Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, General, Issue 2 (March/April 2013), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 21

Atlas of the Great Irish FamineJohn Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy (eds) (Cork University Press, €59) ISBN 9781859184790

Atlas of the Great Irish Famine
John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy (eds)
(Cork University Press, €59)
ISBN 9781859184790

When I got my review copy of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, I was startled by the heft of the book; this is a seriously weighty tome! In spite of its cumbersome format, however, Cork University Press is to be congratulated for a fine publication with excellent production values. As far as content is concerned, ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’: this is an atlas, compiled and edited by geographers. According to the introduction, the cartographic journey to the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine ‘began almost twenty years ago with a discussion in the Department of Geography, University College Cork’. Anyone wishing to study or research the Famine will discover a fascinating assembly of relevant material contained in the maps, diagrams, graphs, illustrations, statistics and essays that adorn this publication. There is one major drawback, however—the absence of a proper index. There is, as you would expect from geographers, an index of places, but the reader will find this less than helpful when trying to make sense of the multitude of facts contained in the atlas.

One map illuminated something that had always puzzled me. The constant repetition of the bald statistics of over one million dead and two million gone has created the impression that the Irish meekly accepted their horrible fate. Indeed, the dominant theme of much Famine imagery is one of resignation. Yet the social reality during those terrible years was anything but one of resignation. The country was awash with random acts of violence. There were killings, assassinations, acts of arson, looting and even insurrection! In the House of Lords in London, the Earl St German, a former Irish chief secretary, felt inclined to declare that Ireland was in ‘a state of terror’. Yet, in spite of this woeful predicament, no meaningful opposition to the strategies employed by the authorities seemed able to cohere. One explanation is revealed on page 54—a map showing the distribution of army barracks in 1837. The caption notes that during the Famine troop numbers almost doubled, which resulted in Ireland being the most heavily garrisoned territory in the British Empire. The role of the army was simple enough, and that was to ensure that British government policy was effectively carried out in Ireland:

‘. . . the enforcing of relief regulations, including the collection of rates, the protection and support of landlords in their often ruthless clearance of the poor tenantry; the escorting of food/grain convoys bound for export and the control of urban food riots and starving famine crowds—looking for bread and work—all involved the interventions of both army and police’.

In words that would echo in the course of other human catastrophes, ‘resistance was futile’. The caption also informs us that ‘the cost of maintaining this military and police presence in famine Ireland was greater than the total monies advanced by Britain for famine relief in Ireland in the years 1846–1852’.

The editors’ ambition for the book encouraged them to invite a wider range of experts than geographers to contribute—‘hence the importance attached to the work of poets, visual artists, musicians, folklorists, photographers and writers of Irish and English literature as well as the research of more established scholars’. How successful has that exercise been? The answer is—like the metaphorical curate’s egg—good in parts! The editors themselves set the parameters to their ambition in the opening sentence of their introduction: ‘The Great Irish Famine is surrounded by controversy, silence and shame’. In fact, controversy is limited to the role played by the authorities and boils down to issues of responsibility and culpability. Today, over 160 years since these traumatic events, I am amazed that there are still those who appear challenged by views like these expressed by the Chicago-based economic historian Joel Mokyr: ‘most serious of all, when the chips were down in the frightful summer of 1847, the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them perish’. In an otherwise excellent essay dealing with the colonial aspects of the period, William J. Smyth, one of the editors, admits that ‘the extent to which the London administration was responsible or not for famine deaths and for prolonging and intensifying famine miseries, is still a contested domain’. Yet by the end of the essay he concedes that ‘one could never imagine any Irish government of whatever hue—whether the Confederation government at Kilkenny in the mid-seventeenth century, or Dáil Eireann and the Northern Assembly today—turning their backs and ignoring the cry of want’. That comment reminds me of an observation made by the Nobel laureate and Harvard economist/ philosopher Amartya Sen that catastrophic famines never occur in countries with functioning democracies. The Irish experience certainly bears out that theory. During the famine of 1741 the national government in Dublin felt obliged to close the ports to curtail food exports. After the Act of Union of 1800, when this limited democracy was abolished and full power was transferred to London, troops and police were tasked with keeping the ports open and ensuring that food exports to Britain continued unabated even though famine stalked the land. Surely credulity is being stretched to the limit if, after 160 years, the metaphorical excuse of ‘the jury being out’ in terms of apportioning responsibility and blame is still being employed?

