Colm Tóibín on the Great Irish Famine

The house at Coole has gone now; razed to the ground. ‘They came like swallows and like swallows went,’ Yeats said in ‘Coole Park, 1929’, imagining a time

When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone.

Nothing now roots among the broken stone: the site where the house once stood is cemented over, as though to contain uneasy spirits in the foundations. It is a palpable absence, a warning that this is what can happen to great houses with ambiguous legacies.

The copper beech tree on which Lady Gregory’s guests carved their names is close by. You can just make out some of the initials: GBS, SOC, WBY, JBY, AE. ‘All/That comes of the best knit to the best,’ Yeats wrote in ‘Upon a House Shaken by Land Agitation’. Lady Gregory, Yeats’s friend and collaborator, remains a heroic presence in Irish writing at the turn of the century, dedicated, serious-minded, stalwart, practical; and the house where Yeats took the master bedroom and wrote each summer would have remained a shrine to her generosity and his genius; its demolition in 1941 was a disgrace.

Augusta Persse was born in 1852, and in 1880 she married Sir William Gregory, who was 35 years older than her. He died in 1892, and she outlived him by forty years. Lady Gregory made herself useful to Yeats, as Roy Foster shows in his biography of the poet, because of her interest in folklore and her knowledge of the area around Coole and its people. ‘John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought/All that we did, all that we said or sang/Must come from contact with the soil.’ Much of Yeats’s work on Irish folklore was, as Foster points out, a collaboration with Lady Gregory.

Lady Gregory also wrote plays, which had to do in various ways with ‘the soil’. The Coole Park she came to after her marriage in 1880 must have been haunted by the Great Famine, which began with the failure of the potato crop in certain parts of Ireland in 1845. It is recorded, for example, that on 5 April 1847 four thousand destitute labourers gathered at Gort, the nearest town to Coole Park, looking for work. In 1848 a Poor Law inspector visiting the workhouse in Gort wrote that he could scarcely ‘conceive a house in a worse state, or in greater disorder’. A quarter of the population of the area sought relief in those years and many died in the most appalling circumstances. Sir William Gregory witnessed much of this and was, according to his biographer, deeply affected. ‘He never forgot either the taut skin over skeletal features or the hollow voices of those wasting away from hunger and disease, nor the sight of “poor wretches” who had built “wigwams of fir branches” against his demesne wall.’

Yet in 1847, as the famine in Ireland became increasingly serious, Sir William Gregory drafted what is often described as ‘the infamous Gregory clause’ in the Poor Law legislation for Ireland going through the House of Commons: any family holding more than a quarter of an acre could not be granted relief, either in or out of the workhouse, until they gave up their land.

Thus landlords who wanted to move from tillage to livestock or dairy farming would now have a valuable opportunity to do so. They would also rid themselves of bad tenants. The Gregory clause was ‘a charter for land clearance and consolidation’, according to Peter Gray. ‘The substantial rise in evictions after 1847 was attributed largely to its introduction,’ according to Christine Kinealy. For the tenants whose potato crop had failed and whose families were starving, the Gregory clause was a nightmare. As a rule, not even children were allowed to enter the workhouse until a family’s land was surrendered. People had to decide: if we want to eat, we have to give up our land.

The Gregory legacy is two-sided, then: imagining Ireland (her); causing hardship and misery in Ireland that were almost unimaginable (him). In Heathcliff and the Great Hunger Terry Eagleton has wry words to say about the relationship between Anglo-Irish landlords and Anglo-Irish writers:

Yet it could not pass entirely unnoticed that if the forefathers of the colonial class in Ireland had been a little less intent on undermining the native culture, their emancipated sons and daughters would have needed to busy themselves rather less with restoring it. Before Lady Gregory came to collect Gaelic folk tales, her future husband William had framed the infamous Gregory clause in the depths of Famine.

