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A Documentary

by Colm Tóibín & Diarmaid FerriterColm Toibin

Pub Date: July 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-312-30051-4
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Booker shortlistee Tóibín (The Blackwater Lightship, 2000, etc.) collaborates with historian Ferriter (Dublin City Univ.) to introduce and annotate contemporary documents from Ireland’s devastating mid–19th-century famine.

This is not yet another ringing indictment of Britain for solely inflicting the “Great Hunger” that ravaged Ireland for nearly a decade beginning with the onset of a potato blight in 1845. That notion, claims Tóibín in his prefatory essay, was abandoned decades ago by serious Irish historians. Instead, he presses the question of why Irish intellectuals and literati often seem reluctant to delve into a disaster whose causes were as complex as its results were tragic. Tóibín’s suggestion: the degree of profiteering engaged in by landholding and mercantile Irish, even as they witnessed the decimation of the poor among them, remains difficult for many to confront. The Ferriter-collected documents do contain, however, ample testimony to the role British incompetence, ethnic hatred, religious bias, and sheer inhumanity played in the administration’s approach to what became more of an “Irish” problem as it deepened. Factions in both countries found in the famine an opportunity to effect the “removal” of one-quarter or more of the Irish population through forced eviction from small holdings, with subsequent emigration as the only alternative for most to starvation or its companion ravages of disease. The collected letters, public postings, journalism, speeches, etc., summon both fact and emotion: personal accounts often resonate with agony but also chilling understatement of one of the great human tragedies on record by those forced to deal directly with it. They can still leave a reader room, the authors suggest, to agree with John Mitchel (1861) that “the almighty sent the potato blight but Britain caused the famine,” or to conclude as well, writes Tóibín, that “the Irish merchant classes and middlemen made a fortune out of the Famine . . . on the ruins of the smallholding class.”

Socioeconomic surgery on a national scale, with no anesthetic.