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.
But the problem may be endemic – wider certainly than the personalities and backgrounds of a few academics. It may lie in the relationship between catastrophe and analytic narrative. How do you write about the Famine? What tone do you use? It is now agreed (at least more or less) that around a million people died of disease, hunger and fever in the years between 1846 and 1849. The West of Ireland suffered most and there are people there today who claim still to be haunted by the silences and absences and emptiness that the Famine left. The political legacy was also important. It emerges most clearly in the Irish nationalist John Mitchel’s Jail Journal, first published in New York in 1854. The Famine, he claimed, was genocide: it could have been prevented by the British. ‘In every one of those years, ’46, ’47, ’48, Ireland was exporting to England food to the value of £15 million, and had on her own soil at each harvest, good and ample provision for double her own population, notwithstanding the potato blight.’ This claim persisted, as did the call that we should neither forgive nor forget. In fact, food imports for the years 1846 to 1850 exceeded exports by a ratio of two to one.
Such claims and calls make historians cringe, especially those who have spent a good part of their youth and early middle age poring over statistics in order to make a number of qualified assertions with a degree of confidence. The question of tone in Irish historical writing has been raised by Brendan Bradshaw in ‘Nationalism and Historical Scholarship’, an essay published in Interpreting Irish History. Bradshaw is concerned to show that ‘value-free’ history cannot work in a society such as Ireland, ‘seared ... by successive waves of conquest and colonisation, by bloody wars and uprisings, by traumatic social dislocation, by lethal racial antagonisms, and, indeed, by its own 19th-century version of a holocaust’. He writes about the ‘sheer neglect’ of the Famine by historians, with the exception of the Government-sponsored book. He goes on:
And when eventually a second brief study appeared, thirty years after the first, yet another strategy was deployed to distance the author and her readers from the stark reality. This was by assuming an austerely clinical tone, as befitting academic discourse, and by resort to sociological euphemism and cliometric excursi, thus cerebralising and, thereby, desensitising the trauma. In short, confronted by the catastrophic dimension of Irish history, the discomfiture of the modern school of value-free historians is apparent. So is the source of their discomfiture: a conception of professionalism which denies the historian recourse to value judgments and, therefore, access to the moral and emotional register necessary to respond to human tragedy.
Surely if we want moral and emotional registers as badly as Bradshaw suggests we do, we will not look to historians: we will read novels and poems, listen to ballads, stick close to our grandmothers and say our prayers. The questions we want answered remain the same: what caused the Famine? How could it have been prevented? How many died and who were they? What was the result? The sifting of facts, the careful analysis of statistics, the painstaking study of details, the weighing up of material are what is required. We have enough moral and emotional registers (at least in Ireland we do; Bradshaw teaches at Cambridge). We need information.
That ‘second brief study’ which Bradshaw castigates is Mary Daly’s The Famine in Ireland, first published in 1986. This is a briskly-written, useful book, short on emotion, long on detail and cautious examination. Daly is careful not to blame the Administration. ‘The major distortion which the potato failure brought to the Irish rural economy had neither been foreseen, nor could it have been readily prevented,’ she writes. She makes no attempt to pull our heartstrings. In a section on emigration, for instance, she writes: ‘No account of famine emigration would be complete without a reference to coffin ships. The death rate on some ships was more than 50 per cent.’ This may be an ‘austerely clinical tone’, but it hardly amounts to ‘sociological euphemism’, not to speak of ‘cliometric excursi’. It allows the reader to fill in the emotion. Afterwards, Daly goes on to provide a good deal of information about death rates at sea and types of ship.
Towards the end of the book, however, her method entirely fails her, so that you can see Bradshaw’s point when, after his attack on Daly, he calls on Irish historians to show ‘empathy’ and ‘imagination’. Daly writes: ‘The most potent impact, that on the famine victims, is the most impossible to assess.’ (No, it isn’t impossible: it is clear. The most potent impact was death.) ‘The personal consequences of the disaster, however, still escape us,’ she goes on. ‘For survivors, it must have meant the loss of kin – people widowed, orphaned, parents who had lost most, perhaps all of their children.’ There is a banality in the writing here, an insistence on sticking to a methodology that precludes any unqualified assertion and makes the prose almost comically flat.
The population of Ireland increased rapidly from the early 17th century. In 1600 it was just over a million: by 1841 it had risen to something over eight million. By that time half a million Irish farms were smaller than 15 acres and almost two hundred thousand holdings were smaller than five acres. The west of the country, where there was less arable land, was the most densely populated. (Mayo in the west had 475 people to the square mile: Kildare, near Dublin, 187.) As the British Administration saw it, these small holdings were neither practical nor sustainable. In 1848, Lord Palmerston wrote to Lord John Russell: ‘It is useless to disguise the truth that any great improvement in the social system of Ireland must be founded upon an extensive change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and that this change necessarily implies a long, continued and systematic ejectment of small holders and squatting cottiers.’
One third of all agricultural land in 1845, the first year of the blight, was used for growing potatoes, which were, as we know, the staple for at least half the population. (It is estimated that some people ate 70 potatoes a day; O Grada puts the figure at between twelve and fourteen pounds a day.) The blight was first noticed in the autumn of 1845 in Ireland and elsewhere. The Netherlands, according to Daly, lost two thirds of its potatoes, Belgium seven eighths. In Ireland, the loss was something between one third and a half.
Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister at the start of the blight, was well-informed about conditions in Ireland. When his name is mentioned in the history books, it is normally appended to the quotation from the Freeman’s Journal to the effect that ‘no man died of famine during his Administration.’ His government spent a large sum of money importing Indian corn for secret storage in Ireland and by the time it fell in the summer of 1846, private and government imports of food had filled the gap left by the blight.
It was after the election of Lord John Russell and the Whigs that the real problems began. Prices started to rise. ‘Indian meal prices remained virtually stable at 1-1.2 pence per pound until the autumn of 1846,’ Daly writes. ‘Wheat prices averaged 47 shillings per hundredweight on the market in August 1846 but reached 70 shillings by January 1847 and 100 shillings by the following May.’ And when the blight returned, it was more widespread and more severe.
What is notable about this period is the virulence of the comments about Ireland and Irish people, both landlords and peasants, made by politicians and journalists in Britain, including figures like Engels, who wrote: ‘Filth and drunkenness, too, they have brought with them ... The Irishman loves his pig as the Arab loves his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fat enough to kill. Otherwise, he eats and sleeps with it, his children play with it, ride upon it, roll in the dirt with it.’ Or Carlyle: ‘The wild Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery and mockery, salute you on the highways and byways. He is the sorest evil this country has to strive with.’ Or Elizabeth Smith, the Scottish-born wife of a Wicklow landlord: ‘The Irish landlord is in no essential different from the Irish peasant – his superior position has raised him in many points above his labouring countryman but the character of this race is common to all. The same carelessness or recklessness, call it what you will – the same indolence, the same love of pleasure, the same undue appreciation of self.’ Or Lord John Russell to Lord Landsdowne in October 1846: ‘The common delusion that government can convert a period of scarcity into a period of abundance is one of the most mischievous that can be entertained. But alas! the Irish have been taught many bad lessons and few good ones.’ In March 1847, the Times declared the Irish ‘a people born and bred from time immemorial, in inveterate indolence, improvidence, disorder and consequent destitution ... The astounding apathy of the Irish themselves to the most horrible scenes under their eyes and capable of relief by the smallest exertion is something absolutely without a parallel in the history of civilised nations.’ In August 1847 Lord Clarendon wrote to Lord John Russell: ‘We shall be equally blamed for keeping [the Irish] alive or letting them die and we have only to select between the censure of the Economists or the Philanthropists – which do you prefer?’
These are just a few examples of the dismissive tones used about Ireland at the time. If you also take into account the fact that the British Government and Irish landlords wanted land clearance on a vast scale, then the obvious question arises: could it be that, on the one hand, there were these attitudes and ambitions and, on the other, there was a famine, but that the two are not necessarily connected, or not connected enough to constitute cause and effect? The Famine was caused, after all, by a potato blight and the system of land-holding meant that many people had no money to buy food. It is like an Agatha Christie novel in which everything – motive, attitude – points to an obvious suspect, but the culprit turns out to have been the vicar’s wife, whom no one suspected.
In fact, nobody is suggesting that the Administration actually caused the Famine. The suggestion is rather that, impelled by their contempt for Ireland and their interest in land reform, the Administration caused many people to die. This is the possibility some historians are afraid to approach and others, who come to wildly different conclusions, only too ready to entertain.
For any historian writing about Ireland in 1847 there is another problem: the copious documentary evidence about public policy and the administration of relief (or, indeed, its withholding) generated by those in charge, and the paucity of personal material about those who suffered. You can read page after page about the Famine and never come across the name of anyone who died or anything about them. In The Famine Decade: Contemporary Accounts 1841-51, you find the following, dated 19 April 1848:
The Rev. Mr Henry P.P. Bunenadden, county Sligo, in a memorial to the Lord Lieutenant, complained that the following persons met their deaths by hunger, owing to the neglect of the Guardians of the Boyle Union: KILSHALVEY ELECTORAL DIVISION – Mrs Kilkenny and child, after several applications for relief in vain; Mary Connell, found dead by a rick of turf; Philip M’Gowan’s wife and daughter; Bryan Flanagan, found dead by the road side; Widow Davy’s daughter; Andrew Davy. KILTURRA ELECTORAL DIVISION – John May and son; Pat Marren, Widow Corlely, John O’Hara, John Healy’s two daughters.
What interests me here is the resonance of the names, all common in Ireland now. John Healy’s two daughters, or Mary Connell, found dead by a rick of turf: the names are enough to allow you to imagine them, to think you may have known them. Pondering the names makes you wonder about the whole enterprise of historical writing itself, how little it tells us, how brittle are the analyses of administrative systems in the face of what we can imagine for ourselves just by seeing a name with a fact beside it.
