Irish History Live

The Great Irish Famine and the Holocaust

Professor Liam Kennedy


I. Approach to Crisis

II. Workhouses and ghettoes

III. Mortality

IV. Intentionality



The most traumatic event of modern Irish history is undoubtedly the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of 1847 the British government was effectively turning its back financially on a starving people in the most westerly province of the United Kingdom. The famine was to run for a further two or three years, making it one of the longest-running famines in Irish and European history. Before it had run its awful course, more than one million people had perished of hunger and famine-related diseases. Viewed globally, it was one of the worst famines of modern times.


For the Jewish peoples of Europe their darkest hour belongs to living memory. The mass destruction of some six million Jews in the mid twentieth century at the hands of the German Nazis, and their enthusiastic collaborators in Poland, the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, Hungary and in parts of the former Yugoslavia, seemed to mark a turning point not only in Jewish but in world history.


The Holocaust and the Great FamineCan we somehow associate these two searing episodes in the life histories of the two peoples? James Pius Sweeney of New York, writing in the Irish-American paper, the Irish Echo, while acknowledging that there were differences between the Famine and the Holocaust, went on to argue:‘The genocide of the Holocaust was remarkable because of the macabre efficiency of freight cars, camps and gas houses. The genocide of the Great Famine is distinct in the fact that the British created the conditions of dire hopelessness, and desperate dependence on the potato crop through a series of sadistic, debasing, premeditated and barbarous Penal Laws, which deliberately and systematically stripped the Irish of even the least semblance of basic human freedom.’When blight struck the Irish were ‘totally vulnerable’. This was a ‘nuanced genocide’, he continues, one that manipulated fate ‘by pushing a people to the brink of annihilation and turning away so not to hear the wailing …’.


Put briefly and more bluntly, professors Charles Rice and Francis Boyle believe: ‘the policies pursued by the British government from 1845-50 in Ireland constituted ‘genocide’.’


Indeed in the 1990s a vigorous lobbying group emerged within Irish America, campaigning to include the study of the Irish Famine in the school curriculum, alongside studies of the Holocaust, slavery and ethnic massacres. George E. Pataki, Governor of New York state, added his weight to the campaign: ‘History teaches us the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive’.


Bob Scally, in his elegantly crafted work, The End of Hidden Ireland, when discussing the hunger-stricken exodus of people from the island, speaks of ‘the odour of racial hatred surrounding the emigrant’s treatment … [It] … bears more resemblance to the slave trade or the boxcars of the Holocaust than to the routine crossings of a later age.’


However, what is striking in these controversies is that while the Famine-Holocaust connection is being made (and this of course is a recent construction), the nature of the parallels is rarely spelled out in detail. It struck me, therefore, that it might be instructive to follow some of the lines of comparison in more systematic fashion.



There is, in principle, no end to the number of comparisons one might run in terms of the two catastrophes. I have selected a few that seem especially important:Approach to CrisisWorkhouses and GhettoesMortalityIntentionality


I. Approach to Crisis

First, we might look at the attitude of the state to the Irish people or peoples in the lead up to the Famine, and compare this with the attitude of the Nazi state to Germans who happened to be Jews, in the decade or so before the Final Solution. These sketches are, of necessity, greatly compressed.


Irish Catholics, and to a lesser extent Irish Presbyterians, had experienced discrimination, but the Penal Laws had been all but dismantled in the late eighteenth century leaving only the right of Catholics to sit in Parliament as an outstanding grievance, which was addressed by the passage of the Catholic Relief Act in 1829. The Whig administration of 1835-40, marked a major drive to curb the powers of landlord and Orange influence in local administration, the judiciary, and control of policing. Though the pace of reform slackened with the untimely death of Thomas Drummond in 1840, these gains were not reversed. The fundamental Irish question on the eve of the Famine, it needs emphasising, was poverty, not the status of Irish catholics within the British state.


In the decade before the Holocaust, the German state, under Nazi control from 1933, moved beyond discriminating against Jews to active persecution, a process that in less than a decade would result in their liquidation. The Nazi accession to power was followed by a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, and was followed a few days later by mass expulsions from the civil service on the grounds of race, in the name of ‘purifying the state’ Unlike the Irish case, the state orchestrated a climate of fear and repression: verbal assaults, physical attacks, public humiliations, became an all too ‘normal’ occurrence. In effect, the new regime portrayed Jews as a leprous, parasitic element within German society: the enemy within, an evil, malignant and implacable force, which had to be eliminated at all costs. The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 stripped Jews of their citizenship and made sexual relations with non-Jews illegal (the grotesquely titled Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour). The persecution of a helpless and passive minority was taken a stage further on the 9th and 10 November 1938, Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), with mass attacks on Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. In less than a year Europe was at war, and the skies darkened further for the ‘inferior races’ of central and eastern Europe, as the Nazi war machine rolled eastwards.


