‘The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’
The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (Cork, August 2012) is the most recent in the magnificent series of atlases published by Cork University Press. Over the past six weeks, I’ve been slowly working my way through it, and am astonished again and again at every aspect of it. The sheer weight and heft of the thing is extraordinary, more than 700 pages of eight- by twelve-inch high-quality paper, weighing in at over ten pounds. No vanity is involved. The heavy paper is necessary because of the colour illustrations, and the astonishing detail and fine distinctions made in the illustrations are what render the book unique.
The most vivid of these are the maps visualising and contrasting information from the censuses of 1841 and 1851, before and after the Famine. Again and again, they produce a transfixing, visceral understanding of the underlying dry numbers and tables: the intense concentration in 1841 of children under five in the poorest, most vulnerable areas of the western seaboard; the percentage population decrease between 1841 and 1851 mapped out parish by parish over the entire country; land values, again mapped parish by parish over the entire country, instantly demonstrating the connection between poverty and starvation.
The written contributions show the same combination of meticulous detail and sweeping overview. At the heart of the book are the 300-odd pages devoted to detailed studies of areas in each of the four provinces. Among the stand-outs here are William Smyth’s month-by-month story of the Famine in the Tipperary parish of Shanrahan and Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill’s account of Clifden Workhouse. The only criticism to be made is that, as bedtime reading, this book is guaranteed to end any marriage.
The Atlas was number seven in the Hodges Figgis in-store bestsellers list last week. There’s hope for us all yet.
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]