It is useful to keep all this in mind when we try to understand the complex machinations of the Administration in 1847 as the starving moved into the workhouse and a system of public works began. The guidelines laid down for this system were that ‘it should be as repulsive as possible consistent with humanity, that is, that paupers would rather do the work than “starve”.’ At the end of September 1846, 26,000 men were employed on relief work; by March 1847 it was 714,000 (with 12,000 Civil Service monitors). The money they earned did not prevent those who were working from dying. ‘Their bodily strength gone and spirits depressed, they have not the power to exert themselves sufficiently to earn the ordinary day’s wages,’ the chairman of the Board of Works wrote. The winter of 1846-47 was exceptionally cold, and a great majority of Irish labourers and potato farmers did not normally work much in the winter months, and no one owned heavy clothes. (Since there was nothing to do in winter on small holdings in the years before the Famine – the potato was growing of its own accord – it is suggested that most of them sat around the fire talking in Irish and laughing, much to the consternation of the Victorian visitor.) Instead of keeping them alive, the winter work killed them.
And the numbers – one third of the able-bodied male population – availing themselves of the public works scheme disrupted other areas of economic activity. ‘No section of the economy – wages, food prices, the structure of agricultural production – remained untouched,’ Daly writes. In January 1847 the Administration decided to abandon public works and, encouraged by the measured success of the Quaker soup kitchens, decided to introduce outdoor relief – soup kitchens – to be organised by local committees. From mid-March people were being dismissed from public works, but the new provision was not fully operational until the late spring or, in some cases, the early summer. ‘This hiatus in famine relief in the early months of 1847,’ Daly writes, ‘during one of the most difficult periods of all, and one marked by extremely high death-rates, is probably one of the most serious inadequacies in the whole government relief programme.’ The gap is all the more difficult to understand in view of the national fast in aid of the victims of the Irish Famine in England on 24 March 1847. Supported by the Queen, it raised almost half a million pounds and helped to make people aware of what was happening in Ireland, while doing nothing to weaken their belief that the Famine was caused by Providence, as Peter Gray makes clear in Famine, Land and Politics.
Because the actual administration of relief was local and because the level of distress, disease and starvation varied from locality to locality, it is impossible to make many sweeping statements about the measures taken in 1847. In Modern Ireland 1600-1972 Roy Foster examines the case of Killaloe in Co. Clare, where there were no deaths from starvation during the Famine, partly because of relief schemes, but mainly because of the efforts of the Relief Committees and the Quakers. Foster cites Sean Kierse’s 1984 study of Killaloe and O Grada in turn calls into question the conclusions Foster reaches on the basis of 113 deaths in the fever hospital. Elsewhere, when more local studies have been done, they will complicate matters still further. The details accumulate, according to O Grada, ‘like blobs of paint in an Impressionist painting: one needs more blobs and one needs to stand back before one can really appreciate what is going on.’
On a national scale, however, the figures retain their photo-realist quality. By August 1847 three million people were being fed every day by the state. The money was advanced by the Government, to be repaid in full from the local rates. The Government in London was determined that famine relief would be paid for on this basis but, especially in the West of Ireland, local levies became almost academic; even landlords were unable to pay them. With weak and starving people gathered together in such numbers, infectious diseases spread rapidly. ‘The overwhelming majority of famine deaths,’ Daly points out, ‘occurred from typhus, relapsing fever and dysentery.’
The potato crop failed again in 1848, this time mainly in the west and the north-east. In London, in an early instance of effective spin-doctoring, there was a move to insist that the Famine was over, and that any remaining problems could be handled locally. ‘What shocks,’ O Grada writes in The Great Irish Famine, ‘is the size of the excess mortality in 1848-50. The continuing winter mortality-peaks point like accusing fingers at the official determination to declare the crisis over in the summer of 1847.’ O Grada has analysed the papers of Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, and suggests that, throughout these years, Trevelyan believed that the ‘Famine had been ordained by God to teach the Irish a lesson, and therefore should not be too much interfered with’. As early as 1848, Trevelyan could refer to ‘the great Irish famine of 1847’ and then go on: ‘Unless we are much deceived, posterity will trace up to that famine the commencement of a salutary revolution in the habits of a nation long singularly unfortunate, and will acknowledge that on this, as on many other occasions, Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.’
He meant, of course, that land had been cleared. These are the figures of ownership:
|1-5 acres||181, 950||88, 083|
|5-15 acres||311, 133||191, 854|
|15 plus||276, 618||90, 401|
The economist Amartya Sen has stated that ‘in no other famine in the world was the proportion of people killed as large as in the Irish famines in the 1840s.’ It is useful in this connection to look at the number of evictions that took place.
‘It is impossible to be certain how many people were evicted during the years of the Famine and its immediate aftermath,’ James Donnelly writes. ‘The police began to keep an official tally only in 1849, and they recorded a total of nearly 250,000 persons as formally and permanently evicted from their holdings between 1849 and 1854.’ Like Peter Gray, he also notes that Russell was opposed to evictions on this scale, but that members of his cabinet, who had interests in Ireland, prevented legislation offering tenants greater rights. No one doubted that an eviction order was close to a death sentence, especially in the second half of the 1840s. In Kilrush, Co. Clare, in 18 months between 1847 and 1848, the population was reduced from 82,000 to 60,000. The Limerick Chronicle reported a year later:
Of those who survive, masses are plainly marked for the grave. Of the thirty-two thousand people on the relief lists of Kilrush union I shall be astonished if one half live to see another summer ... Again, in the divisions of Moyarta and Breaghford one third of the population have altogether disappeared, few or none by emigration, the great majority by eviction and the ever-miserable and mortal consequences that follow.