The issue of silence is a complex one and, as the introduction informs us, ‘the first great silence relates to the famine dead’. Obviously we will never learn their stories. Those who survived, however, leave a much more contradictory record. I have always found the emigrant Irish, particularly in America, eager to learn about and embrace the story of the Famine, which forced their ancestors to leave Ireland. On the other hand, many Irish who remained at home witnessed or committed terrible deeds in order to survive, and as a consequence their descendants, possibly suffering from guilt or shame, felt reluctant to talk about that awful period. Perhaps that reluctance is one reason why historical research into the central event of nineteenth-century Irish history was to remain remarkably limited until recent decades.

Another great silence caused by the Famine was the irreversible impact it had on the speaking of Irish. In her essay ‘Legacy and loss’, Máireád Nic Craith considers the cultural implications of the loss of a native tongue for a national psyche. Sadly there is also a visual absence when it comes to the Famine. Catherine Marshall in her essay informs us that ‘in terms of visual art the silence has been deafening’. There are obvious reasons for this void. After the Act of Union the political and cultural centre of gravity moved from Dublin to London. Consequently, most Irish artists of talent and ambition relocated and attempted to build their careers in London. Many were successful in this regard but there were endless obstacles in the way of expression. Irish subjects and themes were simply unacceptable, so only a very few Famine paintings were created. After all, the Irish artist in London depended on a market controlled by the dominant culture; and when, for example, Robert George Kelly attempted to challenge this consensus with an eviction scene, unbelievably there was hostile comment in the House of Commons.

The editors have gone out of their way to reproduce as many Famine images as they could get their hands on, but I have to say that, by and large, the selection is fairly well mannered. Few images succeed in conveying the ghastly horror that befell the Irish people during these terrible years. It is unfortunate that the editors didn’t happen upon the work of the contemporary Glaswegian artist Peter Howson. His visceral paintings of the Irish Famine could have introduced some real visual tension to the Atlas.

There can be no doubt that the Famine ‘broke the back and self-confidence of the nation’, and many Irish people, both at home and abroad, bear the psychological scars of that legacy to this day. Dr Garrett O’Connor, a US-based Irish-American addiction counsellor, calls this phenomenon cultural malignant shame, which is characterised by ‘chronic fear, suppressed rage, self-loathing, procrastination, low self-esteem, false pride and a vulnerability to use alcohol as remission for suffering’.

The last pages of the Atlas contain several worthwhile essays comparing the Irish Famine of the nineteenth century to famines in the world today. A real opportunity was lost, however, by not tackling a challenging comparison closer to home. In her book The shock doctrine, Naomi Klein reminds us of Milton Friedman’s declaration that ‘only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change’. Friedman, the architect of neo-liberal economics, was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly once a crisis has struck, when the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-wracked society slipped back into what he termed ‘the tyranny of the status quo’. In the book Klein provides us with practical examples of the outworking of that particular ideology. Perhaps the most relevant is the case of Sri Lanka. When the natural disaster caused by the Asian tsunami struck in 2004, the government took advantage of the resultant chaos to clear the eastern coastline of fishing communities who had lived there for generations and to sell on the temporarily vacant beach properties to international hotel conglomerates. This colossal social and property reversal would have been impossible in normal times.

I find fascinating the comparison between the policies pursued by the authorities in London as a consequence of the Famine and the policies currently being implemented in Europe as a result of the economic crisis. It seems to me that the pronouncements of Charles Trevelyan and Angela Merkel are literally interchangeable. For example, Merkel speaks about ‘the opportunity of the crisis’ and that ‘the debt crisis is a decisive moment, a chance to go a new way, a breakthrough to a new Europe’. Trevelyan was equally convinced that the Famine opened the way to radical social and economic change in Ireland: ‘God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part and that we may not relax our efforts until Ireland fully participates in the social health and physical prosperity of Great Britain’. Just as Irish people were sacrificed on the altar of economic orthodoxy in the nineteenth century, so too today a new generation of Irish are being subjected to a similar fate.  HI

Robert Ballagh is an artist and an organiser of the Irish Famine Tribunal, which will be held in Fordham University, New York, later this year.

Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568