One can indeed speak of racialist attitudes towards the Irish, particularly the Catholic Irish, at all levels of British and American society in the mid nineteenth century: the lampooning of Irish people in periodicals as brutish creatures, and as devious, deviant and violent. These images sometimes overlapped with hostile representations of the working classes in Victorian Britain. Sectarian and xenophobic images were also present within Irish society, finding their expression in taunt, riot or broadsheet ballad rather than the print medium. In any case, these images and counter-images bear little resemblance to the anti-Semitism coursing through German society in the interwar years, and given steely expression by punitive legislation and the activities of paramilitary street gangs.


II. Workhouses and ghettoes

Let’s focus on the periods of catastrophe themselves. Are there some parallel experiences we can identify? Perhaps the congregating of people into workhouses in Ireland during the Famine and the concentration of Jews in ghettoes during the early years of World War Two bear some comparison? Here are two representative illustrations:James Hack Tuke, on a humanitarian mission to Donegal in the winter of 1846, found the inmates of the Glenties workhouse half-starved and half-naked.The day before they had but one meal of oatmeal and water, and at the time of our visit had not sufficient food in the house for the day’s supply ……Their bedding consisted of dirty straw, in which they were laid in rows on the floor; even as many as six persons being crowded under one rug; and we did not see a blanket at all.The rooms were hardly bearable for filth. The living and the dying were stretched side by side beneath the same miserable covering. No wonder that disease and pestilence were filling the infirmary, and that the pale, haggard countenance of the poor boys and girls told of sufferings, which it was impossible to contemplate without pity.


Descriptions of live in the Polish ghettoes a century later contain accounts of material deprivation, of hunger and disease. Attitudes to the inmates, even before the Final Solution was conceived, were different. As one German official put it in November 1940: ‘A rapid dying out of the Jews is for us a matter of total indifference, if not to say desirable, as long as the concomitant effects leave the public interest of the German people untouched.’ Once the ghettoes had been sealed off from surrounding society, the penalty for leaving was death.’

III. Mortality


Death or mass mortality is the third theme I want to explore. Though death is a democracy, the circumstances surrounding death differentiate one type of tragic event from another.


The Cork Examiner in late 1846 describes the scenes of chaos and despair in Skibbereen

Disease and death in every quarter - the once hardy population worn away to emaciated skeletons – fever, dropsy, diarrhoea and famine rioting in every filthy hovel and sweeping away whole families … hundreds frantically rushing from their home and country … a whole village in the last stage of destitution there – relief committees threatening to throw up their mockery of an office in utter despair – dead bodies of children flung into holes hastily scratched n the earth without shroud or coffin – wives travelling ten miles to beg the charity of a coffin for a dead husband, and bearing it back that weary distance … every field becoming a grave and the land a wilderness.


The circumstances of death for Jews were different. Many died of hunger, disease, ill-treatment and exhaustion: during the vast resettlement schemes; in the ghettoes, on death marches, and on the trains taking them to the extermination camps. But many, perhaps most in the case of Poland, were killed directly: by shooting or gassing. Christopher Browning in The Path to Genocide describes the work of one killing unit used in ‘ghetto-cleaning’. The date was 12 July1942; the place was a Polish village, near Lublin.

The German police reserve unit involved was ordered to surround the village of about 1800 inhabitants and assemble them in the market place. All who resisted or those too weak to walk, were to be shot instantly. Healthy young men were to be held in the square, and later taken to slave labour camps. The remainder were ferried in relays to the forest nearby. Each batch of Jews - men, women and children - was forced to lie face down in rows. The policemen then fired their carbines at point blank range into the necks of their victims. Sometimes, through nervousness or disgust, they missed. One aimed too high, shooting off the top of his victim’s head, splattering brains into the face of his sergeant. Some others asked to be assigned to other duties, such as guarding those in the square.

When the first salvo was heard from the woods, a terrible cry swept the market place, as the collected Jews now knew their fate. Thereafter, however, a quiet – indeed ‘unbelievable’ – composure settled over the Jews … The killings went on thro the day.


That is but one detail from the destruction of the European Jews and the lethal hatreds that shaped their fate.


