Ireland's Great Famine

Michael O'Sullivan reviews Ireland's Great Famine: interdisciplinary perspectives by Cormac O Grada, UCD Press, ISBN 978-1-904558-57-6, €28/18.95, pbk

Ireland's Great Famine

THE TRUE extent of the human and social impact of Ireland's 'Great Famine' will never be known. As a catastrophe its scale was enormous by any standards and its effects so enduring that historians are still analysing data, compiling statistics and filling research libraries with 'famine studies'.

The sesquicentennial commemorations activated a flood of new publications and this impressive collection is the latest.

Co-written and edited by Cormac O'Grada professor of economics at UCD and author of the classic Black '47 and Beyond, (1999), Ireland's Great Famine is a wide-ranging, though thoroughly focused, survey of some of the associated topics of our national calamity.

O'Grada reproduces surveys showing the abject and vulnerable nature of the pre-famine Irish economy, overwhelmingly agricultural, deprived of industry and technology and at the mercy of rapacious landowners accountable only to their creditors. Profligacy and mismanagement meant that large numbers of landlords were themselves more or less permanently impecunious until finally succumbing to bankruptcy in the wake of the disaster.

The causes of famine deaths are examined, as well as the contentious fatality rates. It now appears that the mortality totals have consistently been underestimated, and also that many more people died from related diseases than from hunger.

O'Grada examines the famine in Dublin and its effects on the city's potato market, and how the workhouse system responded to the plight of the destitute there. Lesser dependence on the potato meant that the capital emerged relatively lightly, though by no means unscathed.

A rigorous examination of famine emigration follows, producing precise figures on mortality on the crossings, (surprisingly low), and a comparative survey of the social conditions of New York's immigrant population as a whole, challenging somewhat the popular conception of the newly arrived Irish as backward and slow to assimilate.

O'Grada final topic is historiography, the history of famine writing itself. The very enormity of the tragedy made it inevitable that the 'revisionists' would at some point lay their sickly hands upon it.

This they did and slyly 'analysed' the causes of the famine with reference to unavoidable crop failures, Irish fecklessness and so on, glossing over at the same time the true effects of the disaster. A steady stream of recent publications have however reasserted the true causes and dimensions of the cataclysm, and Ireland's Great Famine shows that on this anniversary of Black '47 famine research is in safe hands.

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