Asking the BIG Questions:
Teaching about the Great Irish Famine and World History


Maureen O. Murphy and Alan J. Singer

In March 2001, an educational columnist for Newsday (New York) dismissed the New York State Great Irish Famine Curriculum Guide as another effort to promote ethnocentric history and the idea that the United States is little more than “a pastiche of different peoples, linked mostly by a Constitution and a system of interstate highways.”1 The columnist cited Chester Finn, Jr., a long-term opponent of multiculturalism, who insisted, “If we invite every faction in our society to insert their own best or worst episode from history, there will be no end of it.”2

The New York Times had a different take on the curriculum guide.3 According to the Times,

If all goes according to plan, those Irish clichés (shamrocks and leprechauns) would be replaced by appreciation for ‘the amazing potato’; the famine-ravaged town of Skibbereen; Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed through Ellis Island; and the modern historical view that the potato famine of the 1840s resulted not just from a natural calamity but from Britain’s policy of exporting other crops that could have kept its Irish colonial subjects alive.4

The article also credited the curriculum with drawing connections between events in Ireland in the 1840s and current issues, “including starvation in African nations, homelessness, immigration—as well as the history of other cultures.”5


Purpose of the Curriculum

As the primary authors of the guide, we certainly liked The New York Times review better, but neither one captured what we tried to do, and believe we have done, with the curriculum. Our primary goals were to write Ireland into world history, not to create a separate course of study; to offer teachers standards-driven and document-based lesson plans, projects, and assessments; and to design a curriculum that addresses some of the big questions in world history.6

This curriculum uses the history of Ireland as a case study for understanding world history from the Columbian Exchange (when Europeans were introduced to the “amazing potato,” among other new things, from the Western Hemisphere) through twentieth century human catastrophes. Major academic goals include encouraging students to think critically about historical events and primary sources, to draw conclusions on the basis of criteria and evidence, and to debate fundamental questions about the responsibilities of government and individuals in times of crisis.

In its final form, the guide will include 150 lessons for grades 4-12 that draw on science, literature, and the arts, as well as social studies and history. For the early grades, the curriculum guide centers on interdisciplinary projects. More than half of the lessons are intended for 7-12 social studies classes. The guide will be available in book form, as a CD-ROM, and on the World Wide Web. The lessons are divided into units that address four themes:

Within the four areas defined by these thematic questions, the guide addresses a collection of what we call “big” questions that permeate the study of world history.


Forcing Us to Think

Whether intended or not, both newspaper articles did touch on big historical questions. In his attack on ethnic history and multiculturalism, the Newsday columnist was really trying to define the American experience, which implies the big question, “What does it mean to be an American?” The New York Times article, which presented the debate over Britain’s role, introduced two big questions, one related to historical causality and the other to government responsibility. These are exactly the kinds of questions that we want students to consider.

As we designed the curriculum, we found that an examination of Irish history constantly forced us to think about such big questions. For example, in 1861, Irish nationalist John Mitchel charged that

No sack of Magdeburg, or ravage of the Palatinate ever approached the horror and dislocation to the slaughters done in Ireland by mere official red tape and stationery, and the principles of political economy. . . . The Almighty sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.7

Whether or not one agrees with Mitche#146;s accusation about British policy in Ireland during the Great Irish Famine, his statement contains a number of key ideas about Irish, British, and world history. The 1631 sack of Magdeburg, a German Protestant city, by the forces of the Catholic League, which included Italy, France, and Spain, was part of the Thirty Years War in Reformation Europe. The ravaging of the Palatinate, also in Germany, by the forces of Louis XIV of France from 1688-1697, more directly related to imperial ambition during an era of European colonial expansion. Understanding both conquests, as well as the British conquest and rule over Ireland, allows students and historians to consider human motivation and behavior during times of war; the legitimacy of religions and religious leaders who urge war to promote or enforce beliefs; and the relationship between large powers and their smaller, vulnerable neighbors. Significantly, these are all major questions confronting the world today—for example, in the Balkans and central Africa (war), in Southwest Asia and Afghanistan (religion), and in the United States’ role in the Americas (use of power). In addition, Mitchel asks us to explore causality in history, the workings of a laissez-faire political economy, the nature of bureaucracy, and the collective responsibility for government action or inaction. One short quote unleashes a slew of major issues and powerful questions.