Mary Daly suggests that three and a half thousand families were evicted in 1846, six thousand in 1847 and nine and a half thousand in 1848. However, O Grada writes in the current issue of the journal Bullan: ‘Evictions and clearances are an important part of famine history, but confusing and incomplete statistics make estimating their number difficult.’ He refers to ‘new work on the topic’ by Tim O’Neill who, like Daly, teaches in the history department at University College Dublin, quoting a ‘typescript’ called ‘Famine Evictions’. O’Neill, he says, argues that in these three years alone almost 80,000 families were evicted. W.E. Vaughan, in Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland, gives 70,000 families for the entire period 1846-54. O’Neill, according to O Grada, ‘implies that the number of evictions in 1849-54 was only half that in 1846-48’.
O Grada takes O’Neill’s research seriously, but fails to ask how O’Neill’s estimate for the number of evictions in Ireland over a three-year period is four times higher than Daly’s. Daly writes: ‘Both pre-famine and post-famine eviction levels appear to have been relatively low.’ She tells us that eviction was never part of government policy; she does not say that the Government did nothing to prevent evictions. Her insistence on playing down the importance of evictions, and refusing to blame landlords or government, is only plausible if her figures are accurate.
If they are not, as O Grada seems to imply, and if 80,000 families – perhaps as many as half a million people – were evicted in the three worst years of the famine, then the role of eviction in the creation of the catastrophe is central. Many in England, including Trevelyan, viewed the potato blight as providential, and this has been used to explain their inactivity, but the higher figure for evictions can only mean that the landlords, including some who were members of the Administration, were far more active than Daly believes.
Who emigrated in these years? How many got away? ‘Nothing,’ the Earl of Clanricarde wrote to Russell in December 1846, ‘can effectually and immediately save the country without an extensive emigration. And I have not met in Town, or in Country, a reflecting man who does not entertain more or less the same opinion.’ W.S. Trench, Lord Lansdowne’s agent, wrote: ‘Nothing but the successive failures of the potato could have produced the emigration which will, I trust, give us room to become civilised.’ In his essay on Irish emigration in the book commissioned by de Valera, Oliver MacDonagh states that two million people left Ireland permanently during the decade 1845 to 1855. ‘The cottier class had virtually disappeared. The number of holdings under one acre had dropped from 134,000 to 36,000 ... the number of persons per square mile ... had fallen from 355 to 231; and the average productivity had risen greatly. In short the modern revolution in Irish farming had begun.’
In those years, people who were utterly destitute left the country; so did larger farmers who sold up and took what capital they could with them. ‘From the famine onwards,’ David Fitzpatrick writes, ‘male and female emigrants were quite evenly balanced. Boys and girls alike swarmed out of every parish, every social stratum, and almost every household, systematically thinning out the fabric of Irish society.’
About a million people left, according to Fitzpatrick, between 1846 and 1850. ‘The scale of that flight,’ he writes, ‘was unprecedented in the history of international migration.’ Of those who left 40,000 received subsidies from the landlord or the state. Major Denis Mahon in Roscommon helped his ‘surplus’ tenants to emigrate, his agent having informed him that the 2400 people occupying his 2100 acres produced only one third of the food needed for their support. He spent £14,000 on the project, having worked out that the cost of sending them to America was lower than keeping them as paupers for one year. A quarter of his tenants died at sea; the medical officer at Grosse Ile outside Quebec said that the survivors were the most wretched and diseased he had ever seen. Within a few months, Denis Mahon was murdered as a reprisal for this.
Emigrants in the early years of the Famine sent money back so that others could follow them. In 1850 a million pounds in remittances flowed back into Ireland. ‘Hard-headed English economists,’ Fitzpatrick writes, ‘were bewildered by the seemingly unforced generosity and good sense of a people whom they had so often chastised for their imprudence, indiscipline and irresponsibility.’ Many emigrants walked to the nearest port and found the cheapest exit; often they had no provisions or spare cash. ‘It was cheaper to travel to Canada,’ Daly writes, ‘than to the United States because Canadian vessels were subject to less regulation, so Canada became the most common destination. Once arrived, those who were in fit condition walked across the border into the United States.’
By 1851 there were nearly a million people of Irish birth living in the US. Others, however, went to Britain, either as a final destination or as a first stop. In Black ’47: Britain and the Famine Irish Frank Neal states that during 11 months of 1847 almost 300,000 people arrived in Liverpool from Ireland. Of these 116,000 were ‘half-naked and starving’. Conditions on the journey were dreadful. Neal quotes a contemporary report: the deck passengers
were generally crowded around the funnel of the steamer or huddled together in a most disgraceful manner; and as they have not been used to sea voyages, they get sick, and perfectly helpless, and covered with the dirt and filth of each other. I have seen the sea washing over the deck of a steamer I came over in, completely drenching the unfortunate people.
