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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

British and Irish Literature Writing of the Irish Famine
Marguérite Corporaal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0107


The commemoration in the mid-1990s of Ireland’s Great Irish Famine (also called the Great Hunger) (1845–1850), was marked by a spate of sociohistorical research on this era of mass starvation and emigration. Socioeconomic and historiographical studies by, among others, Cormac Ó Gradá, Peter Gray, James S. Donnelly, and Christine Kinealy, have contributed valuable insights into the dynamics of social infrastructures and imperial politics concerning the Famine, elucidating how the policies of the British government, and the vulnerable legal and economic position of the tenantry, magnified the distress caused by the outbreak of potato blight. These studies have, moreover, uncovered political, demographic, and historical documents from the period. This boom in scholarship, followed by an upsurge in Famine historiography through the publication of David Lloyd’s Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity, 1800–2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); David P. Nally’s Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011); and John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Michael Murphy’s Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (New York: New York University Press, 2012), reveals that rich resources on the Famine past are available. Nevertheless, Emily Mark-FitzGerald, in “The ‘Irish Holocaust’: Historical Trauma and the Commemoration of the Famine” (in Visual Politics of Psychoanalysis, edited by Griselda Pollock [London: Tauris, 2013]), points out that Famine studies continue to be dominated by the conviction that the first decades after the Famine were marked by silence about the fateful calamity. This myth of silence particularly persists in relation to literary writings on the Famine. Seminal, pioneering recovery projects by scholars have underlined the necessity of reconsidering Terry Eagleton’s assertion in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (see Eagleton 1995, cited under General Overviews) that the Famine is largely glossed over to the point of neglect in Irish literature. The republication of long-forgotten Famine novels by Kessinger and the British Library also shows that the traumatic paradigm that has prevailed in the field of Famine research needs to be reassessed. This article engages with this revisionist perspective by presenting an overview of Famine writings in English that are generally classified as literary. The entries cover poetry, fiction, and drama, early texts as well as more recent publications, thereby demonstrating that the cultural legacy of the Great Famine has a transgenerational appeal and an afterlife. Eyewitness accounts are included, because travel writing and autobiography have come to be viewed as distinct literary genres since the 18th century, as argued by Linda Anderson, in Autobiography (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2010). Furthermore, travel reports and autobiographical narratives had an extensive impact on texts that are traditionally classified as literary, such as novels. Many scenes of starving peasants in cabins appear to have been inspired by the writings of those who saw the full scale of Famine horrors, either as native eyewitnesses or as tourists. Although one may also acknowledge the existence of Famine writings in Irish Gaelic and other languages, these have not been included in this article, mainly because the number of resources in English is already so great. The article charts as well the variety of seminal research on writings on the Famine, displaying early-21st-century concerns and suggesting possibilities for future directions.

General Overviews

The overviews generally challenge the claim in Eagleton 1995 that there are hardly any literary texts that recall the Great Irish Famine. These critical studies unearth often forgotten literary texts; address the role of generic conventions in representing the Famine; and interpret literary reconfigurations of the Famine in connection to nonliterary writings, such as sermons, economic treatises, journalistic reports, and political pamphlets. Morash 1995 examines representations of the Famine in poetry and fiction from the era by authors such as James Clarence Mangan, William Carleton, and Anthony Trollope. Kelleher 1997 analyzes travel writings, poetry, and fiction on the Famine, focusing on 19th-century writings by Irish women, such as Mrs. Hoare and Margaret Brew. Fegan 2002, Fegan 2010 (cited under Critical Articles on Famine Fiction, 1845–1860), and Fegan 2014 record and discuss an important range of literary texts―poetry and fiction―that are invested with Famine remembrance. Cusack and Goss 2005 provides insights into canonical Irish literary texts that either directly or more implicitly recall the Famine past. These publications signify major strides in mapping out the hitherto overlooked role of Famine memory in key works of Irish fiction. The methodologies of early-21st-century scholars studying Famine literary writings have been greatly influenced by the more recent trends in the humanities concerning diaspora and ethnic identity formation, trauma, (post)colonialism, and memory. This is also revealed by the approaches taken by the general overviews listed in this section. Bigelow 2003 investigates literary representations of the Famine against the background of imperial ideology and in the context of Victorian publication industries. Klein 2007, Morash 1995, and Morash 1997 (cited under Eyewitness Narratives: Critical Studies) deal with the (un)representability of the traumatic Famine past.

  • Bigelow, Gordon. Fiction, Famine and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511484728

    Bigelow investigates the complex interplay between political and economical doctrines, the context of the Great Famine, and major works of Victorian fiction by Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

  • Cusack, George, and Sarah Goss, eds. Hungry Words: Images of Ireland in the Irish Canon. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 2005.

    This essential volume of essays proves that the legacy of the Great Hunger is manifest in works of Irish literature by, among others, John Millington Synge, Bram Stoker, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. As such, it serves as an important contribution to late-20th- and early-21-century developments in Famine studies, which have contested the presumable absence of a Famine literature.

  • Eagleton, Terry. Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture. London: Verso, 1995.

    Eagleton’s widely cited claim that the Famine past is largely glossed over to the point of neglect in the Irish canon, because there are just “a handful of novels and a body of poems” (p. 13), is questionable. Nevertheless, his study offers an interesting reading of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in the context of the Great Hunger.

  • Fegan, Melissa. Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845–1919. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Fegan’s study presents a useful overview of Famine fiction written between 1845 and 1919. Both well-established and lesser-known authors and texts are considered in light of representations of the fateful calamity in the media and poetry.

  • Fegan, Melissa. “‘The Tottering, Fluttering, Palpitating Mass’: Power, Hunger and Representation in Nineteenth-Century Literary Responses to the Great Famine.” In Ireland’s Great Famine and Popular Politics. Edited by Enda Delaney and Breandán Mac Suibhne. London: Routledge, 2014.

    This essay charts how 19th-century Famine literature engaged with the discourses of popular politics.

  • Kelleher, Margaret. The Feminization of Famine: Expressions of the Inexpressible? Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1997.

    This groundbreaking study focuses on the role of gender in representations of the Great Hunger. In so doing, Kelleher’s monograph gives elaborate attention to the representation of female characters in Famine fiction as well as the role of gender in works by female novelists who documented the Famine past, such as Annie Keary, Margaret Brew, and Louise Field.

  • Klein, Bernhard. On the Uses of History in Recent Irish Writing. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

    The chapter “Fact into Fiction: Novels of the Irish Famine” (pp. 40–83) covers seminal 19th- and early-20th-century Famine novels by William Carleton, Anthony Trollope, David Power Conyngham, Louise Field, Mildred Darby, and Liam O’Flaherty, outlining developments in the ways in which fiction mediated the Famine past. The chapter also explores more recent Famine fiction by Walter Macken, Michael Mullen, Seán Kenny, Nuala O’Faolain, and Joseph O’Connor.

  • Morash, Christopher. Writing the Irish Famine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198182795.001.0001

    This pioneering work analyzes representations of the Famine in poetry by James Clarence Mangan and fiction by, among others, William Carleton and Anthony Trollope. Morash’s observation that “the literature of the Famine . . . exists as a series of tangents to the elusive event itself” (p. 187) is particularly insightful.

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