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The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

by John Kelly

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9184-7
Publisher: Henry Holt

A fresh, fair look at the causes of the devastating Irish potato famine.

While there already exists solid coverage of this tragic episode in history—from Thomas Keneally and Colm Tóibín, among others—Kelly (The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, 2005, etc.) provides a comprehensive exploration of the crisis in terms of the Irish demographic and geographical makeup, economic infrastructure, tenant-farming patterns, landowner manipulation and wrongheaded British relief policy. The appearance of the mysterious potato blight in 1845, accompanied by the smell of rot, devastated the year’s harvest. The old Protestant Irish landholding system was gradually breaking up into smaller groups of tenant farmers, and then into numerous landless laborers (70 percent of the population of rural Ireland in 1841), such as the cottier and the spalpeen, many of whom still celebrated a “Hidden Ireland” of Catholic faith, Celtic culture and a Bedouin-like meanness that appalled British visitors. The collapse of the Irish manufacturing sector in the 1820s had thrust people onto the already overworked land; families were large, and the potato was the most cost-efficient, high-nutrition crop. As news from Ireland worsened, the British government was thrown into disarray, precipitating debate on the hated Corn Laws. Yet relief did not reach the people who needed it; Irish grain was still being exported to British dining tables, and predatory landowners moved to evict impoverished tenant families. Kelly gives a thorough tracking of Irish emigration as well, which helped account for the shrinkage of the Irish population, by more than 2 million people, during the crisis.

Roundly researched work with many poignant stories of misery and loss.