Drama in the detail
In humanising the complexities of the Great Famine, John Kelly’s emotional history of the time makes for a compelling and heartbreaking readIT BEGAN WITH an unseasonably cool, wet summer, and a bad smell in the fields. Within two years it would develop into what has been called the greatest social disaster of 19th-century Europe.
The story of the Great Famine in Ireland is one with which, in outline, we’re all familiar. The details are another matter: complex economic, cultural and ideological factors that came together to create a perfect storm, causing misery on an almost unimaginable scale and shrinking the population by a third.
The Irish-American author of a new history of the Famine, The Graves Are Walking, wanted to make the complexities of this terrible story accessible to everyone; it was a tall order, says John Kelly. “There were times when I was in despair. It was very hard, trying to create a readable narrative and having to explain the Poor Law of 1838 and the Poor Law of 1847 and the 400 requirements for relief – and having it all make sense.”
Kelly, a full-time history writer, was born in Boston to Irish parents. His last book, The Great Mortality, was about the Black Death; his next, which he’s about to start researching, will be about the summer of 1940, the start of the second World War and the British refusal to surrender. “I try to find subjects that are inherently dramatic,” he says.
Drama is certainly not lacking in the Famine story.
This month, Cork University Press published its magisterial Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, which runs to more than 700 pages. What made Kelly think he could find fertile territory in such a crowded field?
“In an odd way, I was puzzled by the explanations I had read in other books,” he says. “I had read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger – which is still, in my opinion, the best popular history of the Famine but is now 50 or 60 years old – and other, more academic books.
“But what always troubled me was that I never saw an overriding structure that held everything together. The British behaviour, the kind of relief they decided to administer, the Poor Laws, the Encumbered Estates Act, how it all fit together into a pattern. Also, even in The Great Hunger, if you look at it closely, it’s astonishing how little there is about the Irish peasants and their suffering. And I wanted to get that in.
“It seemed to me that between my desire to really humanise the story and my search for metanarrative, it was a chance to say something new to a popular audience about the Famine.”
How did he manage such a wealth of material? “There has to be an emotional digestion process where you get to know the material well enough to be able to start writing about it,” he says. “On projects like this, that takes a couple of years – getting it to a place where it doesn’t feel forced, but feels like it’s a smooth narrative.”
As the title of the book – a quote from Yeats’s The Countess Kathleen – suggests, Kelly doesn’t shy away from the kind of vivid descriptions and heightened language more often associated with poetry than historical writing. He even invokes the ghost of Joyce: “Snow fell down through the cold still world, covering the decapitated hills, the half-dug ditches and upturned earth . . . Snow covered the schoolhouse and military barracks in Skibbereen, the Board of Works pay office in Ennis, Clare; the Commissariat depots in Mayo and Sligo; and the uncoffined dead, who had come to their final end in the shadow of the cold mountains.”