In a lecture delivered on Irish radio in 1995 and published in The Great Irish Famine: The Thomas Davis Lecture Series, James Donnelly remarked that

throughout the rest of the Famine years, the Gregory clause or ‘Gregoryism’ became a byword for the worst miseries of the disaster – eviction, exile, disease and death. When in 1874 Canon John O’Rourke, the parish priest of Maynooth, came to publish his History of the Great Famine of 1847, he declared of the Gregory clause: ‘A more complete engine for the slaughter and expatriation of a people was never designed.’ In case anyone might be inclined to forgive or forget (perhaps already there were a few revisionists about), O’Rourke insisted that ‘Mr Gregory’s words – the words of ... a pretended friend of the people – and Mr Gregory’s clause are things that should be for ever remembered by the descendants of the slaughtered and expatriated small farmers of Ireland.’

Irish historians, on the whole, do not become emotional about the Famine. Like historians elsewhere, they are happier to describe and analyse than blame or use emotional language or emotional quotations. They are not in the business of writing about forgiving or forgetting: they are aware, perhaps, that we have had to listen to this sort of language for a long time in Ireland, and none of it has done us much good. But then, as I discovered from the notes on contributors in The Great Irish Famine, James Donnelly is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an American of Irish extraction.

Once I knew this, I felt I understood the tone of the paragraph. Why could an Irish historian not have written it? Equally, why had I immediately and automatically disapproved of the tone? Why should we remain cool and dispassionate and oddly distant from the events of 150 years ago?

They have redecorated Pugin’s Catholic cathedral in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the south-east of Ireland, where I grew up. I had always remembered the stone on the inside as colourless and austere, and I had liked the dullness of it. But now it is all colour; that is the way it was, we are assured, when it was built. It was by far the largest building in the town – it still is – and was built on the site of the old thatched cathedral. It must have carried the great weight of power and newness which factories had in more industrial landscapes. It was where people first learned to remain quiet in large groups, and where they learned about being on time. Until the recent restoration I had never imagined the colour: people must have been shocked by the richness of it when the doors of the cathedral opened in 1846.

The souvenir brochure which the Catholic Church in the town produced for the centenary of the cathedral in 1946 has some wonderful descriptions of the new building: ‘The chancel screen of richly-carved Caen-stone runs up to the capitals of the tall granite pillars supporting the arches which separate the sanctuary from the aisles. The carved screen work is gracefully supported by a series of polished pillars of native marble which rise from plinths of Caen-stone.’ Or: ‘The floor of the chancel is set with encaustic tiles with designs in red, brown, pale green, white and rich Wedgwood blue.’ Mass was said in this sumptuous building in 1846 and work continued on the cathedral for the next few years.

It seems incongruous now, barely possible that this wealth of detail was being incorporated into an Irish Catholic institution in 1846 and 1847, the years we associate with the Famine. The centenary brochure contains an analysis of the subscriptions made to the building fund in the 1840s. ‘At the time when these were made,’ the article says, ‘the great Famine was sweeping through the land. Many of those whose small subscriptions helped to build Enniscorthy Cathedral must soon have known bitter hunger, starvation and death.’ It goes on to list the subscribers and identify those who still had relatives in the town in 1946. I knew some of these people: Dan Bolger, for example, whose grandfather, Paul, had donated money in 1846. Dan Bolger had a shop in the town. It was hard to think of him, or any of these people, having grandparents who knew ‘bitter hunger, starvation and death’. Most of them had inherited property and exuded a certain prosperity.

The story of the cathedral and those who subscribed to it makes clear to us that Catholic society in Ireland in the 1840s was graded and complex, that to suggest that it was merely England or Irish landlords who stood by while Ireland starved is to miss the point. An entire class of Irish Catholics survived the Famine; many, indeed, improved their prospects as a result of it, and this legacy may be more difficult for us to deal with in Ireland now than the legacy of those who died or emigrated.

