Polemic without plausibility
Coogan’s explanation of Trevelyan’s motives are also problematic: his intense evangelical providentialism is not taken seriously but treated rather as hypocritical cover for a racialised anti-Irishness, and his “moralistic” political economy – we might now call it radical neoliberalism – is conflated with the pessimistic Malthusianism espoused by his antagonists Nassau Senior and Richard Whately (who, Coogan appears to be unaware, were opponents, not supporters, of government policy during the Famine).
The author’s surprisingly brief conclusion highlights the 1948 UN definition of genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical , racial or religious group”, and argues that such an intent is clearly demonstrable in Whig Famine policy. Had Coogan argued instead that the ministry was morally culpable, especially from later 1847, in failing to provide and distribute affordable (mostly imported) food aid and employment to the starving masses, and that this failure was driven by ideological fixations with free trade, eliminating moral hazard and enforcing self-help on Ireland, the evidence would have supported him.
Instead, he restates the Mitchelite case that it was the determined intention of the British government to destroy or decimate the Irish people through famine, without seeking to explain why it intervened at all, even (as he accepts) at one period doing so relatively effectively through the soup-kitchen system. There is no discussion of why the government, and even that bete noire Trevelyan himself, promoted private charity for Ireland. No persuasive explanation is offered for this apparent contradiction, perhaps because it would require, having taken into consideration all the constraints under which government operated, a more complex and difficult story of agency and responsibility than can be offered in what is ultimately a rather reductionist polemic.
Readers searching for an economically informed and comprehensive history of Ireland’s greatest modern catastrophe would be better advised to turn to James Donnelly’s The Great Irish Potato Famine, or to the tour de force that is the multiauthored Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. For those preferring a more traditionally inflected but nevertheless thoroughly researched and beautifully written popular history, Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, which first appeared in 1962 (and on which Coogan draws heavily), is still available. But for the savage indignation of an Irish polemicist at the height of his powers, deploying accusatory language with an intensity fuelled by witnessing the depths of famine’s horrors, it would be best to return to Mitchel’s original text, now in print again in a new edition.