Polemic without plausibility


HISTORY:Tim Pat Coogan believes that Irish historians have obscured the truth about a British famine plot against the Irish in the 1840s, but his account is far less convincing than that of his main source

The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, by Tim Pat Coogan, Palgrave Macmillan, 276pp, £17.99

John Mitchel’s charge of British culpability for Ireland’s Great Famine – that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine” – has had a long history. First made in Mitchel’s The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in the 1860s, it influenced the collective memory of the catastrophe held by generations of Irish, both at home and in the diaspora. Mitchel’s unequivocal accusation is now, Tim Pat Coogan laments, out of favour both in Irish official discourse and in Famine historiography.

However, it is still very much alive elsewhere – as witnessed, for example, by a recent mural on Belfast’s Springfield Road depicting the forced export of Irish foodstuffs by Britain’s armed forces in the 1840s, in the text of New Jersey’s state high-school Famine curriculum, and in the agenda of a forthcoming Irish Famine Tribunal at Fordham University in New York.

Like many neo-Mitchelites, Coogan discerns a conspiracy of silence on the part of Irish historians to deny the truth of England’s genocidal responsibility for what happened in Ireland between 1845 and 1850. The purpose of his book is therefore a campaigning one, to reveal the true lineaments of the “famine plot” obscured by historians suffering from the “colonial cringe” and to vindicate John Mitchel.

Mitchel’s book was less a history of the Famine than a polemic – drawing on snippets of collected evidence, it is true, but intended as an accusatory vehicle for its author’s intense commitment to redressing the sufferings of Ireland in the later 1840s. Coogan’s book is similarly suffused with anger.

Lacking Mitchel’s personal experience of famine, he draws liberally on the numerous accounts of human agony, ruthless exploitation and official indifference that have survived to our times.

Unlike Ireland’s other great but largely forgotten historical famines, such as those of the 1310s or 1740s, the human consequences of the events of the 1840s continue to be brought home directly to us through sources generated by such modern phenomena as the mass-circulation newspaper, the charitable pamphlet and the records of an increasingly bureaucratic State, as well as through the less formal conduits of folklore, popular tradition and creative literature. The author makes effective use of extracts from these sources to convey a sense of the sheer scale and intensity of the horror, and makes no effort to obscure his emotive response to them.

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.

Factual errors

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.

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.

Other histories

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.

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