Irish Famine and Cannibalism

“The horrors of famine include child abandonment, voluntary enslavement, increasing resort to prostitution, and the rupture of communal and neighborly loyalties. But perhaps the greatest horror of all is being the victim (or even worse, perpetrator) of cannibalism.” Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future by
Cormac Ó Gráda

Severity of the great famine map

Severity of the Great Famine (Picture via

The question most often asked when discussing the Irish Potato blight of 1845 is why people experienced famine and starvation on an island surrounded by seas filled with fish and land that grew crops before, throughout and after the years of the famine.

The most obvious answer is that the people became dependent upon the potato crop because it was easy to grow and grew abundantly in small lots. It was easily stored until almost the next harvest. It was nutritious when mixed with buttermilk. According to author Caoimhín Ó Danachair in the article Cottier and Landlord in Pre-Famine Ireland by 1830 owning a cow was a luxury. The potato became the staple.The population thrived on this simple to grow, easy to store, nutritious diet. Cottiers rented their quarter acre to three acres of land and became dependent on the potato crop.

The population of Ireland soared to almost 7 million people by the time the potato blight arrived in September 1845. Out of that 7 million, only 4% owned farms of 50 acres or larger. The country was congested, and the truth is if the potato blight didn’t arrive, something else would have come along in the form of disease to reduce the population.

I attended a lecture at The Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, CT (Most historians prefer to not use the word “famine” and use “the great hunger” as food was growing in Ireland but exported) on June 23rd 2016 entitled Famnesia, given by Dr. Bryce Evans of Liverpool Hope University. The gist of the lecture was the lack of attention given to the Irish Potato Famine on its 100th anniversary. Apart from a painting, cookbook and the ill-fated Liam O’Flaherty book Famine, there was no attempt to remember the period. People in the audience wondered why there was such reluctance to pay attention on the 100th anniversary. Three generations later, in 1945, we still were not ready to talk about it.

My own offering by means of an explanation, referred to a professor of Studies in Irish Society at NUI Galway. All sociology students were required to read Professor Chris Curtin’s Culture & Ideology in Ireland. Curtin mentions the word “respectability” quite a bit when referring to Irish society. This Irish notion of maintaining respectability meant that certain secrets would be taken to the grave as a way of protecting a family or individual’s standing within Irish society. Dr. Bryce Evans and I chatted briefly about the Irish famine and respectability and he said that in his research he had come across mentions of cannibalism during famine years. There’s a secret to take to the grave.

Skibberean Famine Field

Scene at Skibbereen during the Great Famine, by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by The Illustrated London News, 1847. (Picture via Wikipedia)

As I am currently doing some reading and research for Stained Glass, I came across my own little gem: a research article about species of fauna and wild life on the brink of extinction or adversely doing quite well, possibly due to the years of the famine. In Famines and the environment: The case of the Great Irish Famine by T. G. Fewer, the author posits that some wild animals and herbs were on the brink of extinction or thrived during the famine years.

“Wild animals negatively affected by the Famine included (according to folklore accounts) rabbits, hares, grouse, plover, crows, wood pigeons, frogs, snails and mice. There is even one tale of a man who regularly stole eggs and carrion from the nest of a golden eagle in County Mayo,” Fewer says.

Adversely, some species of animals thrived during the famine:

“Since cats and dogs were also reported to have fed on human corpses (Woodham-Smith, 1962: 182-3; Kinealy, 1996: 34), it seems likely that other scavengers such as foxes and a variety of birds would likewise have benefited from famine fatalities.”

So some animals and herbs were wiped off the land, maybe not entirely, but at least for the duration of the famine. More than likely our digestive system would not have been able to handle what was left to eat. But is it really possible that famine survivors turned to cannibalism? I hate thinking about it, and sick to my stomach that I might have to delve into this horrific fact even deeper. But I want facts, not whimsy fantasies, and this is a fact that I must face.

I have spent a lot of time on Chapter 6 of Stained Glass. It is set in Ireland in December of 1846. I’ve read numerous books and historical accounts of people living in ditches, a mother and her children searching a field for turnips on Christmas Eve in 1846, mobile coffins and a lot of other dark things during the famine period, but nothing comes close to the idea that cannibalism existed, which of course it did. Is dwelling on it important? Is admitting to it and acknowledging it important? I think it is. Because why would we want to put any other person through such an ordeal ever again?

Trocaire Box 1976

Trócaire Box 1976 (via Pinterest)

If there is one thing I have learned in my own research it is that the famine years can be used as an example of the horrific events that can happen to people and the environment during a famine. It is a slice of Irish history that can help us protect the environment and prevent world hunger and malnutrition in the future.

Famine aid has always been part of Irish sensitivity. Anyone growing up in Ireland is familiar with the Trócaire boxes. We’ve always been very aware that famine existed in the world and we wanted to help ease suffering by putting coins into the Trócaire box during Lent, or maybe even all year-long. Gorta is also an organization based in Ireland to help raise money to prevent or provide aid to famine countries. Gorta means famine and Trócaire means compassion. The Irish are familiar with both.

Maybe the trauma of the famine years is now part of our DNA. We carry ancestral secrets known or unknown with us to the grave. And maybe, as sad as it might be, we’re better humanitarians because of the invisible shame we carry. We’re still a respectable people.