Irish Famine Tribunal
Fordham University Law School April 20 and 21

140 W. 62nd St. NYC 



The Irish Famine of 1845-1852 (also known as the Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór) is one of the most catastrophic famines in modern history.  It is estimated that, out of a population of 9 million in Ireland at that time, one million died, two and a half million emigrated, and 300,000 small holdings disappeared.  Most of those who survived in Ireland were destitute for decades afterwards.

On April 20-21, 2013, Fordham Law School hosted the Irish Famine Tribunal, to examine the responsibility of the British Government, under international law, for the tragic consequences of this period.  Was it the case, as John Mitchel famously (or infamously) asserted, that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine”?  

The Tribunal considered whether or not the British role during the Famine amounted to either genocide or a crime against humanity.  Prosecution and defense teams, including law students from Fordham Law School and Dublin City University, presented their cases before an international panel of judges: Judge Adrian Hardiman, a justice of the Supreme Court of Ireland and regarded as one of Ireland's foremost jurists; Judge John Ingram, a renowned New York Supreme Court judge who has presided over many high profile criminal trials; and, Judge William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, chairman of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland Galway, and widely considered the world’s leading authority on genocide.

Joining them were authors Tim Pat Coogan (“The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy”) and John Kelly (“The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People”), along with historian Dr. Ruan O’Donnell, Head of the Department of History at the University of Limerick.

In 1997, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that “[t]hose who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.”  Did that failure, however, give rise to liability under international criminal law? 

Amongst the other questions that were raised before the Tribunal: 

  • Were the repeated, devastating failures of the potato crop beyond the power of any government, in the context of the time, to effectively manage?
  • Was Ireland particularly vulnerable to famine and, if so, why?
  • What relief efforts were made?
  • How responsive was the government in London to reports from relief officials in Ireland?
  • How influential were laissez-faire and providentialist ideologies?
  • Did British policy makers take advantage of the Famine to “reform” Irish society?
  • Was it only the British government that stood by while Ireland starved?
  • What part was played by landlords, merchants, big farmers, shopkeepers and, more generally, the Irish middle classes?

At the conclusion of the proceedings, the Tribunal requested written submissions from the prosecution and the defense.  It also invited written contributions from interested organizations and members of the public.  A verdict is expected in due course.

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