The trustees of Lord Portsmouth are mentioned in the centenary brochure as subscribing to the cathedral fund. The following sentence is added: ‘Later, in the famine years, this family, which practically owned Enniscorthy, did nothing to aid their people.’ In my father’s account of the Famine – he was a local historian – in the same brochure, he wrote about the rise in the price of food: the workhouse could buy oatmeal for two pounds a ton in October 1845; within a few months that had gone up to five pounds and by the end of 1846 it was 20. He does not comment on this: there were things you could not say in 1946 about the Famine, such as that ordinary Catholic traders in the town and the stronger farmers speculated in food and made profits. Instead, he wrote:

nothing in our history, perhaps, fills us with so much pity and sorrow; pity for the poor of our country, for it was they who suffered most; no other events leave us with so much to ... wonder at – how, for instance, an ignoble ascendancy stood idly by and watched the export of great quantities of corn, exported to pay rents to absentee landlords, corn which might have saved a million lives.

It is plain from much writing about the Famine that two things happened in its aftermath. One, people blamed the English and the Ascendancy. Two, there began a great silence about class division in Catholic Ireland. It became increasingly important, as nationalist fervour grew in the years after the Famine, that Catholic Ireland, or simply ‘Ireland’ (the Catholic part went without saying), was presented as a nation, one and indivisible. The Famine, then, had to be blamed on the Great Other, the enemy across the water, and the victims of the Famine had to be this entire Irish nation, rather than a vulnerable section of the population.

And it became a truth universally acknowledged that this was an event we still had to come to terms with; that scholars needed to do a great deal of work before we could finally understand what happened in Ireland in the latter part of the 1840s, why it happened, and who was to blame. The first hundred issues of Irish Historical Studies contained only five articles on the Famine. Between the years 1974 and 1987 Irish Economic and Social History did not publish a single article on it. Thus we find the following remarks in Cormac O Grada’s Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939: ‘The truth about the connection between relief, wages and work effort during the Famine must have been complex, but has not been studied.’ Or: ‘The deals that farmers made with those they retained have not been studied in the Irish context.’ Or: ‘The food content of the diet’ offered in the soup kitchens ‘still awaits definitive analysis.’ Or: ‘The most obvious question about Irish famine relief – how many lives were saved by actual outlays and how much more it would have cost to save more of the lives lost – are probably unanswerable ... Perhaps detailed local study and comparative insights will answer such questions.’ Or: ‘A salutary feature of Sen’s approach is its focus on class and distributional considerations, too long taboo in Irish historiography. It invites Irish historians to look more deeply into the part played by farmers, shopkeepers and townspeople – or, more generally, the middle classes – in preventing or exacerbating mortality.’ Or: ‘Many of the guardians presiding over the stingiest Poor Law Unions were middle-class Repealers’ – generally Catholics in favour of repealing the 1801 Act of Union – ‘not Protestant landlords. Again, few Irish Members opposed the passage of the Gregory clause in Westminster. There is ample scope for further research here by cultural, social and local historians.’

Ample indeed. In the early Forties Eamon de Valera, who had been brought up in Co. Clare, a part of Ireland deeply affected by the Famine, realised that there was a need for a definitive single volume on the Famine by serious historians, and, as Taoiseach, he decided to make public money available for this. The project was taken on by Robert Dudley Edwards from University College Dublin, who promised that a book, one thousand pages long, made up of essays by various experts, would be in print by 1946. The Government released a grant of £1500. Over the next few years Edwards worked with a number of co-editors. Many setbacks befell the project and, often enough, the editors were to blame. The chapter on the medical history of the Famine had to appear without footnotes because one of the editors lost them, ‘allegedly in a London taxi-cab’.

In 1950, the Government was still asking for information on the project. In the early Fifties the title changed from The History of the Great Irish Famine to Studies in the History of the Great Irish Famine. It finally appeared in 1956, with 436 pages of text. It was the first serious work about the Famine by modern historians, and it tells us a great deal both about the Famine and about the historians. In his essay on the saga of this book, which is included in Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism, O Grada writes: ‘it reads more like an administrative history of the period, with the core chapters dwelling on the tragedy mainly from the standpoint of the politician, the Poor Law administrator, those who controlled passenger movements, and the medical practitioner ... Few of the contributors relied on the wealth of manuscript sources available even then on the famine years.’

De Valera was out of office by the time the book was published. ‘Later,’ O Grada writes, ‘he expressed unhappiness with the book, presumably because it seemed to downplay those aspects of the tragedy that had been etched in his own memory.’ O Grada goes on: ‘Almost three decades later, that “definitive history” remains to be written, though a great deal of work has been done in the interim.’

