Famine – As Seen on Stamps. [168]


The Great Famine Years (1845-1849) are indelibly marked in Irish history and the memories of her people. This disaster was of such a magnitude that precise figures are unknown, but at least a million and a half died, and caused about another 2 million to migrate.

The cause of the failure of the potato crop was an algae (Phytophthoca infestans) that attacked the plant. Potatoes were the main staple for much of the population. The potato, supplemented with milk or cream, and some greens, fortunately provided a balanced diet. The algae was not caused by humans or war.  It appeared first in North America, and spread to Europe in ship cargos, first appearing in Belgium and Holland, and then to Ireland.  The loss of the peoples’ lives, however, was attributable to actions (or inactions) by landlords and middlemen.  The impact of the blight was exacerbated by the British government’s economic policy of laissez-faire capitalism. The already strained relations between many Irish and the British Crown soured further both during and after the famine, heightening ethnic and sectarian tensions, and boosting Irish nationalism and republicanism in Ireland and among Irish emigrants in the United States and elsewhere.

Of all the events, wars, revolutions, and disasters, this event is one of the least commemorated on Irish stamps. The famine, per se, is shown on three stamps in 1997. (Figure 1) (Figure 2) (Figure 3) The starvation is shown on one, in 1982, of a woman desperately searching for potatoes for her family. (Figure 4)  Certainly this is not an event to take pride in, even though it was of no fault of the Irish people.  Those who survived it, thanked God, and carried the burden and survivor’s guilt for the rest of their lives.

 The famine triggered other events such as the Land League that worked to get land ownership for tenant farmers (Figure 5), the 1867 Fenian Rebellion, (Figure 6) and eventually independence (Figure 7).

The emigration and chance to make a better life in a new country has been a source of pride among the Irish in the United States (Figure 8) and Canada (Figure 9)  This is one of the legacies of the Famine and is rightfully honored in songs, stories, and on many stamps.  They are the positive results of a dark and sad event.  The loss of homeland, friends, relations, can be mentioned and shown, but the massive loss of life, and the damage to the Irish psyche cannot be smoothed over by memorializing it.  It doesn’t need memorializing.  It has been permanently burned into the collective memory!

Geography Department, University College of Cork, The Great Irish Famine Online, Accessed July 2019. (Open through Goggle Search).
Moody, T.W. & Martin, F.X., The Course of Irish History, 4th ed., Roberts Rinehart, Lantham, Md., 2001.
Wikipedia, Great Famine (Ireland).  Accessed July 2019.