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The Great Irish Potato Famine (Review)

The Great Irish Potato Famine (Review)
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  The Great Irish Potato Famine  , by James S. Donnelly, Jr., 292pp. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: SuttonPublishing, 2001. $29.95.The sesquicentennial commemorations of the Great Irish Famineover the last decade stimulated an enormous amount of newscholarship, treating all aspects of what was certainly thecentral trauma experienced by the Irish people during thenineteenth century. In his new book, the distinguishedhistorian James S. Donnelly offers a clearly written andcomprehensive synthesis, which incorporates this outpouring ofvaluable research and analysis. This recent scholarship hasled, in Donnelly's judgment, to a new consensus about the degreeof responsibility for the catastrophe that can reasonably beattributed to the British government.Contrary to the views of "revisionist" historians, whodominated the relatively sparse field of Famine Studies from the1930's through the 1980's, Donnelly contends that thescholarship of the 1990's tends to confirm certain aspects ofthe nationalist interpretation, which has generally dominatedthe popular memory -- especially among Irish Americans descendedfrom the famine emigrants. While the "revisionists" tended toexculpate the British from moral responsibility for what theyviewed as essentially a "natural" disaster beyond the capacitiesof any nineteenth-century state to handle, recent scholarshiphas revived the nationalist focus on British culpability, thoughin a much more nuanced way. Although the charge of genocide  2 leveled most famously by the nineteenth-century nationalist JohnMitchel can not be sustained, the new consensus among scholarsdoes maintain that the British government did, by policies that were both misconceived and inadequate, contribute appreciably tothe human sufferings of the Famine. These actions both ofcommission and omission led to a significantly higher human tollthan would likely have been the case if sounder policies hadbeen followed and greater financial resources had beenallocated. The Great Potato Famine  consists almost entirely ofpreviously published material, but it makes these hithertoscattered pieces much more readily accessible in a form intendedto reach a wider audience. Donnelly's chapters on the Faminefrom one of the massive and expensive volumes in the OxfordUniversity Press, A New History of Ireland  , form the core ofthis new book. To a slightly revised version of these chapters,the author has added material drawn from articles and essayssrcinally published in various periodicals and collectionsduring the commemorations of the 1990's. Most noteworthy amongthe latter pieces is a long study of nationalist interpretationsof the cataclysm, "Constructing the Memory of the Famine, 1850-1900," which appears as the final chapter. The book alsofeatures a rich array of maps and illustrations, among them paintings by such artists as George Frederic Watts, ErskineNicol, and Lady Butler; engravings from the popular press of theday, especially the Illustrated London News ; and photographs, mostly of Irish nationalist leaders. Cartoons, largely from   3 Punch , vividly reveal the derogatory images prevalent in theBritish press at the time. Occasionally, the piecemealcomposition of Donnelly's book leads to some awkwardness ofstructure, but his judicious, broad, and balanced treatment ofan emotion-charged historical event overrides any such minorreservations.In presenting a comprehensive treatment of a verycomplicated historical phenomenon in a work of under threehundred pages, Donnelly succeeds admirably in integratinganalytical overviews of the major aspects of the catastrophe with vignettes evoking specific cases of human suffering and,all too often, cruelty or indifference. Abundant statisticsemphasize the enormity of the catastrophe, while accounts ofspecific cases, many derived from periodicals of the era,chronicle the particulars of human misery. In nine chapters,Donnelly treats the contentious issue of food exports during theFamine; the various policies of famine relief undertaken by theTory government of Robert Peel and the Whig government of LordJohn Russell; the role of soup kitchens in alleviating distressduring the summer of 1847; the disastrous ramifications of the Amended Poor Law of 1847, with its notorious "Gregory clause;"the impact of the Famine on landlords and their tenants,including the mass clearