The long shadow of the Great Hunger
KEVIN WHELANreviews The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine Edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy Cork University Press, 728pp. €59
IT HAS BEEN a long time since an Irish- studies book appeared that everyone should read. The heat of the Troubles threw up a succession of must-read, even if controversial, volumes: Garret FitzGerald’s Towards a New Ireland (1972); Conor Cruise O’Brien’s States of Ireland (1972); Ó Tuama and Kinsella’s An Duanaire (1981); Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988); Joe Lee’s Ireland 1912-1985 (1989); The Field Day Anthology (1991); and Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland (1995), which was the last book to achieve that status.
With the advent of the peace process and the Celtic Tiger, the urgency of Irish scholarly debate receded apace, as the crust of complacency hardened in the universities during the boom years. After so many barren years, it is a relief to encounter another volume that any intelligent Irish person who aspires to be well informed should read: The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine.
This book presents a powerful, unflinching account of the Famine as the defining event in Irish history. It balances sweeping surveys with minute details while remaining attentive to the surprising diversity of this tiny island in the 19th century. Its unparalleled assemblage of new maps, old images and extensive documentation offers an unsurpassed teaching aid for the history of the Famine. Firmly rooted in recent scholarship, and interdisciplinary in the most generous sense, it is unafraid to draw the necessary conclusions, even where these undermine the fashionable orthodoxy that adopted a blame-free approach to the worst humanitarian catastrophe in 19th-century Europe. This new volume is animated by the results from the scholarly, artistic and cultural re-engagement that followed the 150th anniversary commemoration of the 1990s.
The Great Irish Famine (1845-1852) is the single most important event in Irish history. In European terms, famine had become a reassuringly remote event, so for Ireland to suffer a devastating episode was all the more unusual in that it then formed part of the richest state in the world, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
It is incorrect to describe this event as the Irish Famine; it is more accurately the British famine, occurring within the United Kingdom. And if we adopted the term the British famine, it would encourage us to think harder about how surprising it was that famine should sweep so unhindered through the most powerful state on the planet. Its utterly astonishing geopolitical location is ultimately what distinguishes the Great Famine in Ireland from modern famines, which occur in more marginal economies. A contemporary equivalent might be famine in the American heartland, such as Iowa or Nebraska. While we still call it the Irish Famine, we adopt too narrow a perspective.
The Famine can be regarded as the first modern one in that it was the subject of so much documentation by the state. The sheer bulk of the records is indicated by the presence of seven tons of material from the Board of Works alone. Ireland, the administrative laboratory for the British Empire, must be the most heavily surveilled country in the 19th century. This volume consistently makes superb use of these materials, most notably in its wonderfully detailed series of maps. Look at the maps of the population in 1841, of the collapse from 1841 to 1851, of traffic flows in 1837, of literacy in 1841, and of little children in the Famine years. If you want to know where the pawn shops, workhouses, barracks or dispensaries were located, this is the book to consult. The amount of detail available from workhouse records can almost numb the reader to the sheer unrelenting horror of this material. Yeats penetrates the horror of these places better than these endless records when he described the old people in Sligo workhouse as “cold and wretched like flies in Winter”.
Careful reading of the sources can reveal a surprising amount, as demonstrated in Dympna McLoughlin’s chapter on poor women. These records also allow for penetrating insights into local conditions, and the editors have chosen to devote almost 200 pages to systematic treatment of each province. Amid a plethora of such detailed studies, among the finest are Paddy Duffy on Co Monaghan, Patrick Hickey on Skibbereen and Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill on Clifden.
The wealth of documentation is clear proof that the dismal policy failure during the Famine was not based on any lack of knowledge. The path-breaking recent work of Peter Gray, James Donnelly, Joel Mokyr and Cormac Ó Gráda, among others, means that we now have much clearer lenses for understanding this catastrophic failure of the British state. Providentialism, stadialism and neoclassical economics fused into a hardwired orthodoxy that concluded, on impeccable intellectual grounds, that famine in Ireland would generate long-term benefits. Doctrinaire government policies were designed to promote social engineering rather than to alleviate poverty or save lives. The British response, which stressed the inevitability of the Famine, was profoundly informed by the prevalent religious conception of providentialism, God’s direct intervention in the natural world.