Sunday 26 March 2017

Review: History: In Terrible Discordance: A Provocative Study Of The Great Irish Famine In The City And County Of Cork by Ed O'Riordan

Galty Cottage, €20

History, as Winston Churchill wryly observed, is written by the victors and what is initially recorded and subsequently massaged into history is seldom the full story.

The Great Famine sits uneasily in the story of our past. We may not have brushed it under the carpet, but we have swept it into a dark corner of our collective memory.

It would be a brave historian who could definitively surmise why this is, but it could be argued that it's because the famine doesn't fit easily or neatly into the accepted narrative of 19th century nationalism and because it was just too painful anyway. Then there's the question as to why, as our neighbouring island began to reap the benefits of the Victorian and industrial age, that Ireland would stumble into hell.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli answered that to his own satisfaction in 1844, forewarning that "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, in addition the weakest executive in the world'', all pointed to catastrophe.

To charges that England didn't care, the creation of more than a hundred parliamentary commissions and 61 special committees in the first 44 years of the century would suggest otherwise. But catastrophe happened anyway.

Local historian Ed O'Riordan doesn't take sides. Instead he takes notes and employs contemporary newspaper reports, everything from the Cork Examiner and the Cork Constitution to The Avondhu to tell the story of the Gorta Mór.

In doing so, he blows the dust off 1,200 news articles, covering the years 1845 to 1849. This doesn't mean his take on those terrible years is transparently objective, because for every story he includes, he must have excluded another and every time he juxaposes one tale of misery with another of social excess, he is, by definition, making an historic judgment.

As the infamous Black '47 drew to a close, we are told of how the Christmas party season concluded with a performance of Hayden's The Creation in the Imperial Hotel on Cork city's leafy South Mall.

Among the guests would be many post-Catholic Emancipation middle class Catholic merchant princes.

The gentry turned out in their finery too and the summer party season reached its climax.

Jeremiah O'Callaghan, a journalist with the Examiner at the time, was erudite and fearless in his reporting. In the autumn of 1847 he told readers: "Is it not strange when all parties dread a recurrence of last winter's horrors, that picnic parties and balls were never, even in the midst of plenty, of such frequent occurrence?''

O'Riordan's forensically and exhaustively researched book is a revelation, not because it tries to explain the single darkest period of our history, but because it doesn't try to explain it at all. He simply let's the journals of the day, the first draft of history anyway, do it for him.

Frank Coughlan

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