Masaryk University

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The intention of this thesis is to find evidence that the British government committed genocide during the so-called Great Irish Famine. To deliberate that, the British government’s actions, based on their ideology as well as on the wider context of Irish-British relations, need to be equated with the definition of genocide as it is defined in Article II of the Genocide Convention, which specifies that “genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such:

a) killing members of the group;

b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated

to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Fein 6)

As Fein points out, the term genocide was coined and the concept developed by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish jurist, in order to explain “German plans to destroy whole nations and races both directly and indirectly” (6). Fein points out that according to Lemkin, “groups of people were to be depopulated, debilitated and killed” by using “racial discrimination in feeding,” “endangering of health” and “mass killings” (6). Fein offers her own definition of genocide specifying that: “Genocide is sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim” (8). She also acknowledges that there are, among others, “developmental genocides, the destruction of indigenous people seen to be in the way of development, competing with the dominant group for land and resources” (14). Furthermore, she claims that one of the significant aspects of genocide is “the exclusion of the Other – or victim group – from the universe of obligation. The universe of obligation is the limits of the common conscience; those whom we are obligated to protect, to take into account, and to whom we must account” (14). Finally, she specifies that a “crisis or opportunity often precipitates the rationale for genocide” and that “the perpetrator must count on bystander states not intervening” (15). These criteria will be used in determining whether the claim of genocide is justifiable.

To understand the actions the British government took during the Famine, the history of the British rule in Ireland needs to be taken into account. As it is explained in chapter 2, from 1169, Ireland was targeted by the English to become a colony, where the indigenous population was to be displaced by English settlers and, consequently, the feudal system imported from England was supposed to guarantee the English supremacy. From the very beginning, all profits were to be exported to England and this policy continued till and past the time of the Famine. As repetitive waves of English settlers became assimilated, the Crown deemed this tendency ‘undesirable’ and legislative measures, such as the Statutes of Kilkenny, were taken to stem it, expressing the contempt the English had for the Irish and, furthermore, they were an early form of propaganda against an ‘inferior’ peoples. Any local chief who did not submit and implement English feudal tenure was removed from power; however, the English did not stop in their eliminating of everything Irish in the areas of politics and economy, but actively suppressed Irish culture, history and poetry, which had posed a serious threat to the new elites. Under and after Henry VIII, religion further intensified the struggle in Ireland and policy of famine became one of the legitimate means of removing the Irish population and members of English intellectual elites, such as Edmund Spenser, advocated this type of solution to the incessant ‘rebellions’ of the Irish insisting that the Irish had brought this on themselves. Further escalation of British colonial efforts commenced under Cromwell and the result was a great change in land ownership in favour of the Protestants. The degrading status of the Irish can be attested by the sale of twenty thousand Irish to planters in Virginia and the Carolinas. The final blow to the Irish came in the form of Penal Laws, which created a system similar to apartheid where the rights of Irish Catholics were severely curtailed and the remaining land passed into the hands of Protestants. It is therefore evident, that later on during the Famine, the measures taken were fully in accordance with the policies the British had practiced in Ireland from the very beginning of their conquest. The economic doctrines, which are discussed in chapter 3, further confirm the claim that the Famine was not due to mismanagement. The potato was blamed for the poverty in Ireland, but it allowed massive exports of other foodstuff to Britain. According to the British, the potato caused the evil of subdivisions and population growth and the British claimed that Irish were indolent and excessively reproductive and argued that the Irish posed a threat as possible immigrants to Britain. The political economists and other members of British elites clearly stated that the Irish should be swept off the island and replaced by settlers from England and Scotland. Moreover, they created and endorsed ideas that the Irish should not be considered human, should not multiply and that famine should serve as a constant check of their population. In addition to that, they advocated ideas that the poor should not be helped because it would morally corrupt them. Malthus’s writings were extensively reflected in the Irish Poor Law legislation, so they can be interpreted as a blueprint for the government’s handling of the Famine. Lastly, the policies of laissez-faire which the government championed demanded that the government should not intervene in the working of the market and it resulted in the worst aspect of the Famine: while millions starved, food was being exported from Ireland. The provision in the Irish Poor Law which stipulated that only land valued at less than four pounds was taxed specifically targeted the poor because it was an impetus to start evictions and deny the poor means of subsistence. When amended in 1847, it started even more widespread evictions and pauperization of the Irish peasantry and the government must have known what the outcome would be, as Trevelyan himself confirmed the intent of the law, which was to keep the poor of the rates; consequently, it increased mortality in the west and south of Ireland, where mass evictions were concentrated. To conclude, the poor law cleared Ireland off the poor who either died or emigrated; however, most of them should not be considered emigrants, as the conditions which made them leave classify them as refugees. Similarly, chapter 4 deals with the anti-Irish attitudes present in the media and among the middle- and upper-classes before and during the Famine, which gave the government a stamp of approval. The divisions between the Irish and British were originally based on religion, but just before the famine it changed into one which was based on the racial ‘inferiority’ of the Celts. Writers, reporters and social commentators created an image of the Irish which depicted or referred to them as ‘subhuman’, ‘savage’, ‘desperados’ or ‘human chimpanzees’. Furthermore, the ideas of moralism and providentialism claimed that the Famine was a divine intervention supposed to correct the ills within the Irish society. Callous statements and newspaper articles approving of the Famine and endorsing the outcome were common. The political and economic elites that set the parameters of how the Famine would be managed later claimed that there were no ways of averting the catastrophe. The final chapter gives an account of the horrors which happened during the famine. The approximately twenty percent reduction of population ranks the Irish Famine among the worst in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although some historians point out that large quantities of food, especially grains, were imported, most of them claim that Ireland was a net exporter at a time when there was massive mortality caused by starvation and disease. Therefore, it can be argued that Ireland was not an equal partner in the Union but rather, a colony, which was treated accordingly. The Irish peasantry was so oppressed that they rather paid the rent and subsequently starved. Although they resisted the food exports and evictions and military assistance was required and mobile units were stationed and provisioned to allow detachments to problem areas, there were no serious uprisings. As the crisis progressed, the measures to help were scaled down and people died in large numbers: in the workhouses because they were required to work but were not always paid to buy sustenance; as a result of evictions, more than half a million people lost their homes, which were razed to the ground, and suffered a slow death all over the country; those more fortunate who chose to emigrate and could pay for the passage or received remittances from the United States, suffered high rates of mortality aboard the coffin ships. Of all the people who emigrated, only less than ten percent were Protestant, although they comprised more than a quarter of Irish population and furthermore, they were the purposeful emigrants, not refugees. This is another piece of evidence as to which segments of Irish society suffered during the Famine. Writers and historians alike argue, after they have recounted the horrors of the famine, that the government’s actions were due to a lack of foresight and blind adherence to the policies of free trade and Poor Law legislature; however, they do not take into account the wider historical context of established patterns of Britain’s dealing with Ireland and the ideological influence of works and statements of leading political economists and ideologues of the day

