‘Skibbereen’ – Irish folk song

Thought to have been first written in the late 1860s by an Irish emigrant in America, this haunting ballad is among the most widely known songs about the Great Famine. Written as a conversation between an Irish emigrant and his son, it details the reasons why the father left hometown of Skibbereen, site of some of the most appalling and well-publicised scenes of suffering during the famine. “Skibbereen” has endured and been recorded by many artists over the years such as The Dubliners and Sinéad O’Connor. The song’s themes of loss and defiance continue to resonate with audiences today.


‘The Fields of Athenry’ – Pete St. John

Set during the Great Irish Famine, this ballad from the perspective of a man from Athenry, County Galway, who has been sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, Australia for stealing food for his starving family, has become a sporting anthem and staple of Irish folk music.


‘Orphan Girl’ – Brendan Graham

Among a number of songs written by Brendan Graham on the subject of the Famine, such as ‘Ochón an Gorta Mór’, ‘Crucán na bPáiste’, and ‘The Whitest Flower’, ‘Orphan Girl’ focuses on the Earl Grey scheme. Between 1848 and 1850, more than 4,000 young Irish women were resettled in the Australian colonies through the Famine Orphan Scheme. The women, aged 14 to 20, had been orphaned by the famine and were drawn from workhouses across Ireland.

The first Irish orphans arrived in Sydney in October 1848. Many more followed, entering into domestic service and eventually marrying, raising families and settling into colonial society. ‘Orphan Girl’ tells this story from the perspective of one of these girls.

‘Orphan Girl’ has been performed at a number of Famine Commemorations, most recently the 2023 International Famine Commemoration held in Sydney, at the Irish Famine Memorial, Hyde Park Barracks.


Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine – Declan O’Rourke

Released in 2017, this collection of songs by singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke combines traditional Irish music and modern song to explore stories from the Great Famine period. By focusing on personal stories, O’Rourke brings out the humanity and empathy in a time of horror and inhumanity.


The Hungry Voice – Frank Harte & Donal Lunny

A renowned collector and singer of traditional Irish folk songs and ballads, Frank Harte compiled this selection of songs on the theme of the Great Famine, in particular the emigration that followed. Through this collection, such as ‘Erin’s Lovely Home’ and ‘Poor Pat Must Emigrate’, Harte represents the emigrant experience through story and first-person accounts over statistics, in line with his contention that poets and singers “in some small measure, speak for those whose hungry voices were never heard back then”.


‘The City of Chicago’ – Christy Moore

This ballad, written by Luka Bloom and made famous by Christy Moore, tells of Irish emigrants who have made their home in Chicago after a “voyage of survival / Across the stormy sea” in 1847, yet who still dream of their homes in Donegal.


‘Kilkelly, Ireland’ – Peter Jones

Based off a series of letters that had been written to songwriter’s great-great grandfather from his family in Kilkelly, Co. Mayo, this song gives a sense of how Irish families typically adapted to emigration yet maintained a close connection and network with their families and neighbours. Through this network, money was channelled back to Ireland and younger generations joined existing emigrants communities already firmly established abroad.


‘Thousands are Sailing’ – The Pogues

Written in the 1980s, when emigration again was a prominent feature of Irish life, this is an example of the lasting cultural legacy of the famine. By interweaving a number of eras of emigration together, the song demonstrates how the famine still informs our experiences today, and how it is continually being reinterpreted and reimagined through art.