“Shadows cast by our shared past” – the Irish Famine

Abstract: The Irish Famine, a catastrophe which resulted in large scale loss of life and emigration, signalled a turning point in both Irish history and Anglo-Irish relations that still casts long shadows. Focusing on this event and its representation in textbooks, we argue that inclusion of an Irish dimension in English history curricula is important in regard to the formation of mutual understanding across the islands of Ireland and Britain and that it also has a role to play in how the present is contemplated.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21666
Languages: English

In 2017, scenes of the Irish Famine in the TV drama ‘Victoria’ shocked British viewers who were largely unaware of this catastrophic event occurring when Ireland was still part of the Empire.[1] In 2018, Conservative MP Pritti Patel suggested the UK use the threat of food shortages in Ireland as leverage when Brexit negotiations stalled, leading to public outcry in Ireland.[2] Both reactions highlight a lack of understanding about the historical complexity of British-Irish relations both publicly and politically.


The Importance of an Irish Dimension

As illustrated with the examples above, recent debates, such as those concerning Brexit and the Northern Ireland border, highlight a lack of understanding about the history and historical complexity of British-Irish relations that has been noted in both public and political spheres.[3] Focusing on the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52 (or An Gorta Mór in the Irish language), we propose that the inclusion of an Irish dimension in English history curricula is important in regard to the formation of mutual understanding across the islands of Ireland and Britain. Furthermore, as the examples above highlight, we argue that the inclusion of an Irish dimension also has a role to play in how the present is contemplated and understood.

Irish History in the English Curriculum

One of the aims of the national history curriculum in England states that students should “know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day” (authors’ emphasis) with a particular focus on “how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world”,[4] yet how far the history of “these islands” and their influence on the present day has been addressed in the English curriculum is a matter of debate.

In 1994, historian Hugh Kearney pointed out that much of the school history taught in Britain over the past century had, in fact, been English history while more recently, some studies suggest that a “strong Anglocentric focus” is still apparent in the curricula for history.[5] According to census figures, up to six million people in Britain are estimated to have at least one Irish grandparent,[6] yet research shows that Irish history features little in the teaching of history in England.

Based on the premise that fortifying the Irish dimension to history teaching in England can contribute to both an understanding of diversity as well as providing an appropriate map of the past, Bracey surveyed the extent to which English teachers addressed Irish history in the classroom.[7] Although this study was conducted prior to the introduction of the current history curriculum, the findings are still of interest as it found that very few respondents considered an Irish dimension an important contribution to their history curriculum. A decade later, the Historical Association Survey of History in Secondary Schools in England also found that the inclusion of an Irish dimension was mentioned by just 5.06% of respondents, and only sometimes this included reference to the Irish Famine.[8]

As McIntosh, Todd and Das argue,[9] the current climate in Britain calls for a reappraisal of past and present relationships with the wider world, which, they point out, cannot be attained without a comprehensive understanding of concepts such as empire, migration and belonging. In this respect, history teaching has a significant role to play and the Irish Famine in particular provides an interesting case study through which each of these concepts can be interrogated and explored.

As the first colonial project of the Empire,[10] a study of the Irish Famine can enrich an understanding of the Empire in the classroom and help students grapple with the colonial legacies still visible today. Exploring events such as the Famine can also provide the necessary context for understanding the history of immigration into Britain during the nineteenth century and help students interrogate the roots of present-day stereotypes.

Contested Points (Make Interesting Teaching)

Between the years 1845 and 1852, Ireland experienced one of the most devastating natural disasters of the 19th century. Estimates vary, but between 1845 and 1855, about one million died because of malnutrition and famine-related diseases[11] and another 1.8 million emigrated.[12] While the failure of successive potato crops resulted from a naturally occurring blight, as numerous historians point out, long-term weaknesses in the Irish economy can be traced back to the early modern colonial period,[13] where the colonial nature of British administration in Ireland led to the susceptibility of the Irish poor to events such as famine.[14] As Ohlmeyer observes, as Britain’s first colony, Ireland functioned as a testing laboratory for the Empire.[15] The structures and ideologies first developed in colonial Ireland were later transported to other parts of the British empire, making it an interesting case study of empire and colonialism.[16]