At the time of the Famine, Ireland was an integral part of the Union, but the British ruling elites decided to change Ireland regardless of the fate of a large group of people defined by their: nationality – Irish; religion – Catholic; and class – poor. Although the last mentioned factor was probably the most important one at the time of the Famine, it had been the result of British policies inflicted on the first two during the colonization of Ireland. According to Fein’s interpretation of the term genocide, Ireland was depopulated and its population debilitated by “racial discrimination in feeding,” “endangering of health” and “interdiction of the biological and social reproduction” while the Irish were “competing with the dominant group for land and resources.” The Famine destroyed the morale of the Irish and Irish Gaelic almost disappeared and the Irish became denationalized and anglicized, so it can be argued that it achieved the objectives which the British had failed at during the conquest of Ireland by force. The aforementioned evidence indicates that the British government was guilty of genocide according to Article II of the Genocide Convention as specified under letters b, c and d, because it committed acts with the intent to destroy a national and religious group by: causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. The British government failed by excluding the Irish from the universe of obligation. They did not feel obligated to protect as they were not accountable to people they let die. The majority of people who died during the Famine perished because they were Irish, Catholic, and poor and they lost their fight for land and resources during which they did not stand a chance at the time when the British Empire, the perpetrator, was the only superpower and there was no force in the world which would or could intervene. Unlike the previous calamities which the British inflicted on the Irish by using force during the conquest, this one was legislated from London with a stroke of the pen.

Works Cited

Burritt, Elihu. “A Journal of a Visit of Three Days to Skibbereen.” Project Gutenberg. Web. 7 December 2009.

Churchill, Winston S. A History of the English Speaking Peoples. vol. 4. London: Cassell and Company, 1958. Print.

Connolly, Sean J., ed. The Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

Donnelly, James S., Jr. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Stroud: The History Press, 2010. Print.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. “Irish ‘Famines’: Acts of God, Colonial Mismanagement or Genocide?” Irish Democrat. 6 January 2005. Web. 6 Nov 2011.

Fein, Helen. “Genocide and Other State Murders in the Twentieth Century.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 24 October 1995. Web. 20 November 2011.

Gallagher, Jim. “The Irish Hunger (Famine).” Irish Heritage Month. Connecticut College. March 2011. Speech. Web. 7 November 2011.

Gallagher, Paul. “150th Anniversary of Genocide: How British Free Trade Starved Millions During Ireland’s Potato Famine.” The American Almanac. 29 May 1995. Web. 7 November 2011.

Green, Alice Stopford. Irish Nationality. Project Gutenberg. Web. 7 December 2009.

