The Irish Famine

A Comparison of Irish and English Perspectives through Primary Sources

by Ryan Jackson. 

    Introduction I Task I Resources I Process I Evaluation I Teacher Background I Bibliography    


    The Hibernian Society of Baltimore is petitioning the Maryland State Department of Education to include an addition to the World History curriculum and Core Learning Goals that focuses on the Great Famine of 1846 - 1850.  Feeling as though the curriculum fails to adequately address an historical event with such profound impact on a "race" of people that had such a large impact on the growth of this area, the Society is requesting high school students to conduct research on this topic. Ultimately, the Society wishes to craft a proposal for an addition to the state's suggested curriculum and Core Learning Goals.  

    The Society believes that the Great Famine would fit perfectly in Goal 2: Peoples of the Nation and World; Expectation 2: cause and effects of regional and global changes resulting from imperialism; Indicators 1 and 2: motivations of imperialist governments, and responses to imperialism, respectively.    [Back to Top]


    Student groups will critically analyze primary source documents from either the British or Irish perspectives to accomplish three specific tasks:

a. identifying the cause of the famine,

b. identifying and critiquing the effectiveness of the aid provided to the Irish, and

c. identifying and assigning blame or fault to one of the two groups for the cause of, and prolonged suffering that resulted from, the famine.

    The Hibernian Society is requesting small groups of students to assume the roles of either pro-British or pro-Irish investigators. The Society wishes to provide the MSDE with as much information and examples of quality student-generated work as necessary to ensure the inclusion of this important historical event.    [Back to Top]


Websites for pro-Irish Groups 
1. Irish views of the famine (primary documents) 
2. Essay on English non-action during the Famine 
3. Essay on "Campaign for the Repeal of the Corn Laws" 
4. Images of the famine (photographs) 
5. Images of the famine (drawings and prints) 
6. Letter from William Bennett, 1847 

Websites for pro-British Groups 
1. Coverage of the Famine in the Times of London 
2. Coverage of the Famine in the Illustrated London News 
3. Coverage of the Famine in Punch 
4. Coverage of the Famine in The Pictorial Times 
5. Alexander Somerville, British journalist, 1847 

Maps of Ireland 
1. Poverty in Ireland 1841 (map) 
2. Severity of the Famine 1845 - 1849 (map) 
3. Population Fall in Ireland 1841 - 1851 (map) 

Additional Resources
See Bibliography (both Web and Print) 

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1. Students will be divided into small groups by the Instructor; pro-Irish and  pro-British.

2. Within the small groups, students will be be assigned or choose a specific task they must fulfill in addition to basic research and writing:

3.Student groups will use the websites in the resources section to examine and analyze primary source documents in order to identify the following: 

a. causes of the famine, 

b. effectiveness of aid provided (to the Irish, or from the British) and,  

c. analysis of blame (from the Irish perspective) or analysis of fault (from the British perspective). 
4. The structure of the report that each group will be responsible for creating is as follows:

5. Upon the completion of the written reports, the two "sides" will present their reports to the rest of the class, pro-Irish on one day and pro-British on the other.  If time allows, students should be encouraged to "question" the information being presented in order to create a Parliamentary-styled classroom debate. 

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    This project will be evaluated as a group effort and grades should be assigned for each member of the group.  It may be possible to break the assignment into parts and grade each student individually, but that would take more time and may result in unfair distribution of tasks and duties.









Clearly defined thesis statement addressing the group's argument on the topics of cause, effectiveness of aid, and fault. 


No thesis statement.
Thesis statement is incomplete in its scope (only one  topic is clearly addressed). 
Thesis statement is well-written, but incomplete (only two topics clearly addressed). Well-written thesis statement with a clear argument for all three topics.  
Error-free writing (spelling, grammar, etc).


Multiple examples of both spelling and grammar errors.  Incomplete or poorly worded sentences. Use of personal pronouns.  Few examples of both spelling and grammar errors.  Use of personal pronouns. Few examples of either spelling or grammar errors. No spelling or grammatical errors.  
Effective use of the  majority of applicable resources to support arguments No use of applicable resources. Incorrect or illogical  usage of resources to support arguments. Incomplete treatment of required topics. Poor usage of available resources (less than 25%). Incorrect or illogical usage of resources to support arguments. Effective, yet incomplete usage of available resources (less than 50%).    or             Minor examples of incorrect usage of resources to support arguments. Effective and efficient use of the majority of available resources to support arguments.  
Correct usage of MLA parenthetical citation format. No usage of MLA style parenthetical citation format (plagiarism). Omission of usage of parenthetical citation for even one source. Incorrect usage of MLA style parenthetical citation. Incorrect usage of MLA style parenthetical citation. Correct usage of MLA style parenthetical citation for all sources.   
Complete bibliography of sources used following MLA bibliographic format. Absence of bibliography. Use of format other than MLA. Incorrect usage of MLA bibliographic format. Omission of cited sources from bibliography. Few minor mistakes in usage of MLA bibliographic format. Complete bibliography. Complete and error-free bibliography following MLA bibliographic format.  