How a famine of such an enormous scale and such devastating results could occur at the heart of the wealthiest empire on Earth is a question still explored today. The Irish Famine has been, and continues to be interpreted in widely varying and sometimes oppositional ways, and as such, it can be considered a “controversial” issue.[17] Differences in interpretation typically centre around the British government’s laissez-faire economic policy and, relatedly, aid provision and imports and exports during the crisis. They also focus on victim-perpetrator discourses and the role of providentialist rhetoric – whether the potato blight could be read as divine punishment.[18] These points relate to government culpability and considerations of this dimension have led some, perhaps most notoriously Tim Pat Coogan, to interpret the Famine as an act of genocide.[19] However, despite this interpretation gaining traction in the public perception in Ireland,[20] this point has been disqualified by recent historical scholarship.[21]

The Famine in Recent UK Textbooks

With regard to the Irish Famine, Doyle argued that there was a “paucity of coverage” in UK history textbooks between the 1920s and the early 2000s.[22] Fortunately, recent history textbooks published for the UK market show that an Irish dimension, and the Famine specifically, are included.[23] While acknowledging Terra’s claim that textbooks “cannot tell us how teachers use textbooks or what students learn from them”,[24] they represent one of the key sources available to analyse themes that may be covered with students.

Analysing whether and how the aforementioned contested points of Famine history find their way into educational materials, Janssen’s recent study considered how the crisis was represented in recent Irish and UK textbooks at secondary level. She notes that the Famine features in UK textbooks but is given less textual space in comparison to their Irish counterparts.[25] Crucially, her study shows that representations of the Famine are often simplified in recent textbooks in both the UK and Ireland, especially when one considers providentialism, imports and exports, and victim-perpetrator discourses.

In the case of the latter, the Irish are typically cast as a homogeneous victim group while the British fall into the perpetrator category, without acknowledgement of different forms of victimhood, landlords who acted with benevolent or ambiguous motivations, or those subjects who cannot be clearly defined as perpetrators but who did benefit from the crisis and its aftermath. Offering simplified narratives like these potentially prohibits historical perspective taking and the formation of historical context, which are key elements to many national history curricula.[26]

A Feigned Amnesia

Taking account of the aforementioned issues, the study of the Irish Famine through historical enquiry provides an excellent case study that has a wealth of primary and secondary resources to enable teachers to move beyond the textbook to explore issues such as empire, migration and belonging in meaningful ways. The historiography and memorialisation of the Famine, and the varying interpretations of issues relating to its causes and effects, provide opportunities for an exploration of uncomfortable aspects of Britain’s colonial past. As one of the first disasters to be meticulously recorded (see recommendations below), the wealth of primary sources available allows teachers to explore this event through a variety of lenses that can, when shaped by well-crafted enquiry questions, give meaning to the present.

In recent years, history educators across Britain have made great strides in grappling with issues of inclusion and diversity in an effort to ensure students experience histories and perspectives that have historically been silenced and marginalised, often as a result of colonisation.[27] Engaging students with more inclusive histories, including those with an Irish dimension, serves to provide them with a fuller and more rigorous and contextualised understanding of the history of migration and empire and how Britain’s colonial past has shaped the Britain of today.

However, teaching Irish history in inadequate ways, for example, purely through textbook use, could have considerable implications for students, particularly in terms of understanding contemporary events. The Brexit negotiations, threats to the Good Friday Agreement and the issue of the Northern Ireland border, serve to accentuate the importance a knowledge of Irish history has in contemplating the present. The fact that the Irish Famine is referenced in public debates on these issues only accentuates this importance.

Simplification of complex histories such as that of the Irish Famine, comes with the risk of not providing students with sufficient historical context to be able to understand how the colonial dimension impacted the lives of Irish and British subjects during and after the crisis. As Janssen’s study has shown, textbooks may not be enough in allowing students to navigate that complexity – but we believe it is important that they do! As Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, wrote in 2021:

“A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together… They are, however, events to be remembered and understood, respecting the fact that different perspectives exist… While our nations have been utterly transformed over the past century, I suggest that there are important benefits for all on these islands of engaging with the shadows cast by our shared past.”[28]


Further Reading

  • Janssen, Lindsay. The Great Irish Famine in Irish and UK History Textbooks, 2010–2020. History Education Research Journal 20, no. 1 (2023). DOI: 10.14324/HERJ.20.1.02.
  • Crowley, John, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy (eds).  Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, 1845–52 (Cork: Cork University Press, 2012).
  • Tóibín, Colm and Diarmaid Ferriter. The Irish Famine: A Documentary (London: Profile Books, 2001).
  • Ó Gráda, Cormac Black ’47 and beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Web Resources


