Preface to The Great Irish Famine: Global Contexts

Author: Marguérite Corporaal (Radboud University Nijmegen) and Jason King (Irish Heritage Trust)

This special issue of Breac examines “The Great Irish Famine: Global Contexts.” It brings together leading experts in the field with support from the International Network of Irish Famine Studies. The network was established in 2014 with funding from the Dutch research council NWO (project number 236-69-007). The special issue builds on recent studies such as Marguérite Corporaal and Jason King’s Irish Global Migration and Memory: Transnational Perspectives of Ireland’s Famine Exodus (Routledge 2016; Atlantic Studies in 2014), Ciarán Reilly’s The Famine Irish: Emigration and the Great Hunger (2016), and Marguérite Corporaal, Christopher Cusack, and Lindsay Janssen’s Global Legacies of the Great Irish Famine (2014). In examining the theme of Famine migration and diaspora, this special issue emphasizes not only the development of Irish communities in mid-nineteenth-century North America, but also the dispersal of emigrants from Ireland across the globe to their lesser known destinations in South Africa and the Pacific. Moreover, it investigates both the immediate and long-term effects of Famine migration and views these processes of migration, settlement, and the establishment of transnational overseas communities through an interdisciplinary and comparative lens.

The first part of this special issue focuses on Famine Irish migration beyond the north-eastern seaboard of North America to port cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in the United States, as well as Quebec and New Brunswick in British North America, which has been the focus of most studies. Mark McGowan, Ciarán Reilly, and Perry McIntyre track the movements of Famine Irish emigrants across the Atlantic to more far-flung settlements in the Niagara region of Canada West, the Cape Colony in what is now South Africa, and across the Pacific to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. McGowan’s contribution focuses on his long-term study tracing the 1,490 tenants who were forced to emigrate to Canada and the United States from the Pakenham-Mahon estate at Strokestown, County Roscommon in 1847. Strokestown Park is now the site of the Irish National Famine Museum. McGowan explores the traumatic effects of the Famine migration in his case study of Thomas Brennan, one of the 1490 Strokestown former tenants who was tried and executed for murdering his fellow emigrants in the Niagara region. Reilly’s article analyzes how attempts to colonize the Cape with Irish Famine emigrants were frustrated by Anti-Convict protests that dominated Cape society throughout 1849 and 1850. He notes that it was the arrival of the Neptune with its most notorious prisoner, John Mitchel, that incited the Anti-Convict protests, but that such protests also reflected a broader public attitude towards the Famine Irish. McIntyre brings to light new archival research on the female orphan emigration schemes to Australia through which some Famine survivors were able to flee their stricken homeland, as well as ways in which Ireland and Australia have remembered the Famine and its Pacific exodus.

The special issue’s second part examines representations of the Famine Irish in a variety of genres and periods, ranging from nineteenth-century Irish North American prose and verse to contemporary Irish theater. The article by Marguérite Corporaal, Christopher Cusack, and Lindsay Janssen discusses the role that migration plays in the reconfiguration of feudalism in Famine fiction written up to fifty years after the event. It specifically addresses the role of Irish migration and return migration in reconfigurations of Irish rural society in the wake of the Famine. Raymond Jess’s contribution analyzes the ways in which Irish-Canadian poets both reimagined post-Famine Ireland as well as reflected upon the Irish settlement in the Canadas. Jason King’s article takes us into the twenty-first century, showing how the remembrance of the Great Famine in contemporary theater often intersects with memories of the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, paying specific attention to the way theater productions draw parallels between Famine and present-day migration.


This volume ends with reflections by Michael Collins on the status of being an emigrant Irish writer against the background of Famine diaspora histories. His reflections are inspired by his reading of the firsthand testimonies of the Grey Nuns of Montreal, who cared for Famine Irish emigrants in the city’s fever sheds where up to six thousand of them perished. As this final contribution makes clear, cultural identities and cultural debates today are still impacted by the Famine diasporas and their global contexts. This makes further research into the past-and-present resonances of Famine emigration both timely and significant.