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The Great Irish Famine 1845-1852

The Great Irish Famine was the watershed event in modern Irish history and altered the character of the nation. The deaths of over one million people saw it become the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in nineteenth century Europe. A further million emigrated because of it and the physical landscape of the country was transformed in its aftermath with patterns of landholding, ownership and relationships all changing dramatically. While the victims were undoubtedly the poorest stratum amongst the cottier and labouring classes, it was something that impacted all classes in the country

It was not until the 1960s that the first scholarly account of the Famine was written and now there are innumerable books, articles and commemorations remembering the Famine. Students will be introduced to key primary sources from this period and understand how contemporaries experienced, witnessed and responded to the Famine. The course will also examine and seek to understand how a catastrophe that bordered upon medieval proportions was allowed to happen and why official responses were so underwhelming. How it was remembered in literature, art, music and folklore and the emergence of museums and various other commemorative events are all key to its wider narrative. By the end of the module, students will have learned about the inherent problems of a subsistence diet, why this was allowed to happen, the various responses to the Famine and be able to discuss the vexed issue of culpability.

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  • Ireland on the eve of the Famine
  • Government responses and ideology
  • Poverty, relief and charity
  • Regional variations
  • Commemoration and remembrance
  • The historiography of the Famine
  • Culpability – who or what was to blame?

Students will find the following books to be the most useful for discussions at weekly lectures.

Enda Delaney, The Great Irish Famine: A history in four lives (Dublin, 2012, 2014)

Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-52 (Dublin, 1994, 2006)

Ciarán O’Murchadha, The Great Famine: Ireland’s agony, 1845-1852 (London, 2011).


  • Outline the social, political and economic changes that occurred during and after the Famine
  • Evaluate primary source documents, maps, song and art relating to the Famine
  • Discuss how these fit in with the overall narrative of the Famine
  • Explain the complexities surrounding the causes of the Famine as well as its consequences
  • Discuss the various historiographical debates and reach conclusions based on evidence presented in class and drawn upon from readings.

Dr Brian Casey holds a PhD in Modern Irish History and is a historian of 19th century Ireland and Scotland. He has taught at Maynooth University, DCU and UCD. He is the editor of Defying the law of the land: Agrarian radicals in Irish History (Dublin, 2013) and Lords, land and labourers: The Big Houses and Landed estates of Royal Meath (Dublin, 2016) and has published on 19th century Irish history.