‘Great Famine’ responsible for gene defect still causing mental illness

Famine figures in Dublin

The years of malnutrition suffered by Irish people during the ‘Great Famine’ could have paved the way for centuries of mental illness in their descendants.

That is the view of Irish historian Oonagh Walsh, who believes the increase in mental health sufferers of people of Irish descent in the last 150 years is a direct result of the famine suffered in Ireland. She believes that the malnutrition suffered caused an ‘epigenetic change’.

The lack of a nutritional balanced diet among pregnant women in the mid-19th century, may have caused damage to the development of their babies, resulting in this gene defect. This means that genes were weakened slightly leaving a person at a higher risk of developing mental illness.

The risk has remained as the defect has since been passed down through generations, and been spread around the world as Irish people have continued to leave their homeland.

The ‘Great Famine’ lasted from 1845 until 1850, when a series of failed potato crops left millions of Irish people starving. The population of Ireland was around 8million before the famine, but was devastated with the loss of one million to starvation and a further million who were forced to leave the country.

In 1841, there were about 3,000 people in Ireland suffering from mental illness, according to records of those in mental asylums and similar institutes. By the turn of the century, that number had increased 800% to 25,000, despite the overall population of the country having halved to four million.

Walsh does concede that these figures cannot be considered completely accurate. In the years after the famine, it is believed that some families would commit a relative to an asylum in order to be free of providing for them. This was sadly the fate for numerous elderly or disabled people, who were considered to be a burden rather than an asset, as families struggled to get back on their feet after years of hardship.

Walsh has written a book on the subject, Insanity, Power and Politics in Nineteenth Century Ireland: The Connaught District Lunatic Asylum.