Polemic without plausibility
HISTORY:Tim Pat Coogan believes that Irish historians have obscured the truth about a British famine plot against the Irish in the 1840s, but his account is far less convincing than that of his main source
The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, by Tim Pat Coogan, Palgrave Macmillan, 276pp, £17.99
John Mitchel’s charge of British culpability for Ireland’s Great Famine – that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine” – has had a long history. First made in Mitchel’s The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in the 1860s, it influenced the collective memory of the catastrophe held by generations of Irish, both at home and in the diaspora. Mitchel’s unequivocal accusation is now, Tim Pat Coogan laments, out of favour both in Irish official discourse and in Famine historiography.
However, it is still very much alive elsewhere – as witnessed, for example, by a recent mural on Belfast’s Springfield Road depicting the forced export of Irish foodstuffs by Britain’s armed forces in the 1840s, in the text of New Jersey’s state high-school Famine curriculum, and in the agenda of a forthcoming Irish Famine Tribunal at Fordham University in New York.
Like many neo-Mitchelites, Coogan discerns a conspiracy of silence on the part of Irish historians to deny the truth of England’s genocidal responsibility for what happened in Ireland between 1845 and 1850. The purpose of his book is therefore a campaigning one, to reveal the true lineaments of the “famine plot” obscured by historians suffering from the “colonial cringe” and to vindicate John Mitchel.
Mitchel’s book was less a history of the Famine than a polemic – drawing on snippets of collected evidence, it is true, but intended as an accusatory vehicle for its author’s intense commitment to redressing the sufferings of Ireland in the later 1840s. Coogan’s book is similarly suffused with anger.
Lacking Mitchel’s personal experience of famine, he draws liberally on the numerous accounts of human agony, ruthless exploitation and official indifference that have survived to our times.
Unlike Ireland’s other great but largely forgotten historical famines, such as those of the 1310s or 1740s, the human consequences of the events of the 1840s continue to be brought home directly to us through sources generated by such modern phenomena as the mass-circulation newspaper, the charitable pamphlet and the records of an increasingly bureaucratic State, as well as through the less formal conduits of folklore, popular tradition and creative literature. The author makes effective use of extracts from these sources to convey a sense of the sheer scale and intensity of the horror, and makes no effort to obscure his emotive response to them.