An Gorta Mór

The failure of the potato crop during the 1840s was a transforming event in Ireland. Apart from the massive loss of life, it established a momentum in emigration that endured for many years and polarised social and political relations in Ireland and with Britain. The population of Ireland, which exceeded 8 million in the Census of 1841, was reduced by approximately 1.5 million through death and emigration by the time of the 1851 Census.

The Irish famine of 1845-52 was the greatest social calamity – in terms of mortality and suffering – that Ireland has ever experienced. It was also the worst social calamity based on crop failure experienced in Europe (indeed, in the ‘developed’ world) in modern times. The terms in which it is described hint at its complexity, and at the different ways in which historians and the people at large have sought to describe and come to terms with the calamity: it has been referred to as ‘the great Irish famine’, the ‘great hunger’, the ‘Irish potato famine’, an Gorta Mór and, in some Irish-language communities,‘blianta an droch-shaoil’ [meaning: the years of the bad life].

There is no other event in modern Irish history that can be likened to the Great Famine, either for its immediate impact or its legacy.

The demographic and social changes brought about by the loss of life and emigration impacted resonated throughout all aspects of Irish life.

  • The Famine contributed significantly to the decline of the Irish language, with the number of native Irish speakers falling from an estimated 4 million in 1835 to only 2 million by 1851.
  • The disappearance of the Botháns where so many of the victims lived changed the appearance of the landscape.
  • The memory of the Famine years was a powerful force political force that contributed to the drive for home rule and independence in the later 19th and early 20th century.
  • The pattern of emigration established by the Famine also resulted in the formation of many Diaspora communities – the Irish abroad.
  • The memory of the Famine continues to permeate the music, art and literature of the Irish home and abroad.

In addition, a longer term legacy of the Famine is a strong appreciation among Irish people of issues such as food security and a strong commitment to humanitarian aid and relief which survives to this day.