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Irish Literature 101: Post-Romantic Literature and the Great Famine


Irish Literature 101 is a fascinating and complete guide through the significant historical events that shaped Irish culture and literature. This series also introduces major figures in every literary movement from romanticism to modernism. In addition, it is packed with numerous interesting quotes and concepts, along with easy-to-understand accounts of famous authors' works and the rationales behind the transition from one literary era to another. So, whether you are looking to refresh the memory on elemental Irish literature proceedings or enjoy learning about it for the first time, Irish Literature 101 proves beneficial. This series offers an engaging read, written in plain English with meticulous attention to historical and cultural affairs during each era.

Irish Literature 101 is divided into the following chapters:

"The stink of famine hangs in the bushes still in the sad Celtic hedges” Desmond Egan, contemporary Irish poet

The Discovery of the Potato Blight by Daniel MacDonald (1847). Image courtesy of National Folklore Collection UCD

The Great Famine (Irish: an Gorta Mór, [anˠ ˈgɔɾˠt̪ˠa mˠoːɾˠ]) was a result of mass crop failure in Ireland, leading to a time darkened by starvation, death and illness, and emigration. Over one million people lost their lives during this national disaster; losing loved ones, being forced to leave the 'Emerald Isle' behind in search of newfound lands. Sympathizing for the fellow compatriots, this period changed each man and woman in Ireland and provoked many literary and artistic responses on Irish soil and even outside the country.

A National Tragedy: The Great Famine

It started in 1845 and lasted until 1849 - only a few years in length but truly a profound period in Irish literary, cultural, and political history. The potato, being the staple crop for its ease of cultivation and affordable prices, was afflicted with a fungus-like disease. The condition rotted the edible roots away before the harvest. The Irish tenant farmers, who were already burdened by poverty, were now in a more devastating state of despair. Though the condition initially only affected the rural poor, it became all-encompassing.

G F Watts, The Irish Famine, c. 1848-50, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Watts Gallery Trust.

In the beginning, the mold affected mainly the crops of west Ireland. Though having planted potatoes with similar genetics, the disease spread across the country, leaving Ireland palpitating in the face of a great and widespread famine. At the time, Great Britain relied on Ireland for the import of cereals and potatoes. Following the fall of the market and shortage of food, soon the British market was afflicted by the Irish crop failure as well.

The Irish gentry and landowners now had the responsibility to provide for their tenant farmers. Eventually, the peasantry could not produce crops nor pay for food and other necessities. Most landowners drained their funds as time passed. The results were devastating; thousands of peasantry class farmers either faced death, or were forced to leave their homes, migrate to cities, or even cross the sea in search of labor, shelter, and food.

The Efforts Against the Famine

After a year, the situation had turned dire and the British government had decided to intervene. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, also known as the father of the modern policing system, played an important role. His tactics included; resuming the export of grain from Ireland to Britain, and the import of corn from the US to Ireland by means of providing cornmeal rations.

Famine cartoon shows John Bull giving food to hapless peasants (Source: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rationing the food was another tactic to distribute the barre in between all those who had lost homes and a source of income. The recommended ration was a pound of meal per day for each adult, with half a pound for a child; considering that before the famine, each adult farmer ate about 10 pounds of potatoes daily.

Often, there were miscalculations on the exact numbers of adults who received the ration, or in the quantity of food in the soup kitchens. Local administers turned people away on accounts of “being healthy and not needing the day’s meal” or having finished the ration for the day.

However, the British strategy was limited to small loans, soup kitchens, and occasional employment to public works. After two years of the famine, the British government had invested about £8 million in disaster relief, and along with some charitable and private funds.

“We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride, But God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.” - The famine year by Jane Francesca Wilde (1829-1896)

The Irish peasantry, now poor, and deficient in daily sustenance continued to work and feed the line of farm product export to Britain. This became a stark contrast between the two countries; the Irish detested the British who were served yet so earnestly, while they had no clear and effective plan to relieve the famine. In response to these laments, the British aristocrats condemned these thoughts and expressions and labeled their fretting as an “Irish Characteristic” - an ignorant response to the dreadful condition the Irish dwelled in.

“For the Irish, life is a matter of perpetual grievance. We remember the Famine, but forget the Draft Riots. We seal off our neighborhoods to strangers, but allow our own priests to victimize our own children. We worship violence and we enslave ourselves to alcohol, we lie and steal and kill without conscience for generations at a time. But it’s all right in the end, and do you know why? Because we don’t tolerate lust.” — Mary Gordon

By the end of the famine, Ireland had lost almost 25 percent of its population; a million perished from weakened constitutions and hunger, and over a million migrated to Britain, the continent, the US, and even Australia.

Formation of Young Ireland Movement

In the 1840s, a group of intellectuals came together, bound by the soft ribbons of the hope for a better future; the dream of an independent Ireland. These ideologies, half political and half cultural in nature, were published in The Nation, a weekly newspaper.

The Young Ireland, Publisher: UCD Press, Dublin 2015

Most of the writers of this group belonged to Trinity College, particularly College Historical Society- one of Trinity’s most controversial societies in political terms. Their efforts revolved around - awakening the Irish to their natural rights and towards revoking the dissolution of the Irish parliament during the 1800 Acts of Union, and expressing ideologies that led to the social movements less than a decade later. John Mitchel, James Clarence Mangan, and James Fintan Lalor were the most prominent figures in the formation of the Young Ireland Movement.

“Friends ! the gloom in the land, in our once bright land, grows deeper.

Suffering, even to Death in its horriblest form, aboundeth ;

Through our black harvestless fields the peasant’s faint wail resoundeth.

Hark to it even now !… The nightmare-oppressèd sleeper

Gasping and struggling for life beneath his hideous bestrider,

Seeth not, dreeth not, sight or terror more fearful or ghastly

Than that poor paralysed slave”

J. C. Mangan in The Nation, 1 January, 1848

The Intellectual Facade of the Great Famine

The great potato famine was the ending chapter of romanticism in Ireland, giving way to post-romanticism with a hint of nationalism. Although a mere hint, nationalism became the core value of the nation and intellectuals in the years to come. From these dark days, rose the dream of a free Ireland, rose the sensational movement of the Irish renaissance, and along with it many brilliant literary works.

Yet soon after the famine, human suffering once more blossomed into art and literature that reflected the pure truths.

Literary historians believe that the famine has been and continues to be the inspiration and cause of literary representation over the past 150 years. Throughout this literary expansion, the Irish nationalism and blending of the classes were represented in fiction, poetry, and drama, both in the Irish language and English.


Ó Gráda, Cormac. Famine: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Dudley-Edwards, R; Williams, TD; "The Great Famine, Studies in Irish History 1845-52", 1956

Gunilla Bexar, The Great Irish Famine in History-Writing and Prose Fiction, Åbo Akademi University Press, 2016

Image Sources

RET, Painting of G F Watts, The Irish Famine, c. 1848-50, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Watts Gallery Trust.

RET, The Discovery of the Potato Blight by Daniel MacDonald (1847). Image courtesy of National Folklore Collection UCD

RET, Famine cartoon shows John Bull giving food to hapless peasants (Source: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

TheIrishHistory.come, Young Ireland, Publisher: UCD Press, Dublin 2015


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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