Tuesday 24 October 2017

Making sense of the horrific Great Hunger

History: John Mitchel, Ulster, and The Great Irish Famine, Edited by Patrick Fitzgerald and Anthony Russell, Irish Academic Press, €22.99

Ulster and the Great Irish Famine
Ulster and the Great Irish Famine

JP O'Malley

'The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight. But the English created the famine." This infamous phrase was coined by the outspoken journalist, writer, and Fenian, John Mitchel, back in the mid-19th century. It became instrumental in shaping anti-English sentiment in Irish Republican circles for generations. Mitchel's emotive and seditious writing was made most famous in his 1876 book, The Last Conquest of Ireland.

Much of Mitchel's writing depicted Charles Trevelyan, the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury in Whitehall, as a genocidal-inflicting monster, who purposely attempted to eradicate the Celtic race. "I saw Trevelyan's claw in the virtues of children. His red tape would draw them to death: in his government laboratory he had prepared for them the typhus poison," Mitchel wrote in 1847, after seeing the horrors of the famine himself first hand. Mitchel features in two long essays from this slim collection, which are based on research presented at the annual Great Famine Commemoration in 2015. As James Quinn posits in one of these, Mitchel's main arguments on the famine may have avoided key facts, been prone to hyperbole, metaphor, exaggeration, and intense subjectivity, "but they did contain an element of truth".

Namely, Mitchel's argument about food exports in famine Ireland. Had these been stopped after the disastrous harvest of 1846 - and before the import of large quantities of foreign grain in 1847 - then some of the worst effects of the famine might have been alleviated.

Quinn also notes that Mitchel's opposition to landlordism and unrestricted capitalism led left-wing Republicans - such as James Connolly - to praise him as a pioneering social radical.

Historians such as Sir Richard Evans, Roy Foster, and John Kelly have all been highly critical of the British political and social elite during famine times. But the depiction of British bureaucrats from Whitehall and Westminster of the 1840s as genocidal demons, has generally not found favour with any of them. And Mitchel has become something of a bete noire figure in scholarly circles. Some historians, however, have taken Mitchel's word as gospel. Tim Pat Coogan, in his 2013 book, The Famine Plot, claimed that what happened in Ireland during the famine conforms to the definitions of genocide as laid out by the United Nations in 1948. Anthony Russell writes here that "Coogan's book reignited an interest and belief in Mitchel's enormously effective propaganda."

A number of polemics here focus considerable attention and time on Ulster: it escaped with much less of a death toll during the famine than the other three provinces. Mainly because it had a far more organised, modernised, and diversified economy.

As the cotton industry declined in the early 19th century, the province invested capital back into the linen industry, which yielded huge profits in return. So, by the time the famine came along, landed proprietors in Ulster were less likely to evict tenants when the crisis struck.

Elsewhere, Patrick Fitzgerald also offers some interesting data on previous famines in Ireland. He notes, for instance, that the famine of 1740-1 witnessed a higher rate of mortality, nationally, than the Great Famine.

While insightful, balanced, and informative, these essays are probably not the best place to start if you're coming to read about the famine for the first time. Primarily because they are geared to a more scholarly audience.

Consequently, there's a lack of narrative flair, or any kind of emotion contained in the prose which tends - in parts at least - to lean towards a rather academic, dry, and rigid tone and style. For readers looking for a more general overview, I would suggest going for John Kelly's 2012 book, The Graves Are Walking.

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