Ireland, Disaster; Continent: Europe, North America

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John Kelly

  • Graphic and complicated, this worthy story isn’t for the faint of heart
  • 397 pages (338 pages of content, counting the afterword)

For American history textbook purposes, the 1840s Irish potato blight and its consequences can be neatly summarized: sick potatoes, indifferent British, and lots and lots of immigrants to the U.S. (and anywhere else that would have them). If you’re an American, then you almost certainly have heard this much of the story already.

You Don’t Sugar-Coat a Potato [Blight]

John Kelly gives you the story with just enough science to answer your questions about what the potato blight was, but the natural history of the fungus isn’t his focus. You might think Kelly is out to turn your stomach over with all the gruesome descriptions of the dead and dying, but you’d only be half right. He needs to make an impression so you’ll invest in his real topics, the British Empire’s policy toward its subjects who were not Englishmen and the treatment of Irish refugees by the countries to which they fled.

While Kelly’s grim tableaus of pitiable, starving families are numerous, I didn’t find any of them over the line of good taste. Honestly, though, my eyes started to skip past some of the descriptions of bare feet, tattered clothes, showing ribs and dead babies by about midway through. Not to minimize the suffering involved, but it’s hard for a writer to keep going to that well and get a fresh reaction from the reader each time. Plus, some of it is so unthinkable that the mind refuses to form a mental image from the words on the page.

Rage

Prepare to spend at least as much of your reading time angry as disgusted. While my disgust eventually ran dry, Kelly always had some fresh anecdote of absurd policy or lack of insight to provoke me. Really, though, I was just discovering what the Irish at the time knew full well but lacked the power to combat. Prejudice, fear, ignorance and sloth all occur within the British government forced to address the Irish famine, but the ultimate slayer of these many thousands proved to be greed.

The 19th century British Empire was wealthy and expansive. It enjoyed better naval and merchant power than the rest of the world. If any government of the time had a chance to manage a famine and its attendant diseases, then it was surely the British. Unfortunately, they also had some pretty ugly obstacles in their way, not least of which were the British merchants who were selling grain in Irish markets. For these men, a high demand meant commanding a premium price for their goods, and they pressured the British government to keep prices high and to limit charitable distribution of grain through the Treasury. Then too, of course, as the plight of the Irish stretched into its second year, English taxpayers’ resentment toward supporting their Irish neighbors grew.

Failings

Those in power really didn’t want to think about the Irish problem, so many of them didn’t. One noted Englishman brushed off the famine by allowing as how eating grass was really quite nutritious, and the Irish seemed to tolerate it. Grain purchases were budgeted unrealistically, and then no practical distribution plan was rolled out even when the grain was in port. Meanwhile, government bureaucrats managed work gangs building roads and other public works for a nominal salary, but they were frequently charged with reducing the worker rolls by an arbitrary percentage. Once removed from this source of income, many Irish fell through the cracks, as the local poorhouses were already full to overflowing, and soup kitchens wouldn’t be deployed until very late in this crisis.

By 1847, low-level bureaucrats stood on the docks, offering passage out of Ireland to anyone who would go. Seeing no other solution, many Irish departed for Liverpool, and some went on to ports in the United States. Of course, once in Liverpool, these ragged new arrivals became Liverpool’s problem: while the kingdom paid for grain to be imported to Ireland, the poor of a given city were its own responsibility.

Visibility

The media of the time covered potato blight and consequent diseases extensively. However, the tools available to journalists and newspaper editors did not include film or video. Artists providing sketches of gaunt children in rags could be easily accused of exaggerating the case (a sense of drama among journalists of the day was pretty common, regardless of the story). A middle-class Englishman of the time could more easily think of the Irish as simply lazy without a real sense of what was actually occurring on the neighboring island. Cartoons of lazy Paddy, drinking in his hut while his children starved, supported the stereotype.

In reading Kelly’s history, I couldn’t help but think of the famine in Ethiopia from the 1980s. I was in my early teens then, and CNN cycled through video of malnourished Ethiopian children. The international press covered it extensively, and it led to action from first-world societies where we’re pretty jaded about what turns up on the evening news. Even though many American kids like me wouldn’t have been able to find Ethiopia on the map back then, we watched Live Aid. Crude jokes about the famine circulated, but I think very few of us expected the Ethiopian people to be able to improve their circumstances by simply working harder. After all, how could you fix the kind of utterly barren landscape CNN was showing us with the scant resources available to those people? I wonder how the potato blight of the middle 1840s would have gone for the Irish if television had been a factor, or even black and white photography.

Overall, Kelly gives his readers a lot to consider. His book about this devastating period in Irish history makes for difficult reading at times: his subject is both grim and infuriating. While it is not a long book, I found I had to pace myself, reading only short sections at a time and giving myself a chance to digest the material. I’m glad I discovered this well-crafted book on an ugly topic, but it is not a lighthearted treatment of the material.

Image Source: Kathybq0, public domain via http://www.pixabay.com.

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