Christine Kinealy contemplates a bleak narrative of the Irish famine
Reviewed by: Christine Kinealy
Price (RRP): £20
The Great Irish Famine, like the American Civil War, remains a sensitive topic to study.
The American Civil War, with its enormous loss of human life (approximately 620,000 dead), is correctly seen as a pivotal event in the nation’s history. Moreover, it has been estimated that there has been a book written about the war for every day since it ended.
The Great Irish Famine, also referred to as The Great Hunger, not only changed the course of Irish history, but also that of the countries to which the emigrants fled. Despite its importance, until recently it remained relatively neglected by academics, both as a topic for research and as a subject to be taught.
The year 1995 marked the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the potato blight in Ireland. Between 1995 and 1997, more books were written on the famine than had been published during the previous 150 years. Following that, the publication of scholarly books slowed down, and one Irish journalist even averred that no further books on the topic were needed.
Ciarán Ó Murchadha’s aptly subtitled “Ireland’s Agony 1845–52” proves him wrong.
Building on new research from the last 15 years, Ó Murchadha has created a fine overview of the famine. He brings a human dimension to the tragedy by providing names for
some of the victims, people whom a contemporary described as little more than “breathing skeletons of men and women… unable to crawl forth”.
Such individual details are rare because the majority of the people who died remain nameless, their deaths unrecorded and uncounted. And, as Ó Murchadha points out: “In countless instances, people simply went missing, their bodies lying in fields and by-ways before rotting to skeletal or mummified form, never to be identified or perhaps even found.”
Ó Murchadha also charts the impact that hunger and death had on social rituals, from birth to burial, which had been part of everyday life, while pointing to a further loss – Ireland’s rich culture of music, song, story and dance disappeared. These horrors and losses are juxtaposed against the ever-more draconian legislation passed in London: legislation that was as insensitive as it was inappropriate.
Unlike some earlier historians, Ciarán Ó Murchadha recognises that the famine was a national disaster, and that no part of the country was untouched. Although many of his local examples are drawn from areas in the west of the country, he describes the starvation and suffering evident in the north-east, including Belfast and Lurgan, towns with predominantly Protestant populations.
Dr Ó Murchadha’s book is a welcome addition to famine historiography and it demonstrates
that there is still much that remains to be told about this catastrophe.
Professor Christine Kinealy is the author of This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52 (Gill & Macmillan, 2006)