Course Profile: The Great Hunger

Ellen Moynihan’s Thinking and Writing course, “The Great Hunger,” examines the causes and consequences of the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s: one million people died from starvation and disease, and another million were forced to leave in “coffin ships,” many immigrating to America.

Students in professor Moynihan’s course consider challenging questions. Why wasn’t the fungus, known as the “blight,” that destroyed the potato crop prevented from spreading? Why was the grain grown in Ireland exported by the British, instead of fed to its subjects, the starving Irish peasants? What was the relationship between the poor, Catholic, tenant farmers and the rich, Protestant, absentee landowners? Why was relief delayed?  What economic, social, moral and political defects of the times contributed to the genocide? How did other countries help? What had the Irish culture been like, its family life, traditions and beliefs, before the famine destroyed everything?

Cover of Liam O'Flaherty's Famine, first published in 1937

As students pursue these questions, through stories of the potato famine, complicated historical analogies arise: How might the nineteenth-century Irish famine contribute to an understanding of famine and genocide in Native American communities on the American Frontier? What about the Armenians, the Serbs, the Jews during World War II, and in recent years the devastation in Rwanda and Darfur?

“The Great Hunger” exemplifies the core principles of Thinking and Writing: students are challenged with genuine questions and are invited to engage in meaningful intellectual work. Their reading and thinking and writing reminds them of their place in a country of immigrants and their own family histories. Why did our ancestors come to this “melting pot?” How were the conditions of their “old country” like, or unlike, those in Ireland which led to wide scale emigration?

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