Ireland’s Great Famine, An Gorta Mór

This is the sixth in a series of seven blog posts highlighting and summarizing important events in Irish history and Burns Library resources which aid in further study of the topic.   Burns Library holds many Irish history resources and is an invaluable resource for scholars in this field.

Potato infected with

This is an image from the Smithsonian Institute of a potato affected by P. infestans. For more details on this bacteria, visit this link

The Irish famine (An Gorta Mór in Irish) of the 1840s remains a topic of interest for scholars.  The famine can be studied through many different facets including social and economic consequences, political processes for relief or lack thereof, and the creation or maintenance of an Irish diaspora as a result of mass exodus of people from Ireland. The famine’s effects  were catastrophic and stressed the already tumultuous relationship between Ireland and England. The fungal infestation Phytophthora infestans caused crop failure, and, spreading quickly in damp conditions, attacked “first the leaves and the stalk, before penetrating beneath the soil to consume the tuber.” (Gray, 1995, 35) Other factors maintained the famine and caused large-scale economic, social, and political disaster: Ireland’s export-centered economy, Irish over-reliance on the potato, and British focus on British interests and use of laissez-faire economics. This famine led to about 1 million Irish deaths through starvation and related consequences (such as illness and disease) and the emigration from Ireland of at least twice that number. Burns Library holds many monographs which focus on Irish famine emigration.

Ireland had experienced a potato famine before in 1741, which Peter Gray cites as having “led to the worst demographic disaster before 1845: up to a quarter of a million died out of a population of around 2,400,000.”  He argues this famine was largely forgotten because it was “followed by a long period of economic development and demographic expansion,” as well as not being seen as anyone’s fault politically. (Gray, 1995, 16) The famine in the 1840s was different, and whether or not the British caused and let this famine flourish through both their action and their inaction is a continued subject of debate.

The Irish economy was struggling before the famine hit in the 1840s due to a rise in population without corresponding economic improvement or investment.  This growth plateaued in 1840, but there was not enough land to go around. Gray claims “the very poor had increased as a proportion of the population, and few alternative occupations were available outside the over-manned agricultural sector.” (Gray, 1995, 26)  This economic situation, in tandem with Irish reliance on the potato for daily subsistence, meant that the famine would have a significant impact on large sections of Irish society. According to Gray, “out of a population of eight and a half million, over a million and a half landless labourers and their families had no other significant source of food. Three million more, from small landholding and cottier families, were also very largely dependent on the crop.” (Gray, 1995, 31)  

Medical Report- Ulster

This chart shows the declining health of resident of Ulster, who were experiencing increasing levels of starvation and illness due to the famine. From Abstracts of the Most Serious Representations Made by the Several Medical Superintendents of Public Institutions, Ireland Local Government Board, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

One government document  on the famine in Burns Library is a report synthesizing information from different medical institutions about the health of Irish people.  Organized by county, it lists the health problems people were experiencing. This inquiry generated “confirmation of the increase of Fever and Dysentery throughout the country” and asked for “his Excellency’s attention to this alarming exigency.” (Ireland Local Government Board, 1846, 1) The image on the right shows what this inquiry found in Ulster: generally increased fever, illness, and bowel issues related to lack of food.  This resource is available for use in Burns Library and has also been digitized.

Burns Library holds several collections of letters relating to the famine.  The most notable of these is the James Prendergast Family Correspondence, a set of 48 letters from James and Elizabeth Prendergast in Milltown Co. Kerry to their children in the Boston area between 1840 and 1850. Shelley Barber, Burns Library Outreach & Reference Specialist, transcribed these letters, and her transcription was published in 2006. The original letters cannot be handled by researchers, due to their fragility, but reference copies are available.  According to Barber, “the letters are most notable for the descriptions they contain of the potato blight, subsequent years of famine and hardship, and the response of the family, community, and nation to these extraordinary circumstances.” (Barber, 2006, 1) In the prologue, historian Ruth-Ann M. Harris states “the Prendergast letters are a rare and almost unique opportunity to study the raw material for judging both the lives of a family in Ireland during the famine years and the lives of the emigrant children in America” (Barber, 2006, 7)

KIC Image 0001

Letter from McConville to his daughter. Box 1, Folder 2, Hughes-McConville family letters, MS.2004.074, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Another collection of note is the Hughes-McConville Family Letters, which contains 5 letters from Daniel McConville, a Catholic farmer in Creenkill Ireland, to his daughter Bridget Hughes who had emigrated to Boston with her aunt in 1846. Much of the content of the letters describes the poverty and situation in Ireland.  For example, McConville says “they are dying faster than can be buried for the scythe of death is mowing them down quicker than grass once fell before the cheerful laborer.” (Hughes-McConville Family Letters, Box 1, Folder 1) McConville also informs his daughter about her family in Ireland and tells her some have left Ireland, emigrating to the United States or Scotland. The fourth letter is very emotional, as McConville accepts his daughter’s offer to pay his way to the United States, “rid[ding] me of the horrifying sights I daily witness about me.” (Hughes-McConville Family Letters, Box 1 Folder 4) Also of interest in this letter is a list of goods and prices which he sent to ensure his daughter would send enough money, and he states repeatedly he will pay her back when he can. Researchers are welcome to look at the original letters, as well as transcriptions.

Items and Prices list

McConville’s list of items and prices. From Box 1, Folder 4, Hughes-McConville family letters, MS.2004.074, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

The Irish famine had a large impact on Irish history, the history of the United Kingdom, and global history through the massive emigration from Ireland.  This event would also become a rallying point for Irish nationalists, some of whom claimed the famine was a deliberate genocide of the Irish at the hands of the British.  This claim is generally unaccepted, but does show the depth of animosity some Irish people held for the British. Thus, the Irish famine maintained the existing political and social friction between Ireland and England, a struggle that would once again develop into a military conflict in the 20th century.


  • Sadie Sunderland-Rhoads, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of History



Barber, Shelley, ed. The Prendergast Letters : Correspondence from Famine-era Ireland, 1840-1850. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006. John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Gray, Peter, Larkin, Emmet J., Former Owner, and Larkin, Dianne, Donor. The Irish Famine. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995. John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Hughes-McConville family letters, MS.2004.074, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Ireland Local Government Board. Abstracts of the Most Serious Representations Made by the Several Medical Superintendents of Public Institutions (fever Hospitals, Infirmaries, Dispensaries, &c.) in the Provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught. London: H.M.S.O., 1846. John J. Burns Library, Boston College.


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