Irish historian Oonagh Walsh believes that the Great Hunger triggered a higher rate of mental illness among later generations, including both those who stayed in Ireland and those who emigrated.
Walsh said at a Science Week event at IT Sligo that the severe nutritional deprivation between 1845 and 1850 caused “epigenetic change.” Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression. These do not necessarily involve changes to the genetic code, but the effects may persist for several generations. Walsh estimated that the impact from epigenetic change from the Great Hunger lasted for a century and a half.
Walsh’s research is still at an early stage, but she expects to see a correlation between the high rates of mental illness and the effects of maternal starvation. She also thinks there may be a connection between the Great Hunger and cardiovascular and other diseases.
Part of her argument examines the increase of patients in asylums after the famine. According to the 1841 census there were 1,600 patients in district asylums, plus 1,500 in jails and workhouses of Ireland’s total population of eight million.
By 1900, fifty years after, the Irish population had been halved, but the number in asylums had increased. There were 17,000 in district asylums and a further 8,000 “lunatics at large.”
Walsh did note that not all the patients checked into asylums were mentally ill.
She told the Irish Times that the Dangerous Lunatic Act, which permitted persons perceived as being mentally deranged and intending to commit a crime to be held in a jail or asylum, was “abused on a staggering scale.”
Emigrating families who did not want to bring along a relative who would be an economic burden would commit their family member to an asylum instead. Possibly some families who were not emigrating also did this. She rebuffed the idea that there were also high rates of asylum admissions among Irish emigrants in Australia and Canada.
Walsh’s most recent book, “Insanity, Power and Politics in Nineteenth Century Ireland: The Connaught District Lunatic Asylum” was published in 2013. She has written several book chapters and articles on medical history, particularly psychiatry and gender history. Walsh is a founding member of the Consortium for Medical Humanities and she works in research and funding initiatives with colleagues from the University of Limerick, Queen’s University Belfast, University College Cork and the National Archives of Ireland.
The potato blight that triggered the Great Hunger was brought by ship from the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. Many Irish had grown dependent on the potato because it produced a high yield on their small plots and had great nutritional value. A series of crop failures left many Irish with few places to turn for help.
The British government was slow to intervene. Laissez faire politics of the time said that the government should not meddle and should allow the famine to fix itself. Because of this grain exports from Ireland continued at the same level as they had before the Famine. Attempts at charity were hindered by the ideology of self help and that not all the poor were deserving of aid. Soup kitchens were opened, but closed soon after the death rate started to decrease. The British imported corn from India, but many Irish were too poor to purchase it.
Many Irish emigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia, but not all survived the passage on what became known as “coffin ships.” About one million Irish died during the Famine and about another million emigrated.