The “Big” Questions Approach

A “big” question approach to Irish and world history uses current events to help high school students and teachers frame and examine complex and controversial questions about the contemporary world and uses these questions to direct their examination of the past. It draws on Grant Wiggins’s work on social studies teaching methods; Paolo Freire’s belief that education must involve students in posing and examining questions about the problems facing their own communities; and the National Council for the Social Studies’s Handbook on Teaching Social Issues.8

Wiggins argues that teachers should present students with broad, complex questions that are reintroduced over and over throughout the curriculum. For social studies, he suggests questions such as “Is there enough to go around (e.g., food, clothes, water)?” “Is history a story of progress?” “When is law unjust?” and “Who owns what and why?” We have students develop their own questions about the past, present, and future. We recommend starting the school year with teams of students searching through newspapers and selecting articles that they believe report on important issues facing the contemporary world. Teams categorize the issues, identify underlying problems, and formulate the questions that they want to answer. Their big questions are placed on poster boards, are hung prominently around the room, and are continually referred to.

As with Wiggins’s approach, the Great Irish Famine curriculum starts with a few thematic questions. It is designed, however, so that new questions are continually introduced as students explore global history. A sample of twelve big questions that emerged when teachers field-tested the curriculum in secondary school social studies classes follows:

1. How can a small thing or event transform the world?

2. What role does religion play in human history?

3. How does technology change the way people live and work?

4. Are famines more often acts of nature or the result of decisions made by people?

5. What are the consequences of ethnic prejudice?

6. What is the responsibility of government in times of disaster?

7. What is the responsibility of the media when it reports the news?

8. What are the responsibilities of individuals when faced with injustice or calamity?

9. What causes imperialism?

10. What are human rights?

11. What is genocide?

12. Can individuals and groups shape the future?


1. How can a small thing or event transform the world?

Students are asked to think of a seemingly insignificant thing, person, or event that transformed the world. The class brainstorms ideas, writes them on the chalkboard, and discusses how these things or events brought about change. Popular choices are Rosa Parks sitting down on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama; the invention of the printing press; the discovery of agriculture (seeds); and the invention of the microchip. At this point, the teacher holds up a potato and asks how something like the potato could change the world. The lesson includes an activity sheet on the potato and a chart or graph showing the Irish population growth from the mid-seventeenth century (when the potato was introduced) through 1841 (the last census taken prior to the arrival of a potato-destroying fungus) and a second chart or graph showing the population decrease of Ireland from 1841 through 1871. As a concluding activity, students compare their choices about events that changed the world.9


2. What role does religion play in human history?

From the ancient Romans through the contemporary Taliban, people have done both noble and horrible acts “in the name of God.” But because of the strict separation of church and state in the United States, many public school teachers hesitate to teach about religion. They fear that adherents to particular beliefs might feel that they are being presented incorrectly or that people from different religious backgrounds (or those who reject all religions) will object to what their children are taught.

This fear presents a dilemma for social studies teachers because religious beliefs and institutions have played a central role in most of recorded human history. As one example, the history and culture of Ireland cannot be easily separated from the religious beliefs of the people of Ireland.

In 1649, Protestant forces from Great Britain under Oliver Cromwell invaded an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland. They defeated Irish rebels and slaughtered or displaced many Irish civilians. In an infamous statement that has spurred on generations of Irish nationalists, Cromwell declared that Catholic landowners had the choice of “Hell or Connacht” (Connacht was a rocky, unproductive area on the Atlantic coast). As a result of this invasion, the English Parliament abolished the Irish Parliament and confiscated Irish estates. By 1688, only 22 percent of the land was owned by Irish Catholics.10

The Great Irish Famine Curriculum Guide acknowledges the complex role of religious institutions and beliefs in pre-famine Irish history, the Irish resistance to British colonialism, and the ways that people from different religious traditions responded to the famine crisis. Instead of ignoring important aspects of culture and history, we think that students must examine the role of religion in history. By doing so, students of all grade levels can explore why groups of people have often expressed their most fundamental values and beliefs through religion.

In addition, because the study of religion in history introduces both the noble and the horrible, it forces us to think about our essential nature and beliefs as human beings. The history of Ireland during the Great Famine is a story of human indifference as well as compassion. It is a story that helps students examine their own human potential and the choices that we make as historical actors.

