The Graves Are Walking: The History Of The Great Irish Famine


By John Kelly, Faber and Faber, 397pp, £16.99

In June 1845, Phytophthora infestans decimated Europe’s potato crop. This fungus then spread to Ireland, where the potato was the main food for most of the island’s roughly nine million people. The crop was larger than usual that year and the blight destroyed about a quarter of it.

In the face of this catastrophe, the administration of the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, imported and sold maize – or Indian corn, as it was called – cheaply, as well as doing one or two other things. Although hunger wasn’t eliminated, it was partly alleviated.

In 1846 Peel fell, Lord John Russell (bright but inclined to dither) became prime minister and the blight returned to Ireland. This time six-sevenths of the crop was destroyed. As in 1845, the chief secretary at the treasury, Charles Edward Trevelyan, was put in charge of the Irish relief programme, but whereas the year before, under Peel, he was checked, under Russell he wasn’t. This meant he was free to use the relief programme to transform Ireland from an inefficient country of smallholdings, worked by peasants who bartered, into an efficient country of large holdings worked by farmers who were part of a cash economy. This was a programme that he believed was in Ireland’s long-term interest.

Partly as a result of Trevelyan’s finagling between October 1846 and June 1847 (“the dead heart of the Famine”), about a million men, women and children died of starvation and disease (typhus, relapsing fever, dysentery, cholera and scurvy) and, in addition to the deaths, a further 116,000 people fled Ireland.

In 1847, Ireland’s recovery, which was never going to be easy given its underdevelopment, was made even less likely by Trevelyan’s extended Poor Law. In theory, this legislation, which made landlords responsible for paying the Poor Law rate of every tenant, was supposed to shift the burden of supporting Ireland’s destitute from the treasury to Ireland’s landowners; in practice, all it did was to make “eviction an efficient way for a landowner to lower his poor rate”, because every tenant shed saved a landlord money.

In 1847, after an initial scare, the blight did not return. However, memories of 1846, a spike in evictions and the willingness of landlords who didn’t want to evict to pay their tenants’ passages out of Ireland led to the emigration of 215,000 men, women and children to North America and 150,000 to Britain. And, unlike in earlier periods of emigration, it wasn’t just the prosperous who left; it was also the Gaelic-speaking peasantry of the south and west, who, until then, had no real tradition of emigration.

In 1848, 1849 and 1850 the blight returned, drastic estate clearance continued and about two million people emigrated from Ireland; or, put another way, in the decade 1845-1855 Ireland’s population dropped by about a third.

The Irish Famine is a difficult subject. One, it is fiendishly complicated; two, its scope is global (this isn’t just an Irish story but also a British, European and Northern American story); and, three, it features an incredible gallery of characters whose complicated histories have to be knitted in.

John Kelly’s competence and the way he binds the volatile elements together are excellent. The only stylistic infelicities are the Downton Abbey moments, the accounts of toffs eating and drinking that he sprinkles through the text. (I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t thinking of a TV spin-off.) However, this is only a minor deficiency, and it doesn’t detract from the strong sense of the shape of what happened that he provides.

But where this work excels is in its reserve and its aversion to point scoring. As we know, the Famine is contested: for example, in his polemic The Last Conquest of Ireland, John Mitchel (“a founding father of modern Irish nationalism”) accused Trevelyan of creating a special “typhus poison” for the express purpose of destroying the Irish nation.

It wasn’t true, and today not even the most ardent Anglophobe believes Mitchel’s allegation; however, the spirit of Mitchel’s case against the English establishment – that the purpose of Britain’s relief policies was the destruction of the Irish race, was genocide – lives on.

The counterargument to Mitchel’s is that Trevelyan et al weren’t ogres but really did believe, judged by contemporary standards, that what they were doing was right. Yes, despite the evidence coming out of Ireland that what they were doing was wrong (evidence that, it’s true, they ignored), they believed their remedies would, in the end and despite a lot of pain, make Ireland a better place.

The policies didn’t and never could, but we can know that (which they can’t) only because we know so much more about famines and economics and have a completely different outlook. After all, we’re living nearly two centuries later.

Of course it’s tempting, with figures as obdurate and flawed as Trevelyan, to judge them by our standards and find them guilty of crimes against humanity – here the Irish – but those who like this kind of succour, be advised: Kelly has no truck with this type of transaction. On the contrary, as he firmly but politely reminds us at every turn, all the participants in this miserable saga were made what they were by their period, should only be judged only by standards of their time and, however we might wish it weren’t true, did believe they were doing right.

None of this is easy to accept, but part of growing up as a country is that we allow those we hold responsible for our woes the integrity of their beliefs, no matter the suffering they caused, and this book makes an important contribution to that.

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