The immigrants brought typhus fever with them. ‘Overwhelming opinion among the English, lay, medical, local and national, was that fever was an Irish import,’ Neal writes. ‘Certainly, the evidence is that the majority of victims were Irish.’ In February 1847 the Home Secretary was informed that 88 per cent of the patients in the Liverpool fever hospitals were Irish. Relations between the immigrants and their hosts were not helped by the Irish custom of waking the dead. William Duncan, Liverpool’s Medical Officer of Health, wrote to the Health Committee, begging to direct their ‘attention to the objectionable custom of retaining the bodies of the dead, especially those who have died of infectious fevers, in the sleeping rooms of the living’.
Duncan developed strong views on the Irish, who, he said, were just as ‘contented amidst dirt and filth, and close confined air, as in clean and airy situations’. The Select Vestry in Liverpool was told in March 1847 that
amongst a certain number of individuals in a cellar in Bent Street, it was reported that four were lying down in one bed, with fever, that 24 grown-up young men and their sisters were sleeping in a filthy state in the room; and that 14 persons were sleeping in another filthy place. 36 persons were found huddled together in a room elsewhere and eight had died of fever in one house.
Herman Melville visited Liverpool at this time and has a description of the city in his novel Redburn: His First Voyage.
It seemed hard to believe that such an array of misery could be furnished by any town in the world. Old women, rather mummies, drying up with slow starving and age; young girls, incurably sick, who ought to have been in the hospital; sturdy men with the gallows in their eyes, and a whining lie in their mouths; young boys, hollow-eyed and decrepit; and puny mothers, holding up puny babes in the glare of the sun, formed the main features of the scene.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was also in Liverpool, had a rather different attitude to the Irish on the docksides: ‘The people are as numerous as maggots in cheese; you behold them, disgusting, and all moving about, as when you raise a plank or log that has long lain in the ground, and find many vivacious bugs and insects beneath it.’
By 1847 the arrivals in Quebec were also the cause of considerable alarm. Between 15 May and 17 June more than two thousand people died at the quarantine station at Grosse Ile. On 31 May, with no further facilities on the island, 40 vessels were at anchor in the St Lawrence. ‘Thousands had still to lie on damp and open spaces,’ according to MacDonagh, ‘dying “like fish out of water”, among the stones and mud flats of the beaches.’ Eventually, fever victims were sent upriver, spreading typhus ‘from Quebec to Montreal and farther west ... When the Irish arrived, people fled from Toronto and Kingston into the countryside.’ By the end of 1847, twenty thousand immigrants to Canada had died, 30 per cent of the entire Irish immigration. Most of the able-bodied who survived went south and settled in the United States. Although 80 per cent of them were of rural origin, only 6 per cent settled in the countryside; the rest remained in the cities. As you can imagine, historians are hesitant about figures for deaths at sea during these years, but Fitzpatrick states that ‘shipboard mortality seldom exceeded one in fifty’.
The Famine had run its course; and another million people would emigrate over the next two decades. ‘The Famine’s part in improving the lot of most people who survived is indisputable,’ O Grada writes in Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939. ‘The impressive rises in tobacco, tea and sugar consumption were largely due to higher incomes ... The trends in literacy and housing quality also imply betterment after the Famine ... Life expectancy, under forty years on the eve of the Famine, had reached fifty years by the early 1870s.’ The Irish language, according to Roy Foster, ‘was increasingly abandoned; a large proportion of emigrants came from Irish-speaking areas, and those left behind were not anxious to preserve it. Its eradication was the achievement of ambitious parents as much as of English-speaking school-teachers.’ It was in decline in any case before the Famine, but the Famine accelerated the process. Three million spoke Irish in 1845: two million in 1851.
It is difficult to imagine Ireland in detail before or during the Famine. Once Pugin’s cathedral is finished in Enniscorthy, in 1847 or 1848, it’s possible to see the town clearly: if I were to set a novel in the years after its building – the years after the Famine – I would not have to do much research. The cathedral is the beginning of real time: what happens before it is history.
The Famine only comes close when you bring it close: when you read about it, when you see a list of names, or when you start thinking about evictions or half-naked people on the decks of ships being soaked by the waves, or when you hear a song about it, or see a mass grave, or a road built during those years, or read some soundbite by an English administrator or politician. In Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, Eagleton asks: ‘Where is the Famine in the literature of the Revival? Where is it in Joyce?’ He goes on: ‘If the Famine stirred some to angry rhetoric, it would seem to have traumatised others into muteness. The event strains at the limit of the articulable, and is truly in this sense an Irish Auschwitz.’
