The century-old reverberations of the Irish Great Famine on modern Irish health

Image Credit: Joseph Mischyshyn / Road from Falcarragh SE to R251 - Bridge of Tears

Robin Mentel investigates whether the national trauma of the Irish Great Famine could contribute to today’s high rate of obesity in Ireland.

One of the most traumatic experiences in Irish history was the Great Famine, which in the 1840s ravaged the island, killing one in eight, and forcing one out of four to leave the country. Ireland today is plagued by somewhat the opposite health issue, obesity, as it routinely ranks amongst the countries in Europe with the highest obesity rates in recent years. Such traumatic experiences like the famine have left long-lasting scars in the minds and bodies of those affected, so is there a chance that famine could also have helped precipitate modern Irish obesity?

The scene is Ireland, 1845. A blight that has already devastated potato crops in the US, and is wreaking havoc across the continent, reaches the island. The overwhelming majority of the population are Irish, catholic peasants, most of them living from a single crop, the potato, which now falls prey to the blight. Different to many countries today, very few farmers owned their farmland, but actually rented it from British landowners to grow their crop. These patches were so small that only the potato would yield enough food to feed the families, but poverty was still widespread before the blight. Thousands of families were soon kicked out of their homes, forced to starve in the streets. In the end, the famine would claim a million Irish lives from hunger and diseases, and force another 2 million to leave the country, heading for Britain, the US, and further afield. Although Britain’s population today is much greater than that on the island of Ireland, Ireland at the time housed about 8 million people, and Britain only about 16 million. Today, the combined population of the island stands at little over seven million, and has still not recovered from the famine. It was an important caesura in Irish history whose impact still lingers today, which deeply and permanently worsened the relationship with the British government, while also helping to fertilise a growing nationalist sentiment and a yearning for Irish independence. The mass emigration following the famine is also the cause of Ireland’s enormous diaspora, numbering about 80 million people.

Obesity on the other hand is a health issue that is plaguing nearly all developed countries, especially those in the Commonwealth. Despite the strong competition, Ireland leads the way: In 2019, Ireland had the second-highest rate of obesity in the EU (only Malta was slightly worse), with about a quarter of the population. The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation, as the lockdowns and restrictions imposed serious stress on the people and did not foster a better diet or encourage more exercise. While obesity is known to have a myriad of proximate causes, like lack of exercise, and sugar-heavy diet, there are often ultimate causes for obesity that lay deeper in the history and culture of the concerned country, like modernisation with a wide availability of cheap calories, or as a result of economic inequality. Yet there is another cause that has been noted, which is famine. What first sounds counter-intuitive, makes sense on the second thought: after a prolonged lack of nutrition, the body craves for every calorie, making sure to stock up well in case such a situation comes again. Could this collective Irish trauma of the Great Famine thus also have contributed to the high obesity in Ireland?

Studying the effects of famines on a population is always difficult. People usually emigrate in droves when threatened by famine, and often it was the stronger and richer members who left. Because the population finally affected by famine likely is not a good representation of the general public, it is difficult to prove one’s analysis against trends that are not due to the famine. Furthermore, famines are often accompanied by wars and other crises that either precipitated them or were amplified by them. All those phenomena have jarring and lasting impacts on the affected population, which makes it hard to distinguish their influences from the famine’s. It also does not help that during famines and similar crises, people often have better things to do than taking a reliable medical record of their peers with blood and tissue samples, like making sure they don’t starve or get killed. Especially if the initial survivors of the famine are long dead, as is the case for the Irish Famine, studying a famine’s long-term effect on the population’s health is difficult. Therefore, study of famines, even recent ones, often are plagued by paucity and unreliability of data. A few famines like the Dutch Hongerwinter are an exception due to the abundance of modern medicine and scientific personnel in Europe at that time to produce a medical record.

Famines have been shown to have a significant and deteriorating impact on the population’s health in the long term. Survivors show an increased predisposition for heart disease and diabetes, and with a weaker immune system, were more prone to diseases like infections. The younger the person when affected by the famine, the stronger the impact. And indeed, a well recorded side effect is obesity, which is observed for most famines to a good extent. Most of these however have been shown to hold true for the generation that experienced the famine, even when still in the womb. There is however some research on the imprint that the famine left on the lives of the following offspring, and the key to this is called epigenetics: the way we live our lives leaves an imprint on our gene, and when we bequest them to our offspring, they receive this imprint as well. Sadly, this research, which is not very old, receives only somewhat limited funding. Still, studies have indicated that a prolonged exposure to a famine can also for example impact the immune system of offspring that was born well after the famine subsided, making it more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis. There are also clues that hint at the famine having an effect on the mental health of the population, but this research is still preliminary. The symptoms of the offspring then mirror those of the initial famine survivors.

Famines definitely have long lasting effects on the population, but we know only little of the long term effects of a famine on the surviving population. So while the Great Famine had a grave impact on the population, there is not much strong evidence to support the argument that it is an ultimate cause for the current, high rates of Irish obesity - we don’t yet have the data to confirm or rule it out. In the present, the effects of other phenomena like the Covid-19 pandemic likely overshadow any possible lasting effects of the famine. Still, it is a topic of ongoing research already with promising results. If Ireland’s universities had started a live ways study (like the one UCD is running today) in the 1840s, and had run it until today, we might have a reliable answer already. This is the dilemma of the social sciences: it is (at least politically, luckily!) impossible to run an experiment to see how a famine that kills 10% of the population impacts them for the next 100 years in an isolated environment. All that we can do is play social archeologists, and dust off the little historical evidence we have, and, peering through the web of political influence on historical and medical records and the myriad of other concurrent traumas and crises, try to understand what long-lasting influence such a national trauma can have on the population.

If you want to learn more about the Irish Great Famine, there is an amazing museum in Dublin about the time, the Jeanie Johnston. The seaworthy replica of the ship that ferried thousands of Irish emigrants to US during the Great Famine is anchored near the harbour at the EPIC immigration museum (itself worth a trip especially for expats). Guided tours through the ship last about an hour, and make for a moving and impressive experience of these times.