Famine research well-received at Irelands Science week

14 November 2013

Professor Oonagh Walsh

Professor Oonagh Walsh

Ireland’s great famine may have led to high levels of mental illness amongst later generations of Irish people, both at home and abroad, according to a GCU historian.

Speaking at a Science Week event held in IT Sligo, Professor Oonagh Walsh said she believed “epigenetic change” took place due to severe nutritional deprivation during the Famine, when two million people died between 1845 and 1851.

Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression, that do not involve alterations to the genetic code or DNA, but whose effects may persist over several generations.

Professor Walsh is still in the early stages of a study into the subject, but she thinks research will show a connection between high rates of mental illnesses and the effect of maternal starvation. She also believes there may be a link between the Famine and high rates of cardiovascular and other diseases amongst Irish people.

Professor Walsh told the Irish Times that according to the 1841 census, when Ireland had a population of eight million, there were 1,600 inmates in district asylums, plus 1,500 in jails and workhouses. By 1900, when the population had halved, there were 17,000 in district asylums and a further 8,000 “lunatics at large”.

She said there was no doubt the Dangerous Lunatic Act had been “abused on a staggering scale” - for example by emigrating families who did not want to bring along a relative who could be an economic burden. She also stressed there were other complex factors involved in committal rates.

However, Professor Walsh said it was significant the exceptional rates of admission to asylums were also prevalent among Irish emigrants to for example Australia and Canada.

She estimated that the impact of the epigenetic change following the Famine lasted for a century and a half.