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Teacher Background       

    English occupation of Ireland began with William the Conqueror sending soldiers from newly conquered England in 1070, and colonization began shortly thereafter in the 12th century. With the defeat and dispossession of Irish clans and landowners, English generals are given control of this land, and through generations their descendants become known as "Anglo-Irish." Cromwell's invasion (1649) and the subsequent Penal Laws (1695) completed the dispossession of Irish land
and imposed harsh land and civil restrictions on Irish Catholics. 
    Powerless and landless Irish soon were forced into peasant farming on land rented from Anglo-Irish absentee landlords where they planted potatoes as their sole sustenance. Although highly nutritious and easy to care for, the potato in Ireland soon succumbed to the fungus phytophthora infestans, a fungus that caused the root to rot in the soil, and the peasant farmers were left without food. In actuality, Anglo-Irish landlords continued to export crops and other foodstuffs in massive amounts to England and other European countries. The laissez-faire
Parliament in England refused to embargo the exportation of these foodstuffs, which would have been more than sufficient to feed the starving peasants. Peasants were forced to eat the rotten potatoes and became sick; entire villages were consumed with cholera and typhus. Parish priests were forced to forsake buying coffins in order to feed starving families, with the dead going unburied or buried only in the clothes they wore when they died. More "ingenious" coffin makers created
false-bottoms, saving money and piling bodies on top of one another in graves. 
    Landlords evicted hundreds of thousands of peasants, who then crowded into disease-infested workhouses or chose to emigrate. Emigration was not necessarily safer than staying in Ireland, because ship owners often crowded hundreds of desperate Irish onto shipping vessels labeled "coffin ships." In many cases, these ships reached port only after losing a third of their passengers to disease, hunger and other causes. Despite British aid to Ireland during the famine, many Irish
criticized the delay and "inadequate" actions taken by the British government. Irish-American groups also collected funds to send to their starving relatives in Ireland. 
    The Irish Famine of 1846-50 took roughly one million lives from hunger and disease, and changed the social and cultural structure of Ireland. The Famine also spurred new waves of immigration, sending many Irish to America and Canada. Ireland's population dropped from 8 million around 1842 to about 5 million in 1852.

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Web Bibliography

1. "Travel through the Ireland Story" contains a wealth of information about the country as well as a
very useful index of maps. Although a .com site, the maps and written histories, while brief, give
bibliographic sources and do a nice job of providing visitors with history as well as current events
and news articles. 
2. The Victorian Web articles on "The Irish Famine" and "The Campaign for the Repeal of the Corn Laws" are written by Marjie Bloy, Lecturer in History, Rotherham College of Arts and Technology. The two articles do discuss British (in)activity and are thus better for the Irish groups' arguments, but are presented in a politically neutral fashion. 
3. "Interpreting the Irish Famine, 1846 - 1850" provides a collection of primary sources, both text and pictoral for students to examine. Sources are grouped into: 
    a. Images - containing both photographs and drawings
    b. Reporting and Commentary on the Famine - with Voices from Ireland       American and Irish-American Commentary, and English Views of the Famine
    c. Background Materials - a select bibliography and select glossary. 
4. "Views of the Famine" by Steven Taylor at Vassar contains links to many period newspapers in both Ireland and Britain as well as the 1847 Narrative of a Journey from Oxford to Skibbereen During the Year of the Irish Famine and a Master Picture List. Taylor's Related Materials offer a bevy of links to other historical sites about the Famine. 
5. Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729) is a wonderful satirical piece about solving the problem of hunger in Ireland through consumption of children. 
6. Dr. Dan Ritschel's (UMBC) informative CHE website on The Irish Famine containing historical background and historiographical issues as well as print and on-line bibliographies. 

Print Bibliography (selected) 

Irish Hunger: Personal Reflections on the Legacy of the Famine, edited by Tom Hayden. 
Roberts Rinehart Publishing, 1998. 

Kinealy, Christine. A Death Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland. 
London: Pluto Press, 1997. 

----------------- This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845 - 52. 
Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1994. 

Poirteir, Catahl. The Great Irish Famine. 
Dufour Editions, Inc., 1997                                                        [Back to Top]