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Visual Representations of the Great Famine, 1845-2010

Représentations visuelles de la Grande Famine, 1845-2010
Valérie Morrison
p. 173-193


From the mid 1840s to the present day, the unrepresentability of the Famine has repeatedly been stressed regardless of a rich and homogenous iconography. This paradox can be explained differently according to time periods. Our analysis will therefore focus successively on 19th-century press illustrations, paintings and contemporary public or independent commemorative works influenced by trauma studies. Emphasizing iconographic continuity, this study demonstrates that visual representations of the Famine are filtered through political, social, and cultural interpretation grids but also shaped by changing visual codes and techniques.

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  • 1 Turlough McCONNELL, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, 2013, p. 5.
  • 2 Asenath NICHOLSON, Lights and Shades of Ireland, London: Charles Gilpin, 1850, pp. 224-5.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 229.
  • 4 See for instance Christine KINEALY, A Death Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland, London: Pl (...)
  • 5 David LLOYD, Irish Times: Temporality of Modernity, Dublin: Field Day, 2008, p. 49.
  • 6 Catherine MARSHALL, ‘Painting Irish History: the Famine’, History Ireland, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1996, pp. (...)

1In 1847, Elihu Burritt, an American social activist touring Ireland, declared: ‘I can find no language nor illustration sufficiently impressive to portray the spectacle [of the Famine] to an American reader’.1 In the same year, another American traveler, Asenath Nicholson, first arrived in Ireland in 1844, wrote that although she had seen actual skeletons, ‘imagination had come short’ of a man ‘emaciated to the last degree’.2 Widespread among eye-witnesses of the Famine was the idea that its ‘fearful realities’ exceeded human imagination.3 Recently, David Lloyd has underscored that even though the unrepresentability of the Great Famine has been repeatedly stressed,4 there is an abundance of haunting Famine images.5 This paradox need be further explained. What might be called a moral approach to the issue of the indescribable – i.e. witnessing and transcribing horrible spectacles inevitably entails condemnable voyeurism – overlooks complex arti