3. How does technology change the way people live and work?

According to the song “Pat Works on the Railway,” in 1841, Paddy (a typically condescending term for Irish males) “puts his corduroy breeches on” and starts his migration from Ireland to the United States—five years before the potato crop failed in Ireland in September 1846.11 Either Paddy was prophetic or something else was going on. The wave of Irish emigration to the United States and England preceded the Great Irish Famine by at least twenty-five years and was related to a number of factors affecting rural populations across Europe. These included long-term population growth that strained rural resources, an agricultural depression following the Napoleonic Wars, new jobs in industrializing centers, and moves to eliminate traditional agrarian land tenure. In many ways, the Great Irish Famine might best be understood as part of nineteenth century industrial development.

From this perspective, the indifference that the British government officials showed toward the Irish is not so different from the attitude of elites toward peasants, the working class, and the poor in other parts of the world and at other times. For example, conditions were so bad in England’s industrial centers that in 1840, the “average age at death” for “labourers, mechanics and servants” in Liverpool was only fifteen years.12 In Manchester, nearly 54 percent of workers’ children died before their fifth birthday.13


4. Are famines more often acts of nature or the result of decisions made by people?

In 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus wrote that famine is “the last, the most dreadful resource of nature.” Malthus believed that

the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. . . . Gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.14

Malthus’s prediction suggests one of the reasons that economics has been called “the dismal science.” Despite numerous natural disasters, wars, and periodic famines, however, the prediction is fallible: The world’s population now exceeds six billion people and continues to grow, along with its supply of food and a wealth of new technologies.

In the last decade, the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued that, at least in the twentieth century, famine has been the result of the inability of starving people to buy food and the unwillingness of governments to overrule market forces and appropriate and distribute it.15 When democratic governments responsible to local populations are in control, they have responded to natural disasters and avoided massive human misery. Significantly, Sen’s position parallels Mitche#146;s claims about the Great Irish Famine.



5. What are the consequences of ethnic prejudice?

Social studies students in the United States today are usually sensitive to the problems of prejudice and stereotyping and their impact on individuals, but they may not be as well informed about the larger social cost of prejudice. The Great Irish Famine curriculum uses political cartoons and contemporary commentaries to examine how the Irish were frequently dehumanized in the English press, which created easy conditions for the English to ignore or discount the plight of the Irish. As a result of the famine, approximately one million people died and nearly two million were forced to emigrate. The people of Ireland have borne psychological scars for more than 150 years, adding to the difficulties in the relationship between these two peoples.

These lessons provide a context for examining such racist arguments as those justifying European imperialist ventures in Africa and Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dehumanization of Jews under the Nazi regime in Germany, nativist and racist campaigns and practices in U.S. history, and contemporary attitudes toward immigrants throughout the world.


6. What is the responsibility of government in times of disaster?

In the midst of famine, an editorial in The London Times claimed, “Human agency [charity] is now denounced as instrumental in adding to the calamity inflicted by Heaven.”16 The editorial defended Britain’s limited response to conditions in Ireland and argued that the

Government provided work for a people who love it not. It made this the absolute condition of relief. The Government was required to ward off starvation, not to pamper indolence; its duty was to encourage industry, not to stifle it; to stimulate others to give employment, not to outbid them, or drive them from the labor markets. Alas! the Irish peasant had tasted of famine and found that it was good.17

The editorial goes on to denounce the “Irish character” and declare “the potato blight as a blessing.”18

Students who have examined the editorial and the British government policy have quickly drawn parallels with attitudes toward the poor, especially those receiving government assistance, in the United States today. Famine lessons repeatedly introduce students to debates over government responses to emergencies and long-term structural social inequality.


7. What is the responsibility of the media when it reports the news?

While The London Times and Punch published editorials and cartoons blaming the Irish for their hardships and lampooning Irish leaders, The Illustrated London News documented the impact of the potato blight on the people of Ireland. In an era before photojournalism, the News dispatched an artist to some of the hardest hit regions, and the artist illustrated articles with evocative drawings. A comparison of reports in these three periodicals shows the way that media not only report the news, but also shape it and influence the public’s response.

A Punch cartoon, published in April 1848, presented the noble British lion confronted by a court-jester Irish monkey, who is shouting, “One of us MUST be ‘Put Down.’” An Illustrated London News drawing from December 1848 shows an Irishwoman pleading for mercy as a landlord and his agents evict her family from their home and demolish the building behind them.19 Examining these images leads to student debates on the role and responsibility of a free press in the past and the world today, the difference between news coverage and editorials, and the way that ideas and images are manipulated as forms of propaganda.