Laziness on the part of the contributors, perhaps, a rather active social life, busy teaching schedules, and problems with source material may all help to explain why the book commissioned by the Government (and reissued by Lilliput Press in 1994) was half the length promised and extremely tentative in tone. In the early Seventies in University College Dublin, I studied with a few of the people involved in the project. It was clear from their bearing, the timbre of their voices and their general interest in source material that their time in British universities had been very important for them, that they were happier reading Hansard than going through lists of the names of people who died on coffin ships. It was equally clear that they would never have edited a book about the Famine had they not been commissioned to do so. If they did not come from a class which was largely spared the Famine and land clearance, then they certainly aspired to it.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

The following books have been consulted in the writing of this article:

Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture by Terry Eagleton (Verso, 355 pp., £14,1996, 185984 932 6)
The Great Irish Famine: The Thomas Davis Lecture Series, edited by Cathal Poirteir (Mercier, 266 pp., £8.99, 1995, 185635 111 4)
Ireland: A New Economic History by Cormac O Grada (Oxford, 536 pp., £15.99, 1995, 0 19 820210 5)
The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52, edited by Robert Dudley Edwards and Desmond William (Lilliput, 523 pp., £14.99, 1994, 0 946640 94 7)
Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism, edited by Ciaran Brady (Irish Academic Press, 348 pp., £14.95, 1994, 0 7165 2499 6)
The Famine in Ireland by Mary Daly (Dundalgan Press, 138 pp., £7.50, 1986, 0 85221 108 2)
The Famine Decade: Contemporary Accounts 1941-51, edited by John Killen (Blackstaff, 274 pp., £10.99, 1995, 0 85640 560 4)
Famine, Land and Politics by Peter Gray (Irish Academic Press, 384 pp., £39, 6 March, 0 7165 2564 X)
Modern Ireland 1600-1972 by Roy Foster (Penguin, 704 pp., £9.99, 1990, 0 14 013250 3)
The Great Irish Famine by Cormac O Grada (Cambridge, 91 pp., £6.95, 1996, 0 521 55266 4)
Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland by W.E. Vaughan (Oxford, 362 pp., £45, 1994, 0 19 820356 X)
Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish by Frank Neal (Macmillan, 292 pp., £45, 10 November 1997, 0 333 66595 3)
Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 by Seamus Deane (Oxford, 269pp., £25, 20 March 1997, 0 19 818337 2)
Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy 1800-50 by Joel Mokyr (Allen and Unwin, 340 pp., £45, 1983, 0 04 941010 5)
This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52 by Christine Kinealy (Gill and MacMillan, 300 pp., £17.99, 1994, 0 7171 1832 0)
Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Migration to Australia by David Fitzpatrick (Cork, 649 pp., £19.95, 1995, 1 85918 035 3
The End of the Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine and Emigration by Robert James Scally (Oxford, 266 pp., £12.99, 1996, 0 19 505582 9)
Irish Hunger: Personal Reflections on the Legacy of the Famine, edited by Tom Hayden (Wolfhound, 303 pp., £16.99, 7 May 1997, 1 57098 111 6)
Annals of the Famine in Ireland by Asenath Nicholson, edited by Maureen Murphy (Lilliput, 240 pp., £9.99, 15 February, 1 874675 94 5)
The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy, edited by George Boyce and Alan O’Day (Routledge, 256 pp., £14.99, 1996, 0 415 09819 X)
Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine, edited by Chris Morash and Richard Hayes (Irish Academic Press, 180 pp., £14.95, 1996, 0 7165 25 65 8)
The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America 1846-51 by Edward Laxton (Bloomsbury, 250 pp., £6.99, 28 November 1997, 0 7475 3500 0)
Writing the Irish Famine by Chris Morash (Oxford, 213 pp., £35, 1995, 0 19 818279 1)
The Hungry Stream: Essays on Famine and Emigration, edited by Margaret Crawford (Institute of Irish Studies, 221 pp., £9.50, 20 September 1997, 0 85389 677 1)