A look at the Irish potato famine

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In Jane Urquhart's Away, the Irish potato famine is the catalyst for one family's extraordinary journey as they do whatever it takes to survive.

Like millions of Irish people, the O'Malleys in Away were tenants, paying rent to the rich and relying on their plentiful potato crop as their primary food source. But when the crops were destroyed by the potato blight between 1845 and 1850, millions of Irish families suffered. It could have been prevented, but the British government left the fate of the Irish in the hands of the 10,000 landlords who controlled the land. According to historian Peter Gray, "No landlords starved during the Great Famine, it's the poor who starved."

Nearly a million people died in Ireland during the famine. Another million fled to other countries. Many, like the O'Malleys, ended up in Canada. However, the hardships didn't end when they crossed the Atlantic. Instead, they faced impossible-to-farm land and brutally cold winters. Still, they persevered and this mass exodus had a profound effect on Canada: nearly 25 per cent of all Canadians have Irish ancestry.

The 2011 CBC documentary Famine and Shipwreck, an Irish Odyssey looks at this dark moment in history and how it shaped both Ireland and Canada. You can watch in the video player above.

Charlotte Gray is defending Away during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.


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