The three different interpretations of the Irish Famine discussed here are the nationalist, revisionist and post-revisionist interpretations.
Immediately after the Famine, the Irish nationalist interpretation of the event emerges, and focuses on the idea that the Famine was ‘England’s fault’. Blame for the scale of the Famine is placed on the British government.
In the early twentieth century, the revisionist school of historical thinking produces work that challenges the nationalist interpretation of the Famine. Rather than blaming the British government, revisionists looked at the wider context (social structure, land holding, prices at the time) to explain the scale of the Famine.
Post-revisionists criticised revisionists for removing human suffering from the story of the Famine, and avoiding discussion of the responsibility of the British government for the scale of the Famine. Post-revisionists attempt to take a fresh look at sources and arrive at a more balanced account of events.
The traditional, or nationalist, interpretation of the Famine placed responsibility for the event squarely on the British government and Irish landlord class. From the 1930s onwards, following trends in Britain and the USA, academic historians in Ireland endeavoured to make the study of history more ‘scientific’ and to debunk what they regarded as nationalist myths about the past. This revisionist approach to the past came to influence all aspects of Irish history writing and, most notably for our purposes, that of the Famine.
Generally speaking, revisionists have tended to depict the Famine as inevitable, the result of overpopulation, existing weaknesses in the Irish economy and economic stagnation. The issue of Famine deaths was ignored by some historians, and the precise number of deaths that occurred was contested by others. Revisionist accounts of the Famine have also demonstrated a tendency to minimise the role and responsibilities of the British government and Irish landlords for the crisis, for example by putting forward arguments that the British government was unaware of the severity of the situation in Ireland, or unable, financially or ideologically, to intervene.
From the late 1980s, a number of historians started to challenge revisionism. In their enthusiasm to debunk nationalist ‘myths’ the revisionists were seen to be overlooking instances of government and official wrongdoing, conflict and oppression that are part of a full understanding the Famine. This new generation of post-revisionist historians aims to consider a wide range of factors that played a role in contributing to the scale and duration of the Famine, including the response of the British government.