Mapping the wounds of the Great Famine

Fri, Aug 24, 2012, 01:00

The Great Irish Famine remains shrouded in controversy, silence and shame but a new book blends academic scholorship with cartography in an attempt to bring us closer to those who lived through it

THE GREAT Irish Famine is possibly the most pivotal event in modern Irish history and its global reach and implications cannot be underestimated. In terms of mortality it is now widely accepted that over a million people perished between the years 1845-1852 and at least 1.25 million people fled the country, the great majority to North America, some to Australia and a significant minority to British cities. Ireland had been afflicted by famine before the events of the 1840s; however the Great Famine is marked by both its absolute scale and its longevity.

The Famine is surrounded by controversy, silence and shame. Scholars, politicians and commentators argue about what happened and who was responsible. The voices of the million men, women and children who died of hunger and disease in cabins, by roadsides, in bogs and ditches, in workhouses and fever hospitals are absent. If each of these people who died because of this Great Famine could write the stories of their experiences and feelings, we could not bear to read these accounts. And it is almost certain that their narratives of the Great Famine would clash with ours. This is the great silence which lies at the heart of the Famine story.

The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, which will be published by Cork University Press and by New York University Press in North America in early September, begins by acknowledging the impossibility of adequately representing it or any major world famine. Comprehending and capturing the enormity of the event and its devastating impact on Irish society is a major challenge throughout the book.

The atlas is strongly influenced by new and not-so-new research insights, emanating from a range of disciplines. Many of the scholars currently working in Famine studies – both at international and national levels – have made invaluable contributions to the Atlas. However, there has been no attempt made to provide an overarching, unifying synthesis. Rather what is recognised in the Atlas is the necessity for a great diversity of approaches and perspectives in seeking to illuminate and represent the monstrous reality of the Famine tragedy and its consequences.

Hence, the importance attached to the work of poets, visual artists, musicians, folklorists, photographers and writers of Irish and English literature as well as the research of other established scholars and the extensive use of archival sources.

The creation and interpretation of almost 200 computer-based maps of population decline, social transformation and other key changes that occurred between the census years 1841 and 1851 is naturally central to this project. On the one hand, the book provides original, island-wide, almost panoptic views of the Famine which, while very helpful, are nevertheless limiting in other respects. We can see every parish from above but we still do not know how the Famine affected individual families and communities on the ground.

Hence, the parallel analysis of famine conditions in the provinces, counties, parishes and townlands – and in overseas emigrant destinations – so as to try and tell the stories of particular individuals and families caught up in these terrible events. What these maps document is a range of human worlds and conditions never previously published and revealed in Irish Famine studies. While recognising the power and effects of the general political and administrative forces at work and the devastating impacts of the Famine island-wide, the interpretation of these maps and other evidence equally highlights the diversity of local, county, provincial and emigrant conditions and experiences.

The cartographic journey to the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine began almost twenty years ago with a discussion in the Department of Geography, University College Cork on the best way to calculate the shape and size and then map the civil parishes of Ireland. It was decided that the best approach was to digitise the civil parishes from the Ordnance Survey six-inch County Index Maps and then compute the shape and size, and map the distribution, of the parishes. Then using GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to link the civil parish maps to the Census database, chloropleth (thematic) maps could be produced to visualise changes in population and social structures before, during and after the Famine.

The Famine data maps in the atlas are, therefore, based on comparing the most relevant data classes from the Census of 1841 and the Census of 1851.

The Census was collected at townland level. Townlands are the smallest administrative units in the country. All other administrative units and boundaries are based on the original structure of over 60,000 townlands. Townlands build into civil parishes (used in the General Census Report, which the maps are based on) and civil parishes in turn build into baronies.

This island-wide, nested, administrative and territorial hierarchy is completed by the counties and provinces. Civil parishes were originally Christian (pre-Reformation) ecclesiastical areas. In the post-Reformation period, they became the established administrative units of the Church of Ireland and acquired civil administrative functions after the Tudor conquest of Ireland (The modern Catholic parish – created mainly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – is for the most part, an entirely separate geographical entity).

These civil parish maps are at the centre of the unravelling, analysis and interpretation of the origins, varying impacts and consequences of the Great Famine for Ireland and for the Irish people, both at home and abroad. They highlight the social and economic conditions which prevailed in different parts of the island on the eve of the Famine as well as documenting the state of the country and its people as the Famine took its toll. The various maps point to the complex nature of Irish society and underline the importance of local and regional dimensions to the Famine story often ignored in earlier popular writings.

Reading the published and unpublished materials on the Great Famine, the dominant feeling evoked is one of sadness – sadness for all that horror and all that suffering and sadness about the failures at all levels to stop that suffering. The atlas honours those who gave generously of themselves to alleviate that suffering and continue to regret the betrayals, failures and inhumanity of those in many positions of authority – especially those with the greatest power and responsibility to shape other people’s destinies.

This atlas is a study which seeks to more fully understand the Great Famine and its consequences. It is an act of commemoration to the known and unknown dead of the Famine and to the millions who had to flee Ireland.

In seeking to establish a greater understanding, the atlas is an attempt to address the wounds and transcend this formative tragedy.


Mike Murphy is a cartographer based at the Department of Geography, UCC, and one of the editors of Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

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