Polemic without plausibility
The Famine Plot is also not a conventional history. There is no attempt to offer a comprehensive account of the disaster and its causation, and the writing tends to be impressionistic rather than tightly structured. The book’s chapters are loosely thematic, composed of short paragraphs that sometimes appear rather jumbled and that can meander off into personal digressions. Source references, the touchstone of historical professional practice, are sparse, often vague and in some cases of dubious reliability.
The author has not been well served by his publisher, as more robust editing and fact-checking might well have picked up some of the numerous mistakes, misspellings, anachronisms and repetitions that mar the text.
Historians familiar with the period will note a disturbing number of factual errors. This seems to be particularly true of the treatment of the economic and demographic background to the Famine. For example, Coogan tells us that after the Napoleonic wars agricultural prices went up by 50 per cent (in fact, they fell by 25 per cent to the early 1840s, ratcheting up debt and fomenting agrarian conflict) and that the pre-Famine religious balance in Ireland was one Protestant to 20 Catholics (the 1834 religious census found rather that 19 per cent of the population was Protestant). Such lack of attention to the accuracy of economic and social data can only undermine confidence in the book’s claim (unsubstantiated here, and flying in the face of every serious economic analysis of the Famine) that “at every stage of the subsequent disaster, Ireland had no shortage of food”.
At the heart of the book is the argument that a relatively small group within the Whig government of 1846-52 was directly responsible for the worst of the mass mortality, and indeed ultimately that it was the malevolence and ideological preoccupations of the treasury official Charles Trevelyan that lay at the heart of an intentional “famine plot”. Trevelyan is a difficult figure to defend, although Coogan fails to discuss a vigorous, if flawed, recent effort by Robin Haines to do just that. However, the author is never able to explain quite why this civil servant and his allies obtained such an extraordinary sway over Irish policy, perhaps because of his lack of interest in dissecting the wider political context of the period – an exercise that might in part implicate the wider “British public” Coogan seeks to exclude from any responsibility.
Central to his case is an assumption that the Times newspaper, unquestionably a source of sustained anti-Irish prejudice, was a government organ, ignoring the role of its proprietor, John Walter, in fomenting this, and the paper’s robust independence from any party connection in these years.