Posted by: gabybarber23 | November 4, 2021

Historical Parallels: Irish Famine in the 19th Century and Famine Today

Content Warning: Discussion of famine

Last class we talked about the history of famine in Ireland and its representation in visual culture and literature. In class, we talked about whether the famine was a natural occurrence or a human-made one. We settled on the answer that it is both. I also raised the idea that, when leaning into the idea that famine is human-made, it is similar to the climate crisis we are facing today. Diverging on this idea slightly, I’d like to examine how the Great Hunger is similar to or different from famines that are taking place today. 

To begin, the specific Irish Famine I will be discussing in this blog post is The Great Hunger, an event so significant in Irish history that there is a museum which captures the famine located at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. According to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, the famine (1845-1852) was caused by a fungus which destroyed potato crops across the country and eventually resulted in “death for many of those who were already living precariously at subsistence level, and emigration for those who had the resources to flee disease, death and poverty” (“Learn About”). Moreover, “despite a short-term, cyclical depression, the resources of the United Kingdom could have either completely or largely mitigated the consequences of consecutive years of potato blight in Ireland” (“Learn About”). Despite the neglect of the UK government, the Irish were not completely alone – they received international aid from many sources, including: Calcutta, Bombay, Boston, The Society of Friends, The British Relief Association, The Choctaw Nation, American and British Jewish synagogues, and “Churches of all denominations” (“Learn About”). For a more detailed history, I highly recommend going to the museum’s page: “Learn About the Great Hunger.”

From this abbreviated history, I ask: How do the famines of today compare to the Great Hunger in terms of causes, effects, and responses?

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), Yemen and South Sudan face the highest risk of famine, though it notes that “acute hunger is set to rise steeply in most world regions, from the Middle East to Latin America and the Caribbean” with 41 million people in danger of facing famine (“Fighting Famine”). Several factors are leading to a greater number of people grappling with hunger, including: conflict, climate change, inequality, and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic (“Fighting Famine”). 

It is here that we see our first similarity: famine is a consequence of human actions, in this case conflict, while in Ireland’s case it is arguably perpetuated by humans, as Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum notes that the UK government failed to use its resources to help the country (“Learn About”). Additionally, humans helped to spread the fungus which destroyed Ireland’s potato crops by transporting it on a Belgian ship (“Learn About”), like we discussed in class. 

Another similarity which The Great Hunger and the famines today share is the act of emigration/migration. While many Irish citizens were forced to emigrate to avoid the effects of famine (“Learn About”), the WFP notes that “[h]unger levels worsen when conflict drives large numbers of people from their homes, their land and their jobs” (“Fighting Famine”). Famine can be both a cause for leaving one’s home as well as a result of leaving, in situations like that which the WFP describes. 

Another interesting parallel, the financing of the WFP’s work on famine and starvation today bears resemblance to the response to the Great Hunger. The WFP emphasizes its need for funding, telling visitors to its web page about famine: “[w]e work around the clock to avert famine, but urgently need US $6.6 billion to do this” (“Fighting Famine”). The WFP notes that it “has no independent source of funds” and therefore relies on governments, corporations, and individuals to finance its efforts (“Funding and Donors”). The finance model of the WFP is reminiscent of the international response to the Great Hunger discussed earlier, as it depends on donations to provide relief. 

The WFP is not the only organization working to fight famine – Oxfam also undertakes this work. Similarly to the WFP, “Oxfam America relies almost entirely on funding from individual donors, foundations, and corporations” (“General FAQs”). Moreover, both the WFP and Oxfam are working on preventative measures in relation to famine. Oxfam is trying to prevent famine through promoting good sanitation practices, helping communities access potable water, giving people the tools to grow their own crops, and providing food when necessary, as well as holding governments accountable (Hufstader). Learn about the similar efforts of the WFP here

The WFP and Oxfam are not small organizations: the WFP is tied to the United Nations (“Who We”) and Oxfam has been operating on an international basis since the mid 20th century (“General FAQs”). Yet, we see that the response to a famine which ended 169 years ago in Ireland bears resemblance to the way famine is being addressed today. There is a heavy reliance on donation-based financial aid. While I am not expert on the subject, I do find myself asking: why is there still such a considerable dependence on donations to combat famine? What do I propose we do instead? I have no idea.

Instead, I wish to acknowledge the parallels between the past and the present. The Great Hunger and the countries facing famine today are situationally similar in that major responses to these crises come, or came, in the form of international donations. Moreover, they are both closely tied to emigration, as either a cause or a consequence of famine. The most consequential connection, however, is that both the famine of yesterday and those threatening today carry a devastating human toll: over 1 million people died during the Great Hunger in Ireland (“Learn About”) and today “[t]housands of people are already dying of hunger” (“Fighting Famine”).

I would also like to note some loose ends in my research. Famine is a large topic, and one that cannot be entirely addressed in a blog post. In this post I have not necessarily addressed every single significant response to famine that exists, just a few of those that come up with a Google search. A more well-rounded comparison would center on government responses, as well as evaluate the practices and outcomes of WFP and Oxfam efforts. It would also include a more in-depth explanation of the Great Hunger. Needless to say, this blog post skims the surface and I’d love to hear what others have to add to this discussion.

Works Cited

“Fighting Famine.” World Food Programme, 2021, https://www.wfp.org/fight-famine

“Funding and Donors.” World Food Programme, 2021,

https://www.wfp.org/funding-and-donors.

“General FAQs.” Oxfam, 2021, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/about-us/contact-us/faqs/.

Hufstader, Chris. “What is Famine? Causes and Effects and how to Stop it.” Oxfam, 14 May, 

2020, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/stories/what-is-famine-and-how-can-we-stop-it/.

“Learn About the Great Hunger.” Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, 2019, 

https://www.ighm.org/learn.html.

“Who We Are.” World Food Programme, 2021, https://www.wfp.org/who-we-are


Responses

  1. Hi Gaby! Thank you for outlining the contemporary parallels to the Great Hunger here. It really puts into perspective what has and hasn’t changed since the Victorian Era


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