Cormac Ó Gráda considers an opinionated take on the causes of Ireland’s Great Famine
Thursday 13th June 2013
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewed by: Cormac Ó Gráda
Price (RRP): £17.99
Until now, ‘famine plot’ was an obscure term linked to the history of food shortages in pre-revolutionary France. Tim Pat Coogan’s The Famine Plot is about a far more sinister conspiracy theory.
Unravelling a plot means identifying the guilty party. Coogan’s new work recalls a time, half a century ago, when Cecil Woodham-Smith, author of The Great Hunger, was berated for not calling a spade a spade. Her enduring classic, fumed Irish novelist Frank O’Connor, was proof that the British authorities were guilty of “murder unlimited” in their treatment of the Irish: why had she not said as much? O’Connor laced his remarks with references to ‘Charles Eichmann-Trevelyan’ (for Charles Trevelyan, Treasury undersecretary) and Dachau. Historian AJP Taylor also read the book as clear evidence for “genocide”, claiming that during the famine “all Ireland was a Belsen”.
Such outraged reactions appalled Woodham-Smith and led some Irish historians to disown her, but they are very much in line with Coogan’s The Famine Plot. Coogan makes no bones about accusing the government of the day of “a genocidal intent,” as opposed to pursuing policies with “a genocidal outcome”. He rests his case on the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, which he reproduces in full.
As Coogan recognises, specialist historians of the Great Famine are inclined to argue that hard evidence for the “intent to destroy” stipulated in the Convention’s Article 2 is lacking. The charge of genocide is rejected in three other books published in a rich period for monographs on the subject: John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking; Enda Delaney’s The Curse of Reason; and – most ambitious of all – the multi-authored Atlas of the Great Irish Famine.
The stance of these fine works is hardly apologetic: they offer ample evidence of policies implemented during the famine that were callous, careless, blinkered and dogmatic. And in fairness to Coogan, let us be clear: Whitehall certainly did not set out to minimise mortality. Nor did it betray any remorse at presiding over the deaths of about one million people. Some of those deaths were inevitable, given the poverty of the country, but some followed from a conviction in high places that the famine
was (in the words of chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Charles Wood) “a national visitation, sent by providence”. Other deaths were the shocking by-productsof ill-conceived policies that aimed to ‘civilise’ a backward economy.Coogan rounds up the
usual suspects, but the mortality was neither calculated nor premeditated. In legal parlance, there might be a case for charges of ‘manslaughter’ or ‘wilful neglect’ against Wood et al, but the case for premeditated ‘murder’ is unproven.
Coogan’s website aptly describes him as a ‘historical writer’ rather than a ‘historian’, but at its best his writing on Ireland’s past is intelligent and accessible to a large readership. This is far from his best: it rakes over ground already all too familiar, adds little that is new, and lacks an obvious narrative or logical structure.
The Famine Plot is most noteworthy for its retro, strongly anti-English stance and for articulating a charge that won’t wash but won’t go away. John Mitchel (1815–75) made the same case more effectively long ago in The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), available to read online at the Library Ireland site: http://bit.ly/XAJAcl.
Cormac Ó Gráda is the author of Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009)