- - Thursday, December 20, 2012

THE GRAVES ARE WALKING: THE GREAT FAMINE AND THE SAGA OF THE IRISH PEOPLE
By John Kelly
Henry Holt & Co., $32, 397 pages

The English have always had trouble deciding just how far the human race extends beyond their own borders. Thus, after a terrorist bomb took the lives of a pair of foreign visitors, Margaret Thatcher angrily declared, “The IRA are indiscriminately killing men, women and children and now they have killed two Australians.” A similar attitude was embraced by early Victorian Englishmen when the great potato famine struck John Bull’s other island, Ireland, beginning in 1845: Something bad was happening on a piece of imperial real estate to distinctly un-English “others.”

By the time the miserable cycle of blight, starvation, disease and mass emigration was over, Ireland’s population had shrunk by a third. In the words of Sir William Wilde, a prominent Irish physician and humanitarian whose own son, Oscar, left Ireland to pursue literary opportunities in England, what remained was a population disproportionately “poor, weak, old, lame, sick, dumb, imbecile and insane.” Thereafter, for generations to come, as the modern Irish historian, R.F. Foster, has pointed out, the “hemorrhage of emigration settled to a steady flow, sustained by complex mechanisms.”

The great famine began as an all-too-perfect storm that no human agency could have prevented. The same potato blight that already had inflicted hunger and suffering on the European Continent and elsewhere descended on a uniquely vulnerable island population, one-third of which depended on the potato alone for its basic food. Thus, a crop blight that had been painful in other countries with more diverse agriculture at both the commercial and subsistence levels was fatal to the mass of poor Irish peasantry dependent on small potato patches for their daily survival.

If nature dealt Ireland this deadly hand, it was a stiff-necked, self-righteous clique of English politicians and bureaucrats, rigidly adhering to the politically correct economic and social views of their time and place, who botched the relief effort and worsened a trauma so deep that even today, many historians divide modern Irish history into pre-famine and post-famine epochs. The full story of the famine, the conditions leading up to it and its tragic consequences was told by Cecil Woodham-Smith in her masterful 1962 history, “The Great Hunger.” It remains the definitive work for the general reader, but enough time has passed since its publication to justify a retelling of this gripping historical event.

John Kelly, the American author of the best-selling “The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death,” a scourge that devastated medieval Europe, is admirably suited to the task, telling the tale of a disaster that, while confined to a much smaller part of the world, was all the more devastating to those experiencing it. English relief policies, he argues, were “parsimonious, shortsighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology,” and produced “tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of needless deaths. The intent of those policies may not have been genocidal, but the effects were.”

Here one may quibble with Mr. Kelly’s choice of words while agreeing with his overall indictment. Just as later politicians would talk about taking advantage of the “opportunity” that the Great Recession offered the Obama administration to “reform” health care, the dominant faction in Westminister and Whitehall at the time of the Great Famine saw it as an opportunity to “reform” a backward, ruinous Irish agricultural system, largely by thinning the ranks of the rural poor by allowing nature to take its course and coercing emigration. The results were abominably inhumane, but they fell short of genocide, the “deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group,” as defined by Merriam Webster.

What happened in Ireland was not quite the same thing as the organized wholesale massacres, death marches and internments that characterized the Nazi-driven Holocaust or the systematic Armenian genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire in the next century. Nevertheless, it was bad enough as it was, and Mr. Kelly’s moving, powerfully narrated account of the tragedy and its aftermath brings it alive in all its horror.

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.