[1] Rogan, Aaron. “Irish Famine Episode Sought to Shock Ignorant Britain, says Victoria writer.” The Times, 3 October, 2017. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/irish-famine-episode-sought-to-shock-ignorant-britain-says-victoria-writer-k5hbwsccq (last accessed 29 May 2023).
[2] McGreevy, Ronan. “Brexit: Tory MP Backtracks over Food Scarcity in Ireland.” The Irish Times, 8 December, 2018. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/brexit-tory-mp-backtracks-over-food-scarcity-in-ireland-1.3725093 (last accessed 29 May 2023).
[3] Hickman, Mary J. and Louise Ryan. “The “Irish Question”: Marginalizations at the Nexus of Sociology of Migration and Ethnic and Racial Studies in Britain.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 43, no 16 (2020): 96-114.
[4] Department for Education. “The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 3 and 4 framework document.” July 2014, p. 82. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-secondary-curriculum (last accessed 29 May 2023).
[5] Moncrieffe, Marlon and Rebecca Harris. “Repositioning Curriculum Teaching and Learning through Black-British History.” Research Intelligence 144 (2020): 15.
[6] Bowcott, Owen. “More Britons Applying for Irish Passports.” The Guardian, 13 September, 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/sep/13/britishidentity.travelnews (last accessed 29 May 2023).
[7] Bracey, Paul. “Perceptions of the Contribution of an Irish Dimension in the English History Curriculum.” Educational Review 62, no 2 (2010): 203-213.
[8] Burn, Katherine and Richard Harris. “Historical Association Survey of History in Secondary Schools in England.” (2021).  https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/409/news/4014/historical-association-secondary-survey-2021 (last accessed 29 May 2023).
[9] McIntosh, Kimberly, Jason Todd and Nandini Das. Teaching Migration, Belonging and Empire in Secondary Schools. (Liverpool/London: TIDE/Runnymede Trust, 2019).
[10] Ohlmeyer, Jane. “Ireland, India and the British Empire,” Studies in People’s History 2, no. 2 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1177/2348448915600920
[11] Kenny, Kevin. The American Irish: A History. (New York: Longman, 2004).
[12] Ó Gráda Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
[13] Smyth, William. J. “The Longue Durée: Imperial Britain and Colonial Ireland.” in Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, ed. John Crowley et al. Cork: Cork University Press, 2012), 46-63; Nally, David. “‘That Coming Storm’: The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics, and the Great Famine.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93, no 3 (2008): 714–41; Braa, Dean. “The Great Potato Famine and the Transformation of Irish Peasant Society.” Science and Society 61, no 2 (1997): 193-215.
[14] Nally, 2008.
[15] Ohlmeyer, 2015.
[16] Ohlmeyer, Jane. “Ireland has yet to come to terms with its imperial past.” The Irish Times, 29 December, 2020. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ireland-has-yet-to-come-to-terms-with-its-imperial-past-1.4444146 (last accessed 29 May 2023).
[17] Dearden as cited in Goldberg T, Savenije G.M. “Teaching Controversial Historical Issues.” The Wiley International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning. ed. Metzger S.A, McArthur Harris L. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell 2018. p. 503–26.
[18] Janssen, Lindsay. “The Great Irish Famine in Irish and UK History Textbooks, 2010–2020.” History Education Research Journal 20, no 1. (2023). DOI: 10.14324/HERJ.20.1.02
[19] Coogan, Tim Pat. The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, , 2012).
[20] McGowan Mark. “The Famine Plot Revisited: A Reassessment of the Great Irish Famine as Genocide.” Genocide Studies International 11, no 11 (2017):87–104.
[21] Nally, 2008; McGowan, 2017.
[22] Doyle, Ann. “Ethnocentrism in History Textbooks: Representation of the Irish Famine 1845–49 in History Textbooks in English Schools.” Intercultural Education 13, no 3 (2002):315–30,  327.
[23] Janssen, 2023.
[24] Terra, Luke. “New Histories for a New State: A Study of History Textbook Content in Northern Ireland.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 46, no 2. (2013): 229.
[25] Janssen, 2023.
[26]  Government of Ireland/National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). “Junior Cycle: History Specification” (Dublin, 2017); Department for Education, “The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 3 and 4 Framework Document”(London, 2014).
[27] Cusworth, Hannah. “Diversifying or Decolonising: How Do We Teach Black History?” Wasafiri 37, no 4 (2022): 42-51, DOI: 10.1080/02690055.2022.2100090.
[28] Higgins, Michael. “Empire shaped Ireland’s past. A century after partition, it still shapes our present.” The Guardian, 11 February 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/11/empire-ireland-century-partition-present-britain-history (last accessed 29 May 2023).


Image Credits

“Famine,” by Rowan Gillespie (1997, Dublin) © Lindsay Janssen (2022) CC BY 2.0.

