On Arte, “The Great Famine in Ireland”, the last tragedy before independence


It is a human tragedy of incredible magnitude, which occurred not at the end of the world but in Ireland. A great famine which, between 1845 and 1851, caused the death of a million Irish people and caused the emigration of two million of them in a decade. Thanks to the interventions of academics, photographic archives, animated maps, reading letters and drawings published in the press of the time, this tragedy becomes reality in this documentary which opens a special Ireland evening on Arte this evening.

Many of these victims could have been saved if British politicians had given themselves the means to do so. But, through neglect, indifference, callousness, cynicism, contempt for the poor clearly displayed, the politicians of London were not up to a food crisis which did not affect only Ireland, integrated into the United Kingdom since 1801.

In 1845, late blight, a parasite ravaging potato crops, appeared in Latin America before disembarking in Europe via the port of Antwerp, Belgium. In this country, in the Netherlands, in the Kingdom of Prussia, some 100,000 victims will be affected. But their governments will act quickly to help those most in need not to starve.

Police operations and riots

In Ireland, where 95% of the land belongs to a few thousand families, most of them Protestant, a third of the population depends exclusively on potatoes for food. Before the famine years, the island was Britain’s food basket, exporting massive amounts of livestock, fish, and grain. But for the poorest, many in a population that has grown to 8 million, not being able to eat potatoes means not eating at all.

When disaster strikes, some London politicians try to intervene quickly and help those most in need. But they come up against the hostility of part of English public opinion and the supporters of unbridled economic liberalism. Help those miserable lazy Catholics? No way.

Over the course of these terrible years, we navigate between brutal police operations, hunger riots, total misery. The emergence of illustrated journalism helps alert the whole world to this appalling reality. But aid is insufficient and more and more deaths. “Ireland was a vast tomb in which thousands of unfortunate people were buried every day”, wrote a French bishop who witnessed the tragedy.

When you are reduced to eating rotting pigs, donkeys, dogs, you have to flee. Between 1846 and 1855, nearly a million Irish went to seek refuge in the United States, 340,000 in Canada, 50,000 in New Zealand and Australia. The big English industrial towns are taken by storm. “The announced invasion of pauperism has begun”, writes a Liverpool diary.

This great famine will end in 1852. It will have marked the beginning of the decline of the British Empire over Ireland, as underlined in the second documentary by Ruan Magan, scheduled at 10:25 pm and devoted to the Irish revolution, which will give birth to the Irish Free State, now Eire. An evening made in Ireland Do not miss.

Read also “The Irish Revolution by Cillian Murphy”: the origins of the independence of Eire

The Great Famine in Ireland, documentary by Ruan Magan (Fr.-Irl., 2020, 95 min). Irish Revolution (Irl., 2019, 97 min) on Arte.tv from November 30, 2021 to February 27, 2022.

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On Arte, “The Great Famine in Ireland”, the last tragedy before independence

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