8. What are the responsibilities of individuals when faced with injustice or calamity?

Whether or not governments take responsible actions, individuals must also consider their own choices. During the European Holocaust, some individuals and groups placed themselves at risk to defy Nazi orders and to assist Jews and other targeted people, whereas other individuals and communities complied with the Nazis. During the Great Irish Famine, people made similar—though perhaps not as dramatic—choices as to whether to provide assistance. One disturbing aspect about the famine in Ireland was the way that many absentee and Anglo-Irish landlords took advantage of economic hardship to evict tenant farmers and to end their traditional claims to the land. Between 1846 and 1854, almost 200,000 Irish families were ejected.20 At the same time, many individuals, especially Quakers, supported and worked in soup kitchens, and some risked their lives caring for people in fever-infested work houses.

A touching story of generosity is commemorated in the children’s book The Long March.21 It recounts the decision by the Choctaw people of Oklahoma, themselves victims of a government relocation program, to donate scarce tribal funds to famine relief efforts.


9. What causes imperialism?

This question emerged during a lesson in a high school where most of the students were African American, Caribbean, and Latino. After studying nineteenth century British colonial policy in India and the imperialist ambitions of several European countries in China and Africa, students concluded that imperialism was motivated by greed and racism. After their teacher introduced the history of Ireland, especially the British response to the famine, students were startled that “white people could do this to white people.” They discussed the meaning of race in both the nineteenth century and today and about imperialism as a human experience, not just a political abstraction.


10. What are human rights?

As we progress into the twenty-first century, the question of what constitutes a human right and the issue of protecting human rights around the world is becoming more important. The Great Irish Famine curriculum introduces the idea that access to food is a basic human right and asks students to consider whether human rights, especially under emergency circumstances, should take precedence over the rights of property holders.

One of the most powerful lessons in the curriculum has students examine the writings of Frederick Douglass on his visit to famine-era Ireland. In his autobiography, Douglass, a leading African American abolitionist, compares the sorrow expressed in the songs of the Irish with the sorrow he remembered from his days as a slave in the American south. The passage supports the idea that both freedom and access to food and shelter must be respected as fundamental human rights.22


11. What is genocide?

In field-testing the Great Irish Famine curriculum, we used this controversial question as a culminating discussion at the end of the year, following our study of the decimation of the Native American population, the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Great Irish Famine, the killing of Armenians during World War I, the European Holocaust during World War II, and post-World War II examples of ethnic conflict in the Balkans and central Africa. Students examined the United Nations definition of genocide, which says that genocide requires intent but also identifies as forms of genocide the following: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”23 Students questioned both the requirement of intent and the meaning of the different categories and used the UN definition to decide which events in human history should be classified as genocidal.

12. Can individuals and groups shape the future?

The lessons in the Great Irish Famine curriculum challenge students to consider their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democratic society and as members of a global community. They directly address NCSS thematic strands, especially “ways that individuals and societies make decisions about rights, rules, relationships, and priorities,” “roles played by social institutions like schools and families in a society and their impact on individuals and groups,” and “the relationship between the expressed beliefs of a society and the implementation of these beliefs in actual practice.”24

This last big or essential question is the most important. It is part of students’ exploration of the legacy of the Great Irish Famine and other human tragedies. If future generations learn from these events and act accordingly, the victims will not have died in vain. If the struggles of past generations are forgotten, however, their deaths become part of an even greater tragedy. G



1. John Hildebrand, “Story of Famine Stirs Educational Melting Pot,” Newsday (March 13, 2001): A32.

2. Ibid.

3. Kate Zernike, “Using the Irish Famine to Explore Current Events,” The New York Times (March 21, 2001): B7.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Maureen Murphy, Maureen Militia, and Alan J. Singer, eds., New York State Great Irish Famine Curriculum Guide (Albany, N.Y.: State Department of Education, in production); Maureen Murphy and Alan J. Singer, “The Great Irish Famine” and related articles, Middle Level Learning (September/October 2000).

7. Noel Kissane, The Irish Famine: A Documentary History (Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 1995).

8. Grant Wiggins, “The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance,” Educational Leadership 47 (November 1989): 44-48; Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: Associaton for Supervison and Curriculum Development, 1998), 28-32; Ira Shor and Paulo Friere, A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education (South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey, 1987); Ronald Evans and David Saxe, Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, NCSS Bulletin 93 (Washington D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996); Alan J. Singer, “Teaching Multicultural Social Studies in an Era of Political Eclipse,” Social Education 63, no. 1 (January/February 1999): 28-31.

