The Context and Development of Irish Literature:
History, Poetry, Landscape

Chapter Three:  Revolution, Emancipation, Starvation, page 6

The Irish economy, already fragile and ill-managed, was devastated by the famine, particularly the rural, peasant classes in the west.  The population continued to decline, going from roughly 8 million just before the famine to only 4 million by the turn of the century. By far the bulk of these emigrants came to the U.S., and during this time the Irish American population, one of the most formidable ethnic groups in U.S. history, began to form. (For an excellent study of the Irish in America, see Lawrence McCaffrey's classic The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America, 1997).  This population was, understandably, greatly embittered against Britain, and this anger would influence American political relations to Ireland and England throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Great Famine, in addition to the economic and social devastation of the Irish population, increased in the Irish mind a deep-seated anger toward the entire system of British government in Ireland. (Lady Gregory, herself a product of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, would say later in her life: "I defy anyone to study Irish history without getting a dislike and distrust of England.") From this time forward, Irish Nationalism takes on a bitter and more violent edge, for it now became clear to many that Ireland would slowly perish under British rule, and that Britain would allow this to happen.  Thus, as the 19th century moved toward the 20th, Irish proto-military groups such as the Fenians or Irish Republican Brotherhood are formed, led by James Stephens, alongside groups like the Irish Land League, led by Michael Davitt and seeking reform of the outrageously unequal distribution and ownership of land. But none of these groups, and none of their leaders, could match the charisma and leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, who rose to power in the mid-1870's and soon was the dominant figure in both Irish and British politics.

End Chapter Three

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