Students returning to high schools this fall will encounter another example of a recent and unwelcome development in public education. Several states have mandated that the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850 be taught in their high schools as an example of genocide, sometimes in courses originally intended for the study of the Holocaust. More states are considering enacting similar measures. These mandates reflect the efforts of a small number of Irish American leaders who have pushed this line for ideological reasons. The reinterpretation of the famine as genocide has not been well-received by scholars who study the Irish famine. The mandates force schools to waste precious class time pushing an argument rejected by most historians.
The famine directly caused the deaths of more than a million people and led at least 1 million more to emigrate. Most of Ireland's population depended heavily on the potato when the crop was first struck by the potato blight, in 1845. The blight reduced potato harvests by as much as three-quarters below normal levels for the next three years. Ireland's government at this time was effectively the British government. Those who view the famine as genocide claim either that the government engineered the crisis or that its reaction to the blight promoted as many deaths as possible. Some claim that there really was no food shortage in Ireland in the late 1840s. The British government, so this view goes, promoted the export of food from Ireland with the deliberate aim of starving the Irish people.
This view amounts to saying either that there was no crop failure, or that even with the destruction of the potato crop, Ireland still could grow enough food for all her people, which is also false. The potato was popular in part because it can produce more calories in an acre of land than any other food. With the potato ruined, Ireland simply did not have enough land to feed her people. Some like to point to the export of food during the famine as evidence that there was enough food for all, but this is disingenuous: The amounts exported were small, and by 1847 Ireland was a large net importer of food.
Others acknowledge that there was a severe crop failure but blame the government for an inadequate response. This charge is mostly true. Official efforts to combat starvation were tardy and half-hearted. The British government insisted the famine be treated as an Irish problem with Irish solutions. Given the magnitude of the crisis, this demand was madness. The agricultural economy was ruined and with it most farmers and many landlords, leaving little tax base available to support relief efforts.
Historians continue to debate why the British government reacted as it did. Few doubt that a more energetic relief effort was possible and would have saved many thousands of lives. There is also little doubt that had crop failure struck a part of England, the government would have reacted quite differently. But does the government's inadequate response to the famine constitute genocide?
The contrast with the Holocaust is instructive. The Nazis devoted considerable resources to finding and murdering Jews. The regime's stated intention was the elimination of the Jewish people. Nothing like this can be claimed against the British government during the Irish famine. The British government's indifference to the famine helped cause thousands of needless deaths, but it was indifference nonetheless, and not an active effort at systematic murder.
The Irish famine is famous for good reason. Although not the worst famine in history, it occurred while Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, at that time the wealthiest country in the world. The famine helped to create the sizable communities of Irish Americans. To the extent American interest in the Irish famine can promote efforts to deal with famine today, that interest is all to the good. Famine commemorations in Ireland have generally taken this approach, and it is no wonder that Irish groups are leaders in fighting famines in developing countries today. Efforts in the United States to equate the famine with the Holocaust have different, less laudable goals and should be opposed by Irish Americans out of respect for their own history. To call the famine genocide cheapens the memories of both the famine's victims and the victims of real genocides. The writer is associate professor of economics at Yale University and author of "The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Post-Famine Ireland, 1850-1914" (Princeton University Press, 1997).