In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Famine

  • Introduction
  • General Famine Historiography
  • Famine and Emigration
  • Famine Testimonies
  • Literature of Indian Famines

British and Irish Literature Famine
Margaret Kelleher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0068


The Great Irish Famine, of 1845 to 1851, had a catastrophic impact on Irish society, causing the deaths of over a million people and resulting in the emigration of another million in a five-year period. Its longer-term impact on Irish society, culture, and politics was immense, while the famine constitutes a form of birth myth or “founding narrative” for many descendants of Irish emigrants, irrespective of the time of their ancestors’ emigration. The historiography of the Irish Famine is, however, a highly charged terrain with historical interpretations and evaluations differing significantly as to famine’s causation, the extent of government responsibility for the crisis, the efficacy of government relief, and the longer-term significance of the disaster. In literary terms, the famine has been and continues to be the subject of literary representation, though the extent of this literary tradition, spanning 150 years, (in fiction, poetry and drama, and in the Irish language as well as English) has been underestimated until recently. Both the extent and diversity of literary writings on the famine will be demonstrated by this article. The commemoration of the Great Famine’s 150th-anniversary led to a surge in publications, with new attention to local histories, famine folklore and oral tradition, and the republication of contemporary eyewitness famine accounts, illustrations, and other original documentary evidence. In recent years, the topics of “famine memory” and “collective remembrance” have themselves become debated terms within famine studies, as will be examined here. Finally, late-20th and early-21st-century works on famine include a welcome comparative impetus, with a significant body of commentary also existing on the subject of Indian famine and its literature.

General Famine Historiography

In the last ten years, a rich comparative historiography of famine has emerged that provides illuminating historical and contemporary perspectives. Davis 2001 is an influential study of famine and climate change in the late 19th century as the beginnings of an imperialist policy of underdevelopment, while Johns 1999 examines instances of disaster and catastrophe in the 18th century. Famine’s history is given a longer comparative trajectory of over five millennia in Ó Gráda 2009. For an engaging introduction to issues in famine historiography, see Arnold 1988 while Vernon 2007 traces the changing meaning of hunger and government responsibility over the last two centuries. Sen 1981 and its influential “entitlement” famine thesis was first published in 1981, and his accompanying case study of the 1940s Bengal Famine is discussed in Ó Gráda 2009 and Arnold 1988. The continuing incidence of famine and the efficacy of contemporary aid practices are analyzed in Edkins 2000.

  • Arnold, David. Famine: Social Crisis and Historical Change. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

    In a useful introduction to comparative famine historiography, Arnold draws examples from the history of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe, to explain the origins and characteristics of famine and compares the ways in which individuals and states have responded to the threat of mass starvation.

  • Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso, 2001.

    An examination of a series of El Niño-induced droughts and resulting famines in the last third of the 19th century, with specific reference to India, northern China, and northeastern Brazil. Davis illustrates how the origins of later underdevelopment may be traced to the imperialist policies of this era.

  • Edkins, Jenny. Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

    A critical investigation of hunger, famine, and aid practices in international politics.

  • Johns, Alessa, ed. Dreadful Visitations: Confronting Natural Catastrophe in the Age of Enlightenment. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

    A collection of essays that examines 18th-century responses to natural disaster and catastrophe, including an essay by David Arnold on the Bengal Famine of 1770.

  • Keneally, Thomas. Three Famines. Sydney, Australia: Vintage, 2010.

    A graphic account of three historical famines: the Great Irish Famine, the Bengal Famine of 1943, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. Famine: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    In this history of famine over five millennia, Ó Gráda explores the causes and consequences of famine from ancient Egypt and the Great Famine of 14th-century Europe to 1970s Cambodia and the 2005 famine in Niger, demonstrating the central role famine has played in many countries’ economic and political histories.

  • Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

    A highly influential study of the causation of famines, in which Sen posits an alternative method of analysis (the “entitlement approach”) concentrating on the significance of patterns of ownership and exchange, rather than food supply, as a means of understanding both the causation of famine and its unequal impact.

  • Vernon, James. Hunger: A Modern History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

    A detailed study of the changing meanings of hunger over time, examining the shift in social and political understandings from early-19th-century views of hunger’s inevitability to later perspectives on hunger as a global social problem requiring government intervention.

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