9. Found on the web at

10. Peter Gray, The Irish Famine (New York: Abrams, 1995), 14-15; T. Moody and F. Martin, The Course of Irish History (Boulder, Colo.: Roberts Rineheart, 1994), 201.

11. Edith Folke and Joe Glazer, Songs of Work and Protest (New York: Dover, 1973), 84.

12. Frederick Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England. Translated and edited by W. Henderson and W. Chaloner (New York: Macmillan, 1958).

13. Ibid.

14. Thomas Malthus. Essay on the Principle of Population (1830; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959).

15. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1999), 160-188.

16. Gray, 154-155.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Both images are available on the web at
FAMINE. “Views of the Famine” is a website created by Steven J. Taylor, associate director of Instructional Media Services at Vassar College.

20. Tim P. O’Neill, “Famine Evictions,” in Carla King, ed. Famine, Land and Culture in Ireland (Dublin, Ireland: University College Dublin Press, 2000): 29-58.

21. M. Fitzpatrick, The Long March: A Famine Gift for Ireland (Dublin, Ireland: Wolfhound Press, 1998).

22. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Dover, 1969).

23. United Nations, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. December 9, 1948 (New York: United Nations, 1948).

24. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: Author, 1994).


Maureen O. Murphy is a professor and Alan J. Singer is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hofstra University, the School of Education and Allied Human Services, in Hempstead, New York.

Potato Facts and Legends


1. About three thousand years ago, native peoples living in the Andes Mountains in the region now known as Peru found a plant with a short, fleshy underground root that was good to eat. They called this vegetable papa. These native peoples learned how to grow different types of potatoes in different climates and soils.


2. The Inca, who developed an empire in this region, preserved potatoes by letting them freeze on the ground overnight. The next day, men, women, and children stamped on the potatoes with their bare feet to drive out the moisture. They repeated the process (an early version of freeze drying) for four or five days until they obtained a dry white flour called chuno.


3. An Inca Prayer includes the following: “O Creator! Lord of the ends of the earth! Oh, most merciful! Thou who givest life to all things, and has made men that they might live, and eat, and multiply. Multiply also the fruits of the earth, the papas [potatoes] and other food that thou has made that men may not suffer from hunger and misery.”


4. In the 1530s, Spanish soldiers encountered potatoes high in the Andes Mountains when they invaded Peru. The potato was introduced in Europe about 1565. By 1570, they were sold in the marketplace in Seville, Spain. In 1586, a boat commanded by Sir Francis Drake stopped in Cartegena, Columbia, to pick up food and other supplies. The crew brought a few potatoes back to England.


5. There is more than one story about how potatoes reached Ireland. The most likely possibility is that the potato arrived in Ireland in 1588 when a Spanish fleet encountered storms off the coast. The crews were killed or captured by the Irish, who took what they found on board, which probably included potatoes. After potato cultivation spread in Ireland, many English refused to eat potatoes because they were seen as food fit only for Irish peasants.


6. During the seventeenth century, many European herbalists thought potatoes could cure medical problems like tuberculosis, diarrhea, impotence in men, and barrenness in women. Other writers were afraid that potatoes would cause diseases such as leprosy. Some people feared eating potatoes because they are not mentioned in the Old or New Testament. In 1653, historian Bernabé Cobo of Spain wrote about how to plant a potato crop, make potato flour, and cook potatoes.


7. European peasant folk beliefs included the following: Wear a dry potato around your neck to protect yourself from rheumatism; keep a peeled potato in your pocket to cure a toothache; if you are pregnant and eat a potato, you will have a child with a small head.


8. In 1719, Irish Protestant settlers in the British colony of New Hampshire brought the potato to North America. In the 1740s, Emperor Frederick II of Prussia ordered German peasants to grow potatoes. In the 1750s, a pharmacist named Antoine Parmentier popularized eating potatoes in France. When Ambassador Thomas Jefferson returned to the United States from France in 1789, he brought home a love for potatoes. As president, he requested that potatoes were served in the White House.


9. In 1776, a strange new fungus ruined the potato crop in the Netherlands. In 1842, it struck American potatoes. From 1845 through 1849, the Potato Blight destroyed the Irish potato crop.


10. Today, the value of the potato crop worldwide is about $100 billion a year, three times the value of all the gold and silver that Spain took from the Americas during colonial times.


Sources: Milton Meltzer, The Amazing Potato (New York: HarperCollins, 1992); Douglas Daly, “The Leaf That Launched a Thousand Ships,” Natural History (January 1996).