What of the scale of mass mortality and its relative intensity? The Great Famine of the 1840s claimed about 1.2 million women, men and children. These are excess deaths, not total deaths. By excess deaths in a famine context we mean those who died of hunger or hunger-related diseases. This mountain of mortality, of more than a million dead, is the equivalent of one in seven or one in eight of the population, and in proportional terms compares with the other Great Famine of modern Irish history, the largely forgotten famine of 1740-41.


A death toll of one in seven or one in eight marks out the Irish Famine of the 1840s as one of the most severe in the history of famines internationally. Contemporary Third World famines, however terrible, would not nearly approach this degree of death.


This death toll varied greatly by region, by social class, and to some degree by age and gender, and the framework I am using at this point is one that is widely used by economic and social historians.

  • Beginning with the regional dimensions of the Famine, as is well known, the greatest concentration of suffering was in the far west of Ireland, where an impoverished peasantry scraped a living from the beautiful but barren lands of west Connacht and west Munster.

  • In terms of who was most likely to die, it was the cottiers, rural labourers and town labourers who suffered most. The impact of the Famine was highly selective in terms of social class.

  • In gender terms, and perhaps this will surprise some: the chances of survival were slightly greater if you were female rather than male. Whether this was due to biological or social factors, or indeed a combination of the two, is not altogether clear.

  • There was also, as you might expect, an age profile to the victims, with the old being particularly vulnerable to famine conditions.


How does all this compare with the Holocaust? In absolute terms the numbers dying unnaturally during the Nazi era were higher: in excess of five or six millions. In proportional terms, relative to population that is, the story is incomparably bleak. The killing rate was of the order of 80 to 90 per cent in many European countries; in some villages it was 100%. In Belzec, in the south of Poland, where 600,000 were exterminated between May 1942 and August 1943, there were only two known survivors. In Poland, of some 3 million Jews, fewer than one in ten survived.


We could look at the Holocaust in terms of the categories of region, class, and gender. There are regional dimensions to the Holocaust and temporal variations in its incidence, but I am not sure that those perspectives take us very far. While it is true that death rates varied across Europe, in all German-occupied areas the end of policy was the ‘Final Solution’: the destruction of the European Jewry. Consequently, death rates approached saturation point where there was German occupation.


Neither does it make much sense to speak of age, gender or occupational factors in shaping overall death rates. It is true that those chosen for slave labour were selected on the basis of age, gender and special skills – and these factors could prove vital to the survival of individuals and small groups of survivors. The remarkable fact about Nazism was how it subordinated major forms of social hierarchy – class, status and gender – to a hierarchy of race.


IV. Intentionality


In the case of the Great Famine no reputable historian believes that the British state intended the destruction of the Irish people, and the Famine-Holocaust comparisons provide no support either. Yet one million died. Does intentionality matter?


It does matter, for at least three reasons. First, it directly determines the scale of the tragedy. It is easy to forget that had Germany not lost the war, many more Jews would have been killed, such was the strength of commitment to the Final Solution. By contrast, when the Irish economy recovered some strength at the end of the 1840s the crisis was largely, though not wholly over – to the evident relief, not only of people in Ireland but of British policy makers also.


Second, the cruelty, often wanton cruelty which attached to the treatment of Jews has virtually no parallels in the Irish case. We know much, for instance, about the ineffectual role of medicine during the Great Famine, despite the zeal of many Irish doctors, but no one has uncovered cases of medical experiments at the expense of Famine victims. True enough, evictions were heartless affairs and on a massive scale, but even in these cases there was the assumption that alternatives, however bleak, existed.


Third, intentionality is relevant to the question of responsibility, a question inextricably bound up with the politics of memory. Do we accept John Mitchell’s verdict, which whistles like a bullet through Irish popular memory: ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine’?


Mitchell makes a useful distinction, albeit implicitly, between causation and responsibility. The Famine was an ecological disaster but it was not simply that. I think it is important to distinguish between 3 distinct notions: causation, responsibility and blame. And at the bar of history we might want to call to account, not only Lord John Russell and his Whig administration, but a host of other historical actors as well, from landlords to Young Irelanders and the strong farmers and merchants of eastern Ireland.


But to narrow the focus simply to the role of the British government for a moment: for all the massive irresponsibility and buck-passing that characterised the five years of crisis, the state succeeded in organising public relief schemes that employed three-quarters of a million workers, and at one point was responsible for feeding three million people on a daily basis.


These are not the actions of a Government or a state bent on genocide.




Now try a revision quiz on this topic!

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