This new study of the Irish Famine carries an endorsement from Bill Clinton, who writes that the work “sheds fascinating new light on the policy decisions that made it even worse.”
The chilling facts of The Famine are well-known in this country, to say the least. At least a million men, women and children starved to death and another million fled the country. There are 50 million Americans of Irish descent, many of whose ancestors made their way to America on the so-called ‘coffin ships.’ The author devotes ample space to the fascinating American dimensions of the story.
Millions of Irish also fled the Famine to work in England, as the Industrial Revolution got under way. Kelly quotes Terry Eagleton who sees the Famine as “the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe, an event with something of the characteristics of a low-level nuclear attack.”
Over-reliance on the potato was, in sense the ticking time bomb. Two thirds of the population lived in accordance with a common saw of the time: Potatoes in the morning/ Potatoes at night/ And If I got up at midnight/ It would still be potatoes.
It will surprise many readers to learn that with the exception of a crucial period between late 1846 and early 1847, this country imported more food that it exported.
“What turned a natural disaster into a human disaster was the determination of senior British officials to use relief policy as an instrument of nation- building in one of the most impoverished and turbulent parts of the Empire, " writes the author.
The result, he argues, was “a relief programme that, in its particulars, was more concerned with fostering change than with saving lives.” Through almost 400 pages, he expertly builds on that basic assumption, with harrowing individudal stories of fever, starvation, eviction.
Kelly is not necessarily a specialist on Irish history and his previous books include The Great Mortality, a study of The Black Death, published in 2005. He brings his expert knowledge on plague and pestilence and how it works to his treatment of the spread of the potato blight.
His account of the `ìdelogically blinkered’ British response to the crisis makes one wonder yet again at how such inept mismanagment and callous indifference could have been allowed free rein. In the middle of it all, there was even a panicky, hare-brained scheme to import yams from the Caribbean and rye from Germany.