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Irish Cultural Center exhibit highlights deeper truth behind “potato famine”

Cover photo: Mark Sisti teaches the truth behind the “Irish potato famine.” 

Sometimes, the history that exists in the American public’s imagination is not the history that actually happened. On August 9, 2023, local Irish historian and Irish history teacher Mark Sisti served as speaker and moderator of a combination lecture/walking tour titled “An Gorta Mor” or “The Great Hunger.” The event was held at the Irish Cultural Center of the Mohawk Valley’s Harp museum, and featured panels loaned by the Albany Irish-American Heritage Museum. 

Known as the “Irish potato famine” in the popular American imagination, “an gorta mor” refers to a period between 1845 and 1851 in which one million Irish people died of starvation, while 2.5 million more fled to America in order to survive. But while it may be comforting to believe this famine occurred due to the simple misfortune of a failed potato crop, the lecture and exhibit explained that the deeper cause was much more sinister. A failed crop was only the beginning. While the initial cause of the famine was indeed blight, a disease that caused the potato crop to fail in 1845, the reaction of the government only served to worsen the situation and cause further…often fatal…health issues for the Irish people. 

During this time, Ireland was not an independent nation as it is today, but was under the control of Great Britain. In 1846, British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel attempted to alleviate the famine by shipping in Indian corn, an effort accurately described in the lecture as “laissez-faire” and “feeble.” Peel did not bother to ensure that everyone in Ireland had access to the corn. He did nothing to make sure that people knew how to prepare and serve the corn, a food the people of Ireland had never seen before. The corn was simply passed out in places such as soup kitchens, where it was served in a nutritionless soup. Other British government “relief” efforts were similarly half-hearted and largely ineffective, such as offering works programs that did not pay Irish workers enough money to afford to buy the little food that was available to them. 

Audience members were of course disheartened and saddened to learn…or be reminded of…this cruelty a group of people were forced to endure..but the most shocking detail of the presentation was a quote from First Baronet Charles Trevelyan. As British Assistant to the Treasury, one of Trevelyan’s duties was to oversee the British government’s relief efforts. In 1847, he wrote, “[The famine] is a punishment from God for an idle, ungrateful and rebellious country; an indolent and un-self-reliant people. The Irish are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence.”

Far from being a simple history lesson, the “An Gorta Mor” event served as a stark reminder of the evils of ethnic prejudice and bigotry. 

Above: Karen McBride takes in the “An Gorta Mor” exhibit. All photos by Tom Loughlin Jr. 


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