Food for Thought

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Review of 'The Irish Famine', Colm Tóibín and Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile £8.99

The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight but the English created the famine'--a voice from the time of the Irish Famine of 1847-1849 during which 1 million people died and a further million emigrated. John Mitchell, a journalist, historian and political activist, wrote one of the documents collected in this new volume from a wide spectrum of people affected by the tragedy. From politicians debating their response, to the clergy in Ireland attempting to alleviate the suffering, this selection gives an insight into the lives and deaths of the Irish population.

The culpability of the British government in exacerbating the devastation concerns the last section and is probably the part of this book of greatest interest to socialists. The extent of this culpability was debated during and after the famine itself. The debate continues to this day with Tony Blair's apology in 1997, referring to the failure of a government that 'stood by while a crop failure turned into a massive tragedy'.

In the main, contemporary British press coverage was negative and unsympathetic, particularly to the many demands for state intervention. The prevalent argument was that the famine was divinely initiated and that it was the slovenly and unwholesome character of the Irish which made the problems insoluble. There was much praise of the land clearances, which drove the farmers from their holdings and homes, claiming that the improvement in the quality of Irish agriculture that would ensue was the most important consideration.

One article from the 'Times' demonstrates the lack of compassion: there is 'nothing really so peculiar, so exceptional, in the condition which they [the Irish] look upon as the pit of utter despair'. However, by the end of 1849 the Illustrated London News questioned whether the British government's alleged benevolence had achieved a relief in the suffering or had in fact made the situation worse. Instead of increasing cultivation of land, employment and hence food the 'landlords and the legislature [were led] to believe that it was a favourable opportunity for changing the occupation of the land and the cultivation of the soil from potatoes to corn'. The requirement of the Irish poor to give up their land before receiving any form of relief and the sanctioning of mass evictions by the British government did more to increase the suffering than to relieve it. It is estimated that around half a million people were evicted during the famine.

The aim of this selection of documents seems to be to examine both the causes and the effects of the famine in broad historical terms and the human cost in individual stories. Tóibín asks, '[as historians] Why should we remain cool and dispassionate and oddly distant from the events of 150 years ago?' He argues that there is still a great deal of work for historians to understand what happened in Ireland in the late 1840s, why it happened and who was to blame. In the first 100 issues of the journal 'Irish Historical Studies' only five articles on the famine appeared.

The wealth of sources include material amassed by the Irish Folklore Collection of recollections of the famine taken from people across Ireland in the mid-1940s. These sources can be problematic in terms of credibility, but nevertheless provide a vital source of legends, tales, information and a history of the memories of the famine.

Tóibín's overview points to recent useful histories and moves away from the cold analysis of previous writing. His essay is a useful guide on where to look for histories written from the perspective of those who were not administrators, politicians or landlords. Together with the selected documents this small volume provides a glimpse into a catastrophic period in the history of British colonialism.