The Causes and Consequences of the Great Irish Famine

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Queen's Management School


Was early 19th century Ireland overpopulated and fertility at an unsustainable level, or did other factors cause the Great Irish Famine? Did the famine-induced migration to Britain spread infectious diseases and have a substantial impact on British mortality rates? Similarly, what impact did the famine have on the British labour force and economy generally? This research project will answer these questions.

The Great Famine was a watershed in global history. It was the last major famine to occur in a Western economy, and had long-run impacts. The enduring legacy of the famine has sparked the interest of numerous novelists and playwrights.

Earlier this year, news that media group Channel 4 was considering commissioning a Great Famine-based sitcom stoked an intense public debate. Many felt that this would trivialise the tragedy. The length and breadth of this debate underlined the immense interest that still surrounds the famine. However, the spectrum of opinions as to the causes and consequences of the famine also highlighted the need for further historical research.

"Let the Data Speak"

Joel Mokyr's influential 1983 book "Why Ireland Starved" redefined famine research. Before, famine-related research was largely based on qualitative assessments that left ample room for both conjecture and, rhetoric, and errors. Unlike previous researchers, Mokyr, wanted to let the data decide whether or not it was Ireland's overpopulation that caused the famine. To do this he gathered data on the population density of Irish regions and found that it was Ireland's least densely populated regions that were the ones that suffered worse during the famine. Mokyr's test did not support the overpopulation theory (captured by what is known as the Malthusian model).

"I hasten to add that the Malthusian model cannot be considered to have been "refuted" by this finding. For one thing, the possibility that more sophisticated econometric techniques and improved data will reverse the finding cannot be ruled out." (Mokyr, 1983).

Whilst striking, Mokyr's analysis was based on variation between relatively few data points (Ireland's 32 counties), as the quote above testifies. This study is motivated by the above quote. Better data (from over 3,000 civil parishes) and more sophisticated econometric techniques exist, and therefore Mokyr's findings can at last be re-evaluated, something this project will do.

Mokyr's philosophy of "letting the data speak," can also be applied to help uncover some of the Great Famine's consequences. Specifically, this project will quantify the impact that famine-induced migration had on Britain.

The famine caused a mass movement of the Irish population to Britain. Before the famine, there were around 430,000 Irish born in Britain. By 1851, the Irish-born population had grown to 730,000. This crisis-driven mass-migration echoes Europe's migration crisis today, as people flea from war-torn and economically desolate nations in Africa and Asia. In this sense, the Great Irish Famine provides a form of historical natural experiment from which we can learn from and gain a greater understanding of the consequences of mass migrations.

What effect did the Irish famine have on Britain? This research will use newly available census data (released as part of the ESRC-funded ICeM project) to uncover how the Irish famine influenced the British economy and labour force. For example, did the influx of Irish in certain cities such as Liverpool and Manchester boost demand and help to speed up economic growth, or did this migration depress the wages of locals and therefore stifle economic advancement? In addition, this project will also use newly available records of regional mortality to calculate what impact, if any, the Great Famine had on mortality in England and Wales. If the Irish famine caused elevated levels of mortality, this implies that the ultimate death toll of the Irish famine is underestimated.

Planned Impact

This project has the potential for impact across many spheres.

Policy Makers

The results of this project will inform policy makers both within in the UK and internationally. Recent decades have witnessed dramatic improvements in living standards in some of the world's least developed nations. However, food security remains an important issue in the world's poorest areas and population growth forecasts and climate change may make food security a pertinent issue in coming years. Using richer data sources, I will be able to examine the importance of "population pressure" as a factor that triggers food insecurity. Furthermore, I will be able to use these high-resolution data to identify regions that suffered the most during the famine and understand the reasons why they bore the brunt of the dearth (better infrastructure, access to markets, food aid). A better understanding of these mechanisms will inform governments and international humanitarian organisation.