After Adorno, no more Adornos. It is possible that Eagleton himself knows that his last statement is not true ‘in this sense’ or any other. No one was traumatised into muteness who did not witness the events. But he goes on to make what seems to me a crucial point: ‘Part of the horror of the Famine is its atavistic nature – the mind-shaking fact that an event with all the pre-modern character of a medieval pestilence happened in Ireland with frightening recentness.’ I think that this ‘pre-modern’ quality puts the Famine beyond the reach of writers who came after it; and the speed with which society transformed itself – and perhaps the arrival of the camera – made the history of 1846, 1847 and 1848 in Ireland a set of erasures rather than a set of reminders. I know that there is a small body of imaginative writing about the Famine: Liam O’Flaherty’s novel Famine is one, and there are echoes in works by Carleton and Yeats, but the two most recent works which refer to it, Patrick Kavanagh’s long poem ‘The Great Hunger’ (1942) and Tom Murphy’s play Famine (1968), are much more concerned with the contemporary world, with the spiritual and emotional famine of their own times, as Fintan O’Toole has pointed out, even though Murphy’s play is set in the Famine years. For Joyce and for many other writers, the Famine was too distant, and the world that grew out of it too interesting and close and dramatic. As Seamus Deane writes in Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790, the literature and the politics of the Irish Revival achieved ‘the remarkable feat of ignoring the Famine and rerouting the claim for cultural exceptionalism through legend rather than through history’. For Yeats, Lady Gregory and others, the invocation of an ancient, heroic Ireland was more powerful and less limiting than trying, as Seamus Deane puts it, ‘to maintain the position that a traditional culture had been destroyed while making the integrity of that culture a claim for political independence’.
The book which made all the difference came out in 1962. It was Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-49. It was a bestseller in Ireland at the time of publication and still sells well. In the United States it topped Time magazine’s bestseller list for several weeks. This was the book that de Valera was waiting for. When Woodham-Smith came to Dublin to lecture, de Valera, by this time President of Ireland, attended. Later, after she was awarded an honorary degree by the National University of Ireland, de Valera gave a dinner in her honour and invited his old-time comrades from the struggle for independence and the Civil War. ‘Though not an academic historian, Woodham-Smith was a formidable researcher,’ O Grada writes. ‘Much of her work is based on previously unused archival material.’ In general, however, historians have a low opinion of her book. It is ‘a highly dramatic and emotive picture of the famine’, according to Daly. F.S.L. Lyons detected ‘an attitude of mind which is not, in the deepest sense, historical’. Foster called her ‘a zealous convert’.
Her crisp style belongs to another age. It is full of certainties and judgments about matters which have since been surrounded with qualifications and altered by shifting perspectives. She presents pen-portraits of her protagonists – ‘Trevelyan’s qualities of rectitude, industry and complacency were not calculated to win popularity’ – of a kind that is now frowned on. Her work is readable – something which later historians of the Famine have tried hard not to be. Beady-eyed, she tells it like a story. She ends chapters with cliff-hangers. (Chapter I ends: ‘Meanwhile, in 1844, a report was received that in North America a disease, hitherto unknown, had attacked the potato crop.’) Her tone is English to the core, a cross between Margaret Thatcher and A.S. Byatt: she knows the difference between right and wrong (a matter which is still hotly debated in Ireland), and she knows a bad man when she sees one. Russell and Trevelyan are villains. If she relies too much on the study of personalities, her command of detail, her insistence on the cruelty of those in charge and the misery of those who suffered, and her ability to structure the narrative, account for the book’s extraordinary impact.
Nobody will be able to write like that again. Reading The Great Hunger is like reading Georgian poetry knowing that a new, fractured, ‘modern’ poetics is on the way. And in 1983 the historians’ equivalent of The Waste Land appeared. It, too, was written by a foreigner. His name was Joel Mokyr. He was an American economic historian with no apparent Irish connections, and his book was called Why Ireland Starved. As Joseph Lee has written in his essay on ‘The Famine as History’, Mokyr was not concerned, as Irish historians were, to provide ‘ammunition for IRA interpretations of Irish history’: ‘He came to the topic mainly as an inviting case-study in economic underdevelopment, and in the relationship between population and development ... [His] reputation did not depend on the approval of peer groups in the history departments of either Irish or British universities ... He followed the figures where they took him.’ They took him to the conclusion that more than a million people died in the Famine, twice the number proposed by Irish historians at the time. Mokyr also put forward the idea that there were four hundred thousand ‘averted births’ because of the Famine. No Irish historian took up this matter: in 1983 an emotional debate was raging over ‘the right to life of the unborn’, and we heard enough about the unborn to do us all for a lifetime – only an outsider could have wanted us to contemplate the unborn of the Famine. Contemplating those who lived was proving hard enough.
As the 150th anniversary of the Famine approached, a quantity of books on the subject began to appear, some of which are listed here. A number were written in the shadow of Irish nationalism which, as we all know, had a fresh outing in Ireland after the IRA embarked on its campaign in the North in the early Seventies. Irish history, the old story of Ireland, was once more being used as a weapon to stir political emotions. The fastidiousness of Daly’s approach should probably be seen in this context, while the approach of others – notably Christine Kinealy in This Great Calamity – is an effort to set the record straight and unrevise the revisionists.
Nothing is settled in Ireland. The years of Famine commemoration made this clear. For some, the silence surrounding the Famine and the attempt of Irish historians to remain cool about it are examples of denial, and only serve to show the importance of the Famine in the Irish psyche. Primary among these is the Irish Times columnist John Waters, who wrote in 1994:
Like so many other matters of vital importance to our condition, [the Famine] has been divided into a set of false opposites, on the one hand those who say that it was never as bad as we had been led to believe, and on the other, those who see the issue as a handy stick to beat the tribal drum. In between these polarised positions is the truth of our situation, a consciousness filled with grief and pain which has no way of expressing itself except through anger and escapism.
