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Aiding Ireland: The Politics Of How Donors Learned To Give To Far-Off Strangers

A new book argues that Irish famine philanthropy “went viral” in the nineteenth century because relief has been, and continues to be, politically potent.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 2024, a group of historians appealed to Irish Americans to agitate for humanitarian relief in Gaza, to “use their influence to avert a Famine as severe as the one faced by their ancestors.” These historians were scholars of Great Irish Famine of 1845-55, which caused one in eight people in Ireland to die of starvation or disease, and one in four to emigrate. The famine’s immediate cause was the fungus phytophora infestants which putrefied entire fields of potatoes, seemingly overnight. Although the fungus – also known as “late blight” – swept through Europe in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, its impact on Ireland was outsized. Centuries of British policies had disadvantaged and impoverished rural Irish people – almost all of whom were Catholic. These laws denied Irish Catholics the vote, prevented them from owning property, and effectively consigned them to barren plots of land where no crop other than potatoes could be grown. This meant that when phytophora infestants arrived in Ireland, already destitute and disenfranchised tenant farmers lost their only source of food. Disease and death followed.

In response to this suffering, thousands of donors around the world collectively sent millions of dollars to Ireland. Never before had so many people contributed so much money to people who they would never meet, and whose gratitude they would never receive.

The Famine historians’ St. Patrick’s Day letter put this overwhelming need and vast international philanthropic response to contemporary use. The authors called on Irish Americans to recognize that, in much the same way that past British “injustice…had brought starvation to their families and neighbours, and passed this to their children and to later generations,” in the present “Israel is manifestly causing famine as it wages war.” These parallels, the letter writers argued, should compel Irish Americans to act to ensure that Gazans received relief, in much in the same way that people in the past had recognized British injustice and acted to mitigate Irish starvation.

As an historian of the Irish famine and of philanthropy, putting famine relief – both historical and contemporary – to political use was a familiar tactic. In fact, in my recent book, Aiding Ireland: The Great Famine and the Rise of Transnational Philanthropy, I argued that Irish famine philanthropy “went viral” in the nineteenth century because relief – both actual donations and calls for intervention – has been, and continues to be, politically potent.