Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845-1919

Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845-1919

Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845-1919

Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845-1919


The impact of the Irish famine of 1845-1852 was unparalleled in both political and psychological terms. The effects of famine-related mortality and emigration were devastating, in the field of literature no less than in other areas. In this incisive new study, Melissa Fegan explores the famine's legacy to literature, tracing it in the work of contemporary writers and their successors, down to 1919. Dr. Fegan examines both fiction and non-fiction, including journalism, travel-narratives and the Irish novels of Anthony Trollope. She argues that an examination of famine literature that simply categorizes it as "minor" or views it only as a silence or an absence misses the very real contribution that it makes to our understanding of the period. This is an important contribution to the study of Irish history and literature, sharply illuminating contemporary Irish mentalities.


A history beset with such distracting problems, bristling with such
thorny controversies, a history, above all, which has so much bearing
upon that portion of history which has still to be born, ought, it may
be said, to be approached in the gravest and most authoritative fash
ion possible, or else not approached at all.

(Emily Lawless, The Story of the Nations: Ireland (London and
New York: T. Fisher Unwin; G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1887),

I know not whether the time has even yet arrived when that theme
can be fairly treated, and when a calm and just apportionment of
blame and merit may be attempted. To-day, full thirty years after the
event, I tremble to contemplate it.

(A. M. Sullivan, New Ireland: Political Sketches and Personal
Reminiscences of Thirty Years of Irish Public Life (Glasgow and
London: Cameron & Ferguson; Fleet Street, 1877), 58.)

More than one hundred years after these expressions of trepidation, it is still a daunting experience to write about the Great Famine. For more than a decade, historians have been puzzled and concerned about the lack of recent research into the Famine, especially by Irish historians. But in the wake of the 150th anniversary of Black '47, such concerns have been assuaged by a flood of exciting new work on the local and national implications of this immense tragedy. Such is the hunger for these works that some historians and economists—notably Cormac Ó Gráda and Christine Kinealy—have published several books each on the subject. It is widely accepted that the Great Famine was a defining moment in Irish history; but can the same be claimed for Irish literature? The fact that the Famine made an impact on literature may seem commonplace, but it is not at all accepted. Terry Eagleton recently complained: 'There is a handful of novels and a body of poems, but few truly distinguished works. Where is the Famine in the literature of the Revival? Where is it in Joyce?' It has been assumed that the proper medium for the Famine was silence, as it has been argued that the proper medium for the Holocaust—with which the Famine is too easily superficially identified—is silence. But, as Michael Bernstein has argued, even silence is a productive topic:

Terry Eagleton, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture (London and
New York: Verso, 1995), 13.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.