Daily Archives: December 9, 2019

‘The Great Irish Famine: A History in Four Lives’ by Enda Delaney


2012 (under the title ‘The Curse of Reason’), 2014, 235 p. & notes.

Enda Delaney finishes his book with the death of Michael Collins, aged fifty, by the side of the road on 23 November 1850. This isn’t the famous Irish Michael Collins: instead he is an otherwise unknown man who, dying of hunger, was taken into a house. The priest was sent for, and he died on the floor.  He comes into historiographical view because of the inquest that was held into his death. That is one of the problems with writing about the Irish Famine: it can be writ large because such huge numbers were involved but when you come down to individuals, it’s harder to find them. The reality is, as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen wrote, starvation ‘is the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough to eat.’ (cited p. 115)  Those people not having enough to eat were overwhelmingly the poor, illiterate and  politically weak.

Books about the Irish Famine are nothing new – indeed, there has been a deluge of them since the 150th Anniversary in 1997. Because of the flow of Irish immigrants to America, Canada and Australia, each of those settler countries has its own Irish famine refugee stories as well. Where this book differs, perhaps, is that it takes a biographical approach to an economic/political event that is usually approached from a wide-angled perspective.  The four lives that Enda Delaney has chosen, because of the limitation of the sources, are not the victims. Instead, they were at the other end of the famine. There is John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, who at first saw the famine as God’s punishment on his flock for their sins. Over time, he became increasingly critical of the British Government response. There is the radical nationalist John Mitchel, a leading member of the Young Ireland and Irish Confederation movements, who ended up in Van Diemen’s Land for his seditious activities. There is Charles Trevelyn, the assistant secretary to the Treasury, who has often been depicted as the Main Villain because of the policies implemented by the British Government. Finally, there is Elisabeth Smith, the Scottish-born wife of a Wicklow landlord, whose sympathies for the Irish peasantry became increasingly rigid.

The book moves more-or-less chronologically, but the four stories are interwoven with the factual narrative.  He is particularly good on the colonial networks that indirectly linked Elisabeth Smith and Charles Trevelyn, who were both in India at one stage. As events change, so too do people, and you can see the increasing radicalism (albeit expressed in different ways) with John MacHale and John Mitchel; the hardening attitudes of Elisabeth Smith who would otherwise be seen as a relatively enlightened landlord, and the increasingly harsh political medicine being doled out by the British Government wanting Ireland to deal with its own problems.  Even though Trevelyn is seen as the author of these policies, I know through my own work with the Colonial Office, that civil servants in a parliamentary system could not act completely independently.

I always tend to think of 1845 as the Irish Famine year, but in fact it continued right through until the early 1850s. Many of the people who perished died of ‘fever’ rather than outright starvation, although it was severe malnutrition that weakened their whole system. The British Government instituted a system of work-for-the-dole, but this broke down completely when people were just too weak to work. They then insisted that the Irish Poor Law look after the people in the workhouses, rather than have access to British Assistance.

What comes through most strongly is a dogged determination to follow the prevailing economic orthodoxy of free markets and punitive charity which 165 years later still holds sway.  Food was still being exported from Ireland; food imports into Ireland were not allowed to threaten the market; ‘charity’ was grudging and demanded complete abasement.  What did work was soup kitchens, but they were withdrawn prematurely in case people became ‘dependent’. The flood of famine refugees was feared and stigmatized, and landlords took the opportunity to clean-out small landholders by eviction, or somewhat more charitably, emigration schemes.

The power of this book is seeing these politics of ideology, and the politics of resistance being expressed in the words of individuals, and watching their positions harden as the crisis continued.  If you’re looking for ‘getting to know’ these individuals at an emotional or moral level, this is not the book for you. The book does work, however, at the level of personalizing the political. The original title of this book was ‘The Curse of Reason’, and although probably too vague as a title for a publisher, the orthodoxy of the free market and individualism was indeed a curse.  Hard-baked ideology, of any kind, is really not an edifying sight.

You can hear Enda Delaney being interviewed here.

My rating: 7/10

Source: La Trobe University Library