The mass inward migration experienced by European nations has received much media attention in the last year. Current debate in policy circles surrounds the effect of mass migration, both in terms of cultural assimilation and economic activity. This project will inform this debate. Using data on Irish migration in Britain, I will be able to examine and measure the impact of mass migration on medium to long-run outcomes such as the labour force composition, patents and technological adaptation, and economic growth. The benefit of studying this topic is that it will either highlight or downplay the positive aspects of mass migration, and inform policy makers as to the potential benefits and/or consequences of migration. Guiding policy in this arena could improve the well-being of both host populations and migrants alike.

Cultural Impact

The Great Irish Famine was an event of great cultural significance worldwide. This tragedy has been imprinted in literature, art, and song. The cultural importance of this event to the public is symbolised in the success of the Irish Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon. This project will contribute where relevant to the various exhibitions and events hosted by it, for example speaking at their summer school. I will also use the results of this project to inform other museum exhibits, for example like "Ireland's Great Hunger Museum" at Quinnipiac University. In addition, I will organise a historical exhibition as part of West Belfast's Spring Festival to disseminate my findings to the general public and thus promote a greater awareness and appreciation of the causes and consequences of the Irish famine.

Digital Impact

This project will make extensive use of digital resources to reach out and engage the public. A project-specific website will be the launch pad for this engagement. This website and accompanying social media profile will act as a portal and encourage public engagement to keep stakeholders engaged in the project's progress and events. Furthermore, I will oversee the development of a mobile app designed to inform the public of local famine histories. This app will be of great interest to tourists visiting Ireland, as it will inform them of the pre- and post-famine population characteristics for any given parish in Ireland. This will raise awareness of local famine histories and the project overall.

Educational Impact

The famine features as a core subject on the Irish Junior Certificate exam. Thus, this project's findings will benefit secondary school students in the Republic of Ireland. I will draw awareness to the educational benefits through school visits that showcase the project. I will demonstrate how the project's research adds to the historiography of the famine that existing school textbooks portray. This project's results have the potential to be included in the national history curriculum in Irish secondary schools.


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Description The aim of the "Causes and Consequences of the Great Irish Famine" project was to uncover what made Ireland so vulnerable to the potato blight of the mid-1840s and what were the short and long run impacts of this tragedy.

My first key finding was that overpopulation does not explain why pre-famine Ireland was vulnerable to the blight. Using an econometric model, my results suggest that had Ireland not experienced any population growth in the first part of the 19th century there would have been only minimal economic improvements.
The second key finding follows on from the first. If overpopulation cannot explain Ireland's pre-famine economic malaise, what factors can? To answer this I collected a wide variety of explanatory variables and found that geographic remoteness can help us understand differences in poverty. Quite simply, civil parishes (the unit of analysis to which our data pertains) that were more geographically remote were poorer. Being geographically remote means being far from markets, public institutions such as schools and hospitals, and also unconnected from transport infrastructure (Ireland's toll road and canal/navigable water system were digitized as part of the project).

Whilst it is widely accepted that the famine claimed the lives of around 1 million people and caused a further million people to emigrate, the geographic spread famine mortality and migration is unknown. The third key finding of this study was to uncover the geographical distribution of mortality vs. migration. Using data that that I digitized as part of this project my results show the existence of a trade-off, and that this trade-off was a function of wealth. In more well-off parishes, population decline was caused more by migration than mortality. Conversely, in more economically deprived parishes, the chief cause of population decline was mortality, as it appears that people were to some extent trapped in their locality, lacking the funds to leave to either the United States, Britain, or elsewhere.

One of the consequences of the Great Irish Famine was the continued depopulation of Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. The fourth key finding sheds a light on this experience and investigates the importance of Ireland's emerging train network. Elsewhere in Europe, train networks were being built to facilitate and stimulate urbanisation and population growth, to what extent can the same said about Ireland? My research finds that the train was important to Ireland's post-famine development, but only to a limited extent. Areas in Ireland that benefited from getting a train station before 1860 experienced less of a population fall compared to areas that got a train station later or not at all. However, there is no indication that Ireland's comparatively expansive played a substantial role in arresting the post-famine population decline.
Exploitation Route I have already been contacted by several individuals affiliated with the education industry and have been told that my findings and resources have been useful. In particular at the primary and secondary school level.

