Mapping the wounds of the Great Famine
The Great Irish Famine remains shrouded in controversy, silence and shame but a new book blends academic scholorship with cartography in an attempt to bring us closer to those who lived through it
THE GREAT Irish Famine is possibly the most pivotal event in modern Irish history and its global reach and implications cannot be underestimated. In terms of mortality it is now widely accepted that over a million people perished between the years 1845-1852 and at least 1.25 million people fled the country, the great majority to North America, some to Australia and a significant minority to British cities. Ireland had been afflicted by famine before the events of the 1840s; however the Great Famine is marked by both its absolute scale and its longevity.
The Famine is surrounded by controversy, silence and shame. Scholars, politicians and commentators argue about what happened and who was responsible. The voices of the million men, women and children who died of hunger and disease in cabins, by roadsides, in bogs and ditches, in workhouses and fever hospitals are absent. If each of these people who died because of this Great Famine could write the stories of their experiences and feelings, we could not bear to read these accounts. And it is almost certain that their narratives of the Great Famine would clash with ours. This is the great silence which lies at the heart of the Famine story.
The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, which will be published by Cork University Press and by New York University Press in North America in early September, begins by acknowledging the impossibility of adequately representing it or any major world famine. Comprehending and capturing the enormity of the event and its devastating impact on Irish society is a major challenge throughout the book.
The atlas is strongly influenced by new and not-so-new research insights, emanating from a range of disciplines. Many of the scholars currently working in Famine studies – both at international and national levels – have made invaluable contributions to the Atlas. However, there has been no attempt made to provide an overarching, unifying synthesis. Rather what is recognised in the Atlas is the necessity for a great diversity of approaches and perspectives in seeking to illuminate and represent the monstrous reality of the Famine tragedy and its consequences.
Hence, the importance attached to the work of poets, visual artists, musicians, folklorists, photographers and writers of Irish and English literature as well as the research of other established scholars and the extensive use of archival sources.
The creation and interpretation of almost 200 computer-based maps of population decline, social transformation and other key changes that occurred between the census years 1841 and 1851 is naturally central to this project. On the one hand, the book provides original, island-wide, almost panoptic views of the Famine which, while very helpful, are nevertheless limiting in other respects. We can see every parish from above but we still do not know how the Famine affected individual families and communities on the ground.
Hence, the parallel analysis of famine conditions in the provinces, counties, parishes and townlands – and in overseas emigrant destinations – so as to try and tell the stories of particular individuals and families caught up in these terrible events. What these maps document is a range of human worlds and conditions never previously published and revealed in Irish Famine studies. While recognising the power and effects of the general political and administrative forces at work and the devastating impacts of the Famine island-wide, the interpretation of these maps and other evidence equally highlights the diversity of local, county, provincial and emigrant conditions and experiences.