Kevin Whelan, ‘The Long Shadow of the Great Hunger’, review of The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, in The Irish Times (1 Sept. 2012)

Note: Review of The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, ed. John Crowley, William J Smyth & Mike Murphy (Cork UP 2102), 728pp.; available at The Irish Times - online; accessed 07.04.2021.

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.

The Famine as an austerity measure was regarded as a harbinger of the future, a short-term pain for a long-term gain. Charles Trevelyan, chief famine administrator and lord of the files, concluded that the Famine would produce ‘permanent good out of transient evil’. The Cambridge scholar David Nally’s fine chapter, ‘The Colonial Dimensions of the Great Irish Famine’, presents the broad cultural and intellectual framework within which Famine policy evolved.

ONE OF THE FINEST sections in this volume is a masterly treatment of the potato as the root of the Famine, by John Feehan. Originating in the high Andes, the potato was an attractive proposition in Irish circumstances because it tolerated a wet climate. The potato, not Oliver Cromwell, peopled the west of Ireland. By the 1830s, three million ‘potato people’ relied on the tuber for more than 90 per cent of their calorie intake. In these circumstances, a failure of the crop would decimate a population that had swelled to 8.5 million by 1845. The potato blight precipitated disaster. One million people died and two million emigrated in the next two decades, cruelly paralleling that poverty-stricken three million.

This volume also ranges well beyond the administrative and official responses. There are particularly fine contributions by Neil Buttimer on Irish-language manuscripts, by Lorraine Chadwick on the generous-minded American woman Asenath Nicholson, by Catherine Marshall on the Famine in Irish art, and by Cathal Póirtéir on the folklore.

There is a strong emphasis, as there should be, on the impact of the Famine overseas, with detailed examinations of far-flung places such as Queensland, Liverpool, Toronto, New York and Glasgow. Celtic Football Club originated among the Famine immigrants in Glasgow. Not for nothing does the noxious Famine Song emanate from Rangers ‘fans’.

The editors attracted a fine survey chapter by the novelist Thomas Keneally on the Great Famine and Australia. The final section of the volume devotes 25 pages of considered and wide-ranging, rather than merely tokenistic, treatment to the links between the Irish Famine and modern famines.

This volume fits easily within the wider field of Atlantic history, which tends to be a history of flows of people, ideas, goods and culture. Geography as a discipline has the tools to measure and analyse these flows, and this volume, conceived by a spatial imagination, accordingly does a good job of displaying the impact of the Famine on Irish emigration. The Famine accelerated existing flows from Ireland. Irish emigration became unique in its scale, duration and geographical spread. Since 1700, 10 million Irish people have emigrated, and since 1800, one out of every two people born on the island has emigrated. By 1850, New York, with more than 250,000 Irish-born residents, was the most Irish city in the world. The Irish contributed six million of the 60 million Europeans who migrated to the US in the 19th century- more than 10 times what one might expect on the basis of existing population.

As Irish population figures crashed in the second half of the 19th century, endemic and pervasive emigration became the black hole at the centre of Irish culture. By the 20th century, emigration had eaten its way into the heart of the Irish experience. In few states can the demographic balance sheet remain so vital a measure of national self-confidence- a legacy of the long-standing centrality of emigration to the culture. Reading this harrowing volume makes it clear why this should be so.

This review runs the risk of becoming a paean of praise, so where might the volume merit censure? Perhaps you can have too much even of a good thing? The book might have been twice as good at half the length. There are too many small entries (60 contributors!), which read more like journal articles or extended footnotes. More ruthless editors would have cut them, even if a good editor- who massages the contents rather than the egos- is never popular.

This volume reads beautifully if one just tracks Willie Smyth’s exhilarating series of broad surveys. Smyth’s 150 pages benefit from his ability to marry long-term contextualisation (he is best known for his explorations of 17th-century Ireland) to detailed knowledge of the varieties of Ireland while being willing to offer considered judgments, even where this runs counter to the long-standing reticence of Irish historians in allocating blame where blame is earned. Reading Smyth’s chapters sequentially alongside other authoritative general chapters by the established scholars John Feehan, Peter Gray, Christine Kinealy, Cormac Ó Gráda and Kerby Miller provides a superb general introduction to the Famine.

The volume is weakest where it addresses culture, the treatment of which underplays or ignores some of the key longer-term impacts of the Great Famine. The narrow discussion of Famine literature misses the really significant bigger picture. Consider the Irish Literary Revival. That whole project was an effort to create a distinctive Irish identity in the English language, after the loss of the Irish language. The surprise is that it appeared as a delayed effect. Ireland remained culturally comatose in the immediate post-Famine period. A spectacular efflorescence of cultural and political energies in the late 19th century underpinned the revival.

Many other initiatives were also undertaken in the aftermath of the Famine, which accelerated the hollowing-out of Irish culture. The generation born during or after the Famine matured between 1880 and 1920- including Michael Davitt (born 1846), Michael Cusack (1847), Charles Stewart Parnell (1846), Douglas Hyde, James Joyce, Patrick Pearse, WB Yeats, John Synge, Oscar Wilde- and they pioneered a remarkably experimental culture, founding the Land League, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, the Abbey Theatre and, above all, the Irish Literary Revival. This culture was also much admired outside Ireland. Synge’s use of Hiberno-English encouraged Langston Hughes and others to experiment with black vernacular speech and rhythms, which backboned the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. In the anti-colonialist map of the world proposed by the Surrealists in 1929, Ireland occupies a major space while neighbouring Britain shrinks to a dot. This volume pays insufficient attention to that long-term cultural impact of the Famine.

Similarly, the volume inadequately addresses the long-term impact of the Famine on Irish Catholicism. The Devotional Revolution was dependent on the cultural carnage of the Famine for its emergence. It entirely revamped religious practice, which quickly congealed into a powerful and rigid cultural formation. The Devotional Revolution- that melange of novenas, sodalities, confraternities, 40-hour devotions, Christian Brothers, nuns and exotic religious orders often considered to be traditional Irish Catholicism- was in fact a new form of Roman Catholicism, emerging from modernising rather than archaic forces within Irish society. The culture of poverty was supplanted by the culture of piety, as the church injected a new social discipline of respectability, earning Yeats’s memorable rebuke of Irish culture as ‘one made timid by a modern popularisation of Catholicism sprung from the aspidistra and not from the roots of Jesse’.

It is that post-Famine model of Irish Catholicism that has now spectacularly imploded. In that, as in many other senses, the shadow of the Famine loomed over Irish culture for more than a century and a half.

Toby Barnard warmly praises Cork University Press in his blurb. This ambitious volume- 728 pages, 1,000 images- is beautifully produced. It begs the question why major publicly funded Irish research projects (The Dictionary of Irish Biography, The New History of Ireland, The Dictionary of Irish Architecture) are still published outside the country when we have so many excellent indigenous presses- Cork, Lilliput, Blackstaff, Four Courts, Gallery, for example- that consistently invigorate our culture by producing high-quality books. The neocolonial practice of ignoring our own publishers should cease forthwith. Consult this volume and try still to argue that it doesn’t meet global production values.

John McGahern once rebuked retrospectively imposed unities of historians: ‘People do not live in decades or histories. They live in moments, hours, days, and it is easy to fall into the trap of looking back in judgment in the light of our own day rather than the more difficult realisation of the natural process of living, which was the same then as it is now.’ This atlas deals with the most ethically obdurate of questions: how to render justice to the million Famine dead. While we can never resurrect the inner life of the Famine generation in all its fullness, its density of meaning, The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine offers respectful attention to these people, their places, their pleasures, and their pains.

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