The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Reviews, The Famine, Volume 10

Christine Kinealy
(Palgrave, £15.50 pb, £47.50 hb)
ISBN 0333677722
The Great Irish Potato Famine
James S. Donnelly, Jr
(Sutton Publishing, £20)
ISBN 0750926325

These are two books which, at first sight, bear certain similarities. Both are surveys of the Great Famine by established scholars in the field, which combine elements of the author’s previous work with more recent research and a discussion of 1990s developments in historiography and public debate. Both are aimed primarily at an undergraduate and informed general readership, Donnelly’s explicitly so, Kinealy’s as part of Palgrave’s ‘British History in Perspective’ series. Both can be identified as self-consciously ‘post-revisionist’ in approach. Having said that, there are considerable divergences between these texts in style, methodology and ultimately of quality, and only one can be unreservedly recommended as a guide to the non-specialist.
Christine Kinealy’s The Great Irish Famine draws substantially on her 1997 survey A Death Dealing Famine, although her intention now is less to offer a general history of the Famine than to examine it through a number of thematically-organised ‘contexts’. Perhaps inevitably, this means that there is some narrative repetition between the chapters. New material is presented on a number of these themes, especially memory, charity and the religious response, although the distinctive interpretative centre of the book remains identical to that of 1997—the controversial claim that Ireland suffered no real deficit of food in 1846-7, and that the Famine was essentially artificial.
The opening chapter addresses the memory of the Famine, primarily through the prism of the sesquicentenary commemorations of the mid-1990s. Kinealy’s contention is that this crucial period witnessed the recovery of long-suppressed memories of the Famine in the popular, political and historiographical spheres. While the events of the 1990s certainly deserve analytical scrutiny, there is a tendency here—encouraged by Kinealy’s tendency to polarise and over-dramatise, and to take at face value some public statements which deserve more critical interrogation—to endorse what Niall Ó Ciosáin has criticised as the ‘myth of silence’. Neither folklore sources, nationalist tradition, nor the phenomenal success of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger indicate a ‘silence’ about the Famine in Irish popular consciousness before the 1990s. The rhetoric of silence requires analysis drawing less on psychobabble and more on an understanding of its various instrumental applications and the process of how what Pierre Nora has termed ‘memory sites’ are created to meet the contemporary needs of modernising societies.
In her discussion of historiography Kinealy again overstates the role of commemoration as a stimulus to new thinking. While her critique of revisionist neglect is widely accepted, there is no acknowledgement here of the important Famine history revival of the 1980s. Publications in that decade by Joel Mokyr, Cormac Ó Gráda, Peter Solar and James Donnelly not only reinvigorated debate about the economic history of the catastrophe, but raised crucial questions about policy and responsibility which were subsequently developed by others. This may be merely oversight, but later sections of the book suggest that the author has not fully engaged with this literature.
Chapter four develops Kinealy’s key argument that Ireland produced sufficient food during the Famine years to feed its people, and that (following John Mitchel) the export of these stocks was a central reason for mass starvation. Much of the supporting argument is uncontroversial: there is now a scholarly consensus that Whig food policy in 1846-7 grossly aggravated the crisis by failing to secure available food stocks in the national and international markets, to regulate spiralling prices, or to promote retention and importation during the ‘starvation gap’ of winter 1846-7. The moral case against the export of food from destitute districts is unanswerable. Kinealy, however, goes considerably beyond this, challenging the detailed economic analysis of such scholars as Austin Bourke, Cormac Ó Gráda and Peter Solar. To be persuasive, the economic data supporting her case needs to be developed at greater length and with more sophistication than in the seven pages devoted here. We need adequate quantification of the degree to which government export statistics were inaccurate (and a similar evaluation of other statistics assumed here to be definitive); we need a more coherent understanding of the difference between the potato’s monetary and calorific share of Irish agricultural production; we need a disinterested comparative analysis of the respective calorific values of available foodstuffs (exported and imported) and an engagement with the scale of the potato failure of 1846, which is virtually written out of this account. Kinealy’s case is simply not proven. More significantly, it can be seen as a distraction from the more important matter of the government’s demonstrable failure to provide the most vulnerable with adequate entitlements to what food was available, particularly in the period of unquestionable sufficiency of supply (not least due to massive imports) from spring 1847.
