may not consider the potato to be particularly nutritious—probably because of its abundance in deep fryers—the lumper potatoes that Irish peasants cultivated in the early 1800s provided sufficient nutrients to sustain them. Indeed, a hard-working Irishman commonly consumed as much as fourteen pounds of potatoes per day on the eve of the hunger. The potato regimen, combined with a sprinkling of milk and meat, supported a population boom. Unfortunately, these same factors intensified the destructive power of P. infestans when it arrived in Ireland, most likely in 1844.
Her Majesty’s government aggravated the impact of the potato blight, but that fact in itself doesn’t constitute genocide. In his authoritative account The Great Irish Potato Famine, historian James S. Donnelly Jr. lays out the actions of the British government as “sins of omission” and “sins of commission.” Donnelly acknowledges that Trevelyan’s failure to prohibit the export of grain certainly exacerbated the Famine, although he also notes that Irish middling and large farmers were largely in charge of exports—not the British. Accusations of genocide leveled against Trevelyan carry emotional weight because he held racist views of the Irish, and he interpreted the Famine as divine punishment for a sinful people. Plus, merciless Irish landlords (some would say English landlords) evicted tenant farmers, forcing families of paupers to beg along Ireland’s roads, a situation that would have worsened the dual problems of hunger and disease.
And yet, while the British didn’t provide enough relief—for whatever reason—the governments of Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell did take measures to help the starving people. Peel famously repealed the Corn Laws in order to allow imports of grain. The government later established soup kitchens, which were probably the most effective means of alleviating starvation. Unfortunately, the government ended this program in late 1847. Public-works programs provided jobs for the poor, though they didn’t pay quite enough. Also, Irish grain exports were greatly reduced during the Famine years, even if they weren’t stopped altogether. Moreover, as Donnelly demonstrates, imports of grain from North America actually exceeded exports of grain from Ireland in the years after 1846, sometimes “by a factor of almost three to one.”
So, yes, the British government took some actions and failed to take other measures that aggravated the Famine in Ireland. But, Westminster did not cause the potato blight, and parliament did take steps to help alleviate suffering, ineffective though these measures may have been. Therefore, the Potato Famine does not fit the definition of genocide laid out by the United Nations. While the millions of people Ireland lost to death and emigration should certainly be considered a major tragedy, comparisons with the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust are not appropriate or useful. Instead, students of Irish history might learn more by comparing the Great Hunger with other famines such as the Persian famine of 1917-1918, widely considered the deadliest famine in history, in which millions of Iranians died, and for which many people also blame the British government.