Recommended Citation

Ní Cassaithe, Caitríona, Lindsay Janssen: “Shadows cast by our shared past” – the Irish Famine. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 5, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21666.

Editorial Responsibility

Arthur Chapman

Copyright © 2023 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/contribute/).

Categories: 11 (2023) 5
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21666

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  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    An Irish Dimension

    This article makes a compelling case for teaching an Irish dimension in the English History Curriculum and its contemporary relevance with respect to encouraging mutual understanding between Britain and Ireland. The place of Ireland within a broader understanding of migration, empire and sense of belonging relates it to a broader understanding of diversity and the relationship between Britain and people in different parts of the world. The significance of an Irish dimension has been acknowledged  in reports led by Parekh,[1] Adjedgo[2] and Sewell.[3] The implications which can be drawn from this is that an Irish dimension demonstrates that issues related to diversity go beyond a binary black/white divide.

    The authors focus on the Irish Famine to argue how it can enrich an understanding of empire and help students understand the impact of colonial legacies. The topic is particularly important in providing the opportunity for students to navigate the complexities and different perspectives related to what was a controversial event rather than ignoring uncomfortable aspects of our shared past. The article emphasises that teaching events such as the Famine in inadequate ways could have considerable implications for students in terms of understanding contemporary events. The article draws on research which indicates that most English teachers give low priority to teaching about Ireland. The author also refers to the Anglo-centric nature of English School textbooks, exemplifying this with specific reference research related how textbooks deal the Famine. A general observation of both Key Stage 2 and 3 English history textbooks indicates that this remains an issue.

    The article draws a distinction between the aim of National Curriculum 2014 ‘to teach a coherent narrative of these islands from prehistoric times to the present day’[4] and studies which suggest that that the curriculum has a strong Anglo-centric focus. It is appropriate to consider the implications of this with respect to teaching both diversity and an Irish dimension. The current curriculum only makes a general reference to diversity as one of the purposes of the curriculum, and subsumes it into the second-order concept similarity and difference. The reference to ‘these islands’, is not adequately reflected in the list of statutory or on-statutory content. Nevertheless, if one focuses on the purposes, aims and disciplinary requirements of the document it provides a basis for teachers as agents of change to circumvent the above issues. Indeed, use of the term ‘these islands’ marks a departure from previous versions of the National Curriculum, which made reference to the histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. This broader reference provides a more holistic approach to the archipelago which includes but goes beyond national histories, reflecting revisionist approaches to both Irish[5] and British History.[6] By integrating an Irish dimension into a succession of topics throughout the primary and secondary history curriculum it is possible to develop an understanding of how it relates to a broader understanding of what was taking place in these islands. Within this framework it is appropriate to include the study of Ireland during the period prior to colonisation, including the impact of the Celtic Church and early migration from Ireland.  The period of conquest and colonisation, including the Famine, can also be related to general changes such as the Reformation, Empire and Industrialisation. This provides a meaningful framework for considering recent and contemporary events affecting our lives today. However, much depends on the support and encouragement provided for teachers including training and the development of appropriate resources.


    [1] Parekh, B. The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain: The Parekh Report(London: Profile,2000)
    [2] Adjedbo, K., Kuwan, D. and Sharma, S. Curriculum Review. Diversity and Citizenship(Nottingham. Department for Education and Skills,2007)
    [3] Sewell, T., Aderin-Pocock, Chughtai, A., Fraser,K., Khalid,N. and Moyo,D. Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities( London Gov. UK,2021)
    [4] Department for Education ‘National curriculum in England: history programmes of study The statutory programmes of study and attainment targets for history for key stages 1 to 3’.11th September 2013 .https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study
    [5] Howe, S. Ireland and Empire. Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford: OUP,2000)
    [6] Kearney,H.The British Isles. Second Edition (Cambridge: CUP,2006)

  2. Teaching difficult history

    The ‘feigned amnesia’ referred to by Michael D. Higgins can be encountered on both sides of the Irish Sea. A former School Inspector of History in Northern Ireland tells of passing a huge wall mural on the gable end of a house as he entered a primary school in West Belfast during the years of the Troubles. The mural portrayed a famous famine scene of a starving woman and her child from the London Illustrated News. Below were the words:”Famine? What famine? GENOCIDE”. He then watched a history lesson on the period which told of the starvation, distress and disease but made no reference to the politics of the time and ignored completely the republican imagery that the children encountered every day on their way to school. Teaching difficult history is not just about offering complexity. It must use complexity to challenge myths and half truths from whatever quarter they originate.

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