Jackson, T. A. Ireland Her Own. Berlin: Seven Seas P, 1970. Print.

Kee, Robert. Ireland: A History. London: Abacus, 1995. Print.

Kinealy, Christine. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994. Print.

Lengel, Edward G. “A “Perverse and Ill-Fated People”: English Perceptions of the Irish, 1845-52.” n.d. Web. 6 November 2011.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Longman Group Ltd, 1995. Print.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population and a Summary View of the Principle of Population. ed. and intr. Antony Flew. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970. Print.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

O’Boyle, Edward J. “Classical Economics and the Great Irish Famine: A Study in Limits.” Forum for Social Economics 35.2 (2006): 1-39. Web. 6 December 2011.

O’Brien, Máire and Conor Cruise O’Brien. Ireland: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985. Print.

O’Donnell, Ruán. The Irish Famine. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008. Print.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. “Ireland’s Great Famine: An Overview.” University College Dublin. November 2004. Web. 6 December 2011.

O’Rourke, John. The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847. Project Gutenberg. Web. 12 December 2009.

O’Rourke, Kevin. “Did the Great Irish Famine Matter?” The Journal of Economic History 51.1 (1991): 1-22. Web. 6 Decmber 2011.

Ranelagh, John O’Beirne. A Short History of Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Short View of the State of Ireland.” University College Cork. Web. 20 May 2012.

Trevelyan, George M. A Shortened History of England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam- Webster Inc. publishers, 1991.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9. London: New English Library, 1964. Print.


The thesis attempts to determine whether the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52 was an act of genocide perpetrated by the British government. Firstly, it examines, by comparing the dictionary definitions of the words famine, hunger and starvation, the appropriateness of using the term famine. Furthermore, the thesis presents evidence in support of the argument by researching the historical aspects of Irish-British relations, specifically focusing on the patterns of dealing with the Irish the British had developed in their nearly seven hundred years of conquest and rule over Ireland prior to the Famine. In addition to that, the thesis researches the policy-shaping ideologies and economic doctrines, namely Malthusianism and laissez-faire, which were the foremost factors in determining the government’s legislature and decision-making. The statements made by government officials, advisors, and economists demonstrate the government’s intent to ‘clear off’ Ireland’s surplus population in order to change the structure of Irish agriculture. Another factor which influenced the government and the public opinion was the anti-Irish sentiment present among British upper- and middle-classes, which stressed the national, religious and racial ‘inferiority’ of the Irish, and was presented by influential media and literature. The thesis gives an account of the worst occurrences of suffering during the Famine by focusing on starvation due to food exports and evictions carried out with the assistance of British troops and sanctioned by British law. Consequently, these policies resulted in massive mortality and emigration and had far-reaching effects on the identity and social structure of Irish population. The final part compares the evidence provided by the thesis with Article II of the Genocide Convention and concludes that the Famine was genocide.


Cílem této bakalářské práce je určit zdali Velký irský hladomor z let 1845 -52 byl genocidou spáchanou britskou vládou. Jako první zkoumá, zdali je vhodné používat slovo hladomor, tím že porovnává slovníkové definice slov hladomor, moření hladem a smrt hladem. Dále bakalářská práce předkládá důkazy, které podporují hlavní argument tím, že zkoumají historické aspekty irsko–britských vztahů a konkrétně se zabývají způsoby zacházení s Iry, které si Britové osvojili během takřka sedm set let trvajícího dobývání a vládnutí Irsku před hladomorem. Dále bakalářská práce zkoumá ideologii která spoluutvářela politiku vlády, a ekonomické doktríny, jmenovitě malthusianismus a klasický liberalismus, které byly hlavními faktory při schvalování zákonů a při rozhodování vlády. Prohlášení vládních činitelů, poradců a ekonomů demonstrují záměr vlády „vyčistit“ Irsko od nadbytečného obyvatelstva, aby se změnila struktura Irského zemědělství. Dalším faktorem který měl vliv na vládu a veřejné mínění byly proti-irské nálady vyšších společenských vrstev a střední třídy, které zdůrazňovaly národnostní, náboženskou a rasovou „méněcennost“ Irů a byly prezentovány jak vlivnými médii tak v literatuře. Bakalářská práce vyjmenovává nejhorší případy utrpení během hladomoru a zaměřuje se na smrt hladem v důsledku exportu potravin a vystěhovávání obyvatel za asistence britských jednotek v souladu s platnými britskými zákony. V důsledku této politiky došlo k obrovské úmrtnosti a emigraci, což zásadně změnilo identitu a společenskou strukturu Irského obyvatelstva. V závěrečné části jsou srovnány důkazy předložené bakalářskou prací s článkem II Úmluvy o genocidě a je učiněn závěr že hladomor byl genocidou.

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