The findings have also been used and will be used in the future by the cultural and heritage sector. For example, the findings of my research add historical context to genealogists and others trying to learn more about their family histories.

Finally, by linking post-famine population decline to the development of Ireland's train network we can add to the debate on whether public support of trains and other transport infrastructure. For example, there is a current debate around whether or not local taxes should be used to fund improvements to transport networks because the land and houses in the area around the improved network will appreciate in value. My research suggests that this is not the case, so I believe that the paper (which is currently being drafted) speaks to this contemporary debate.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Transport

Description Whilst collecting data for this project I developed a website to display these data: This provides an interactive map of the Great Irish Famine. A press release announcing the launch of this website was distributed on the 16/3/2018. I have received coverage from several news sources including Newsweek ( and the Irish Times ( This coverage has attracted over 17,500 users to the site. Feedback from the site has been overwhelmingly positive and far reaching. For example, the site and my related research on the famine will form the basis for an educational module being created for the "Nearpod" platform ( by a US-based educator, Jennifer Cole. Ms. Cole made contact with me on the basis of my research and I have acted in a consultancy type role as has created and modified an Irish Famine related educational module. Similarly, I was also contacted by Caleb Nelson a middle school student in Washinton State. Again my research formed the basis for a research project the student was completing, and I was also able to answer a number of questions the student had regarding the famine. Likewise I have also been contacted by several genealogists expressing their gratitude for creating the interactive map platform. They have been using the map for context and to help those interested in learning about their Irish heritage (typically from the United States). For example, I have also been in correspondence with a person who is using this data source on three specific Irish civil parishes to write a family history. Related coverage on Twitter was retweeted by Irish Primary School organisations indicating the potential impact for this research output to make as an educational resource. Likewise a number of genealogists have also expressed interest.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Irish Famine Project Interactive Map 
Description Interactive map hosted on Famine Project website. This site is used as a platform for me to showcase the data collected as part of the project to a general public audience. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact - Used as resource for educators globally. - Used by genealogists and others interested in Irish heritage. 
Description Academic Seminar in Cambridge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to the University of Cambridge to present to the "Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure" group. The basis for the presentation was a paper I was working on related to the "Causes and Consequences of the Great Irish Famine". There were around 30 people in the audience. The audience members were primarily academics, although the audience also contained several postgraduate students. The feedback from the presentation was quite positive. I did receive some criticism, however this was constructive and I was able to use these comments to help improve the paper.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Expert Opinion on "Avengers: Infinity War" Movie 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Asked by a journalist to explain the link between population and economic development for an article published by "The Verge".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Guest on "History Now" TV show 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was a panel member on the "History Now" show televised by local station NVTV. The host of the show asked me about my research and I was able to disseminate some of my findings to a non-academic audience. Furthermore, I was also able to promote the "" interactive map. Given that this was in a studio I was hampered in my ability to engage with the audience further.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Northern Ireland Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited by the organisers of the Northern Ireland Science Festival to present my research on the Irish Famine. The title of my talk "Was the Great Irish Famine an Ecological Disaster?" formed part of the Science in Society category for the festival. The talk was hosted by the Irish-language and cultural centre Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry city and was also linked to the wider range of events being hosted by the Cutúrlann on the Famine as part of the "Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger" exhibition.

The talk was well attended with approximately 25 people in the audience. The "Causes and Consequences of the Great Irish Famine" research findings formed the basis for this 50 minute talk. The talk engaged the audience members and sparked a lively discussion and questions thereafter. One audience member remarked that my research had shown here how heterogenous the devastation caused by the famine was, with some areas insulated from the worst of the famine, a key finding from my research. Another audience member, who is a teacher, remarked that they will be using the material from my research (maps and statistics) to both inform their teaching and to demonstrate key features of the famine to students. Finally, an audience member also remarked that the presentation was very informative for research they were doing as part of their undergraduate dissertation in Queen's University Belfast.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019