The ideological and political reasons for this government failure are set out in chapter two. While gratified to see so much of my own published interpretation of policy-making with its supporting evidence borrowed in Kinealy’s account, I would have welcomed the courtesy of seeing this acknowledged in the citations. The development of the theme of Protectionist criticism of the government is interesting, although analysis of the private correspondence of Bentinck and Disraeli might have provided greater nuance than reliance on public rhetoric; Bentinck’s 1847 railway bill takes on a different significance in the light of expert witness evidence that the bulk of the proposed expenditure would have gone on land purchase rather than relieving the destitute.
This book is not without its merits. The discussion of philanthropy in chapter three is extensive and well-researched. Similarly, the section on religion incorporates much of the primary research on Belfast published in Kinealy’s recent study of the Famine in that city, although the religious history of the Famine is less under-researched than she asserts, especially in the wake of the late Donal Kerr’s two books on the Catholic church, David Miller’s important 1999 article on Presbyterianism and Irene Whelan’s work on souperism. The discussion of proselytism here is useful, although a full account of the Anglican church’s institutional response to the crisis is still wanting. The remaining chapters on popular protest and Irish politics in the 1840s, while offering little by way of new interpretation, are supported by good use of the Irish press. There are a number of small but irritating errors: the image described on p.142 is from the Pictorial Times not the Illustrated London News, Lincoln (p.125) was Chief Secretary not Viceroy in 1846, ‘quarts’ have replaced quarters in some measurements, and some proper names are repeatedly misspelled.
Readers new to the subject would be better directed to James S. Donnelly’s The Great Irish Potato Famine. The book’s architecture is clearly set out in the preface: the core chapters are those originally published in volume five of the New History of Ireland (1989), an analytical narrative of the Famine that made an important impact when first published, but which reached relatively few readers due to the expense and unwieldiness of the original volume. These have been partly updated in the light of Donnelly’s subsequent research on the poor law, mass evictions and emigration. Two new chapters, an introduction setting out the economic background and analysing the historiographical developments in Famine history in the 1990s, and a lengthy concluding chapter on the making of Famine memory and its contemporary ramifications, make up the whole. This is unquestionably the most comprehensive single account of the Irish catastrophe, combining the immediacy, accessibility and humanity of Woodham-Smith’s classic narrative with a mastery of the socio-economic context and a wide variety of sources, and a sophisticated and generous discussion of recent research.
Donnelly offers a clear and persuasive overview of historical writing on the subject, criticising the revisionist marginalisation of the subject, engaging with (rather than simply dismissing) John Mitchel’s flawed depiction of the Famine as a willed act of state genocide, and surveying the manner in which the Famine history ‘boom’ since the 1980s has shifted the balance of interpretation back towards (although certainly not as far as) older nationalist views. His conclusion is that while much research remains to be done, huge advances in knowledge and understanding have recently been made, and the areas of dispute between historians have narrowed considerably. While this may be so, it’s clear that some disputes do remain, and that the broader historical consensus has not been taken fully on board by all groups in civil society. The concluding chapter on ‘constructing the memory of the Famine, 1850-1900’ is ostensibly an account of how the nationalist tradition emerged in Ireland and the Irish diaspora, but Donnelly cannot suppress a certain frustration that the more extreme Mitchelite position continues to have some purchase, especially in Irish America, and digresses to ‘set the record straight’ on this head. Whatever the government’s (numerous) failings, he argues, the agrarian crisis was real: in 1846 the blight ‘destroyed the crop which had provided approximately 60 per cent of the nation’s food needs on the eve of the famine. The food gap created by the loss of the potato in the late 1840s was so enormous that it could not have been filled even if all the grain exported in those years had been retained in the country.’
James Donnelly’s book is likely to become the classic account of the Great Famine, and the first port of call for both students and general readers. The book is lavishly illustrated with a wide variety of contemporary images, maps and figures—all carefully captioned and integrated into the text in an attractive and informative manner. The select bibliography is extensive and an excellent guide to further reading. Sutton are to be commended on the quality of the volume, and its competitive pricing, although it can only be hoped that a paperback edition will follow to make this important book more available to the widest possible audience.

Peter Gray


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