During her Presidency, Mary Robinson spoke regularly about the Famine and the need to come to terms with it. In 1991, she became patron of the Famine Museum in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, the home of Denis Mahon, who had paid for his surplus tenants to emigrate. In 1994 she visited Grosse Ile, where so many died in quarantine. She regarded the legacy of the Famine as central to the Irish experience, and because she carried no nationalist baggage (she had resigned from the Irish Labour Party over the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985) her tone was new. She managed to present the communal forgetting of the Famine victims as part of the general marginalisation of the weak in Ireland and suggested it was something we should think about in the Nineties.
In the early part of the decade, the Irish Government set up a Famine Commemoration Committee with a budget of £750,000. Some of this money was used for the renovation of Famine graveyards, which dot the countryside; more than £100,000 was assigned to projects in the Third World. A hundred thousand pounds was given to historians to fund further research. History, you could be forgiven for thinking, was repeating itself, but this interpretation is too simple. In 1996, the four historians who oversaw the project – David Dickson, Fitzpatrick, Daly and O Grada – had distinguished track records in the study of famine and emigration, unlike the supervisors of the earlier project. They planned for three research assistants to carry out a study of eight Poor Law Unions; and two years on, a good deal of new, detailed information is available. This is not local history, which was already abundant, but a systematic attempt to explore all the available archives, noting variations and identifying patterns. But how should this be written up or placed in a narrative? Who will do it? What tone will they take? It is unlikely that the fruits of this work will be a masterpiece of historical writing.
Of all the recent publications on the Famine, two books are, however, masterpieces. Both offer microscopic examinations of tiny, almost fragmented areas rather than sweeping narratives of the Famine years. Both, interestingly, attempt what has not been much attempted before in Ireland: to write history from the perspective of those who were not administrators or politicians or landlords. One is David Fitzpatrick’s Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia and the other is Robert James Scally’s The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine and Emigration.
Fitzpatrick’s book is
based on 111 letters, of which 55 were sent to Australia and 56 to Ireland. The letters range in length from a single line to 12 pages, the mean length being about eight hundred words (enough to fill four sides of a folded sheet). The sequences vary from two to 15 letters, only occasionally including correspondence in both directions. They were sent between 1843 and 1906, with a heavy concentration on the 1850s and 1860s.
The letters are not cut or edited. Each set of correspondence is introduced with as much detail as is available, both in Ireland and Australia, about the people who wrote them, the places they came from and where they went, their families, their associates. Oceans of Consolation is a book of studied tracings, with enough material to give us a picture not only of the context but of the character of the people who wrote the letters. Fitzpatrick compares himself to a sub-postmistress, ‘conversant with background and career, alert to gossip, but often shaky on detail’, opening these letters.
The focus of his book, he writes, ‘is upon the vernacular of the steerage class’. A good deal of the writing has that strange immediacy and clarity and sense of a living, speaking voice which you can get from letters that are not self-consciously literary. But there is always a literary element: you realise that much is being artfully withheld, that a long paragraph of news or opinions about Australia is there to disguise something else, deep feelings about home, or regrets, or other longings and attachments. When you come across a sentence like ‘I hope I never shall dye until I see yea’ or ‘Dont ye be frightened about us,’ written from Australia in 1856 in an otherwise cheerful passage all about friends and neighbours, you realise that these must have been hard letters to write and hard to read when they arrived.
Robert Scally’s The End of Hidden Ireland also involves an ingenious trawling through the archives to attempt a portrait of the people for whom men like Engels and Carlyle had such contempt. It is about Ballykilcline, Co. Roscommon, where the land on which a small community of around five hundred men and women lived suddenly came into the possession of the Crown, in 1836, and for more than a decade the tenants paid no rent. The nearest landlord was Denis Mahon. On both counts, a good deal of attention was focused on these tenants, who were eventually evicted and offered assistance to emigrate. Scally slowly evaluates the wealth of archive material about the community, while supplying a great deal of background about land-holding and emigration.
The book is at times frustrating: it is like watching television with the sound down. Ballykilcline was clearly a community with its own dynamics; most people spoke Irish; some were bilingual, but they left nothing in writing except petitions. Their voices are missing, and after 1847 they disappear into America, some dying or vanishing on the way, and the place they came from as good as disappears from the map. At Westminster, Lord Mounteagle described them as ‘a mass of destitute paupers’. Scally’s narrative, despite its problems, has brought us close enough to them, and to the intricate hierarchies and semi-clandestine affinities within their community, to feel almost offended at Mounteagle’s words. His book is an account of a small, interesting rebellion in the Irish backlands, the tenants wily and sharp enough to get away with not paying rent, as the forces of the state and the potato blight move slowly and inexorably towards them. Just as Euclides Da Cunha’s Rebellion in the Backlands became Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The War of the End of the World, The End of Hidden Ireland awaits its novelist. Fitzpatrick’s Oceans of Consolation, on the other hand, has the depth and narrative range of a novel.
It is easy for Scally to re-create the lives and adventures of the middlemen who operated on behalf of the state and the landlord. These were the Catholics who thrived while the land was cleared. The letters and reports that survive demonstrate once more the self-interest which characterised the ruling class in Ireland in these years. Scally writes: ‘Both lords lieutenant of the time, Clarendon and Bessborough, held lands in Ireland and were highly alert to the potential for violence in the situation ... The dramatic rise in the number and severity of criminal sentences while the famine lasted gives a harrowing testimony to their intentions in policing Ireland in the midst of famine.’
On 31 May 1997, the new British Prime Minister apologised for the Famine. ‘I am glad,’ he wrote, ‘to have this opportunity to join with you in commemorating all those who suffered and died during the Great Irish Famine.’ He spoke of ‘deep scars’ and the failure of a government which ‘stood by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy’. The brief speech ended with a call to ‘celebrate the resilience and courage of those Irish men and women who were able to forge another life outside Ireland, and the rich culture and vitality they brought with them. Britain, the US and many Commonwealth countries are richer for their presence.’
This was originally written to be read by Tony Blair on a video-link at a commemoration of the Great Famine, funded in part by the Irish Government, which was held in Cork on the June Bank Holiday weekend of 1997, but the plan was abandoned and the apology was read out by the actor Gabriel Byrne. It struck the right note for the commemoration, which was known as The Great Irish Famine Event – it was, in fact, a rock concert – and billed ‘as a celebration of triumph over disaster’. (Bob Dylan was to be there, but had a heart attack just beforehand.)
This was the main public commemoration of the Famine in Ireland. The country grew economically in the second half of the 19th century on the strength of the land clearances, and had not bothered much about the Famine legacy for reasons which I have explained. In the second half of the Nineties it was experiencing a sustained boom. Clearly, we wanted to celebrate our ‘skills and talents’, our ‘rich culture and vitality’, as Blair would have it. On the other hand, the event was so crass that one wondered if it had not been entirely imagined by Jonathan Swift or Paul Durcan, whose poem ‘What Shall I Wear, Darling, to the Great Hunger?’ is included in Tom Hayden’s book Irish Hunger.
During the week before the Bank Holiday concert, John Waters wrote:
This weekend, courtesy of the Minister [Avril Doyle, junior minister at the Department of the Taoiseach] and her Government of amnesia, the Irish public will be invited, as paying spectators, to commodify the destruction of our ancestors and offer it up at the altar of tourism in ‘one great big party’. In this she has created the perfect metaphor for the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, a travesty of nature built upon the graves of its dead.
‘If it is to happen at all,’ Waters said, the occasion ‘should indeed be solemn and terrible.’ (No wonder Bob Dylan had a heart attack.)
In the US, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary, the governor of New York, George Pataki, signed a Bill which would legally require high school students to study the Great Famine. ‘History teaches us,’ he said, ‘that the Great Hunger was not the result of a massive Irish crop failure, but rather a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.’ In an article in the Washington Post on 17 September last year Timothy Guinnane, associate professor of economics at Yale, wrote:
Several states have mandated that the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850 be taught in their high schools as an example of genocide, sometimes in courses originally intended for the study of the Holocaust. More states are considering enacting similar measures. These mandates reflect the efforts of a small number of Irish American leaders who have pushed this line for ideological reasons.
The Irish Famine Curriculum Committee had already submitted a document to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in 1996. It was intended for inclusion in the Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum at secondary level. The text is full of emotional language, selective quotation and a vicious anti-English rhetoric. It asserts, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Ireland remained a net exporter of food during the Famine. It is as shocking in its carelessness and its racism as the Times editorials were about Ireland during and after the Famine. It is clear that the authors of the document want us all to be victims together. When they set foot in the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, they will be in for a shock. Cecil Woodham-Smith, according to the Curriculum Committee, is ‘considered the pre-eminent authority on the Irish Famine’. Luckily for us all, this is no longer the case.
Fifty years after the Famine, in February 1895, Lady Gregory wrote to a friend:
The garden is like Italy, warm sunshine and many flowers out, wallflowers, grape hyacinths, violets and in the woods, primroses. I did a little ornamental planting yesterday, putting out copper beeches and laburnums raised from seed in my own nursery. I hope, if there are ever grandchildren, they will be grateful some day. Our people are paying rents and paying very well, and a policeman who came from Gort in the holidays to cut the boys’ hair said that he was glad of the distraction, as they have absolutely nothing to do here now.
The scene is straight out of Chekhov in its innocence and melancholy and self-absorption, but there is no Lenin lurking in the undergrowth: the changes in Ireland came subtly and slowly. In a series of Land Acts, the old estates, which had been cleared of cottier tenants, were divided up, and the deeply conservative Catholic farmer class came into being. Lady Gregory’s nephew John Shaw-Taylor was one of the architects of this legislation. By 1923 two million acres had been redistributed.
Around the mid-1890s, according to her diaries, Lady Gregory realised that ‘the breaking of Parnell’s power and his death’ in 1891 had ‘pushed politics into the background, and ... there came a birth of new hope and interests, as it were, a setting free of the imagination.’ Ireland, then, could concentrate on myth and folklife and cultural de-Anglicisation rather than partisan politics, bitterness and economic argument. Poets, dramatists and dreamers could set the tone of the debate. And in the prosperous demesnes of the west, where a new, dreamy nationalism began to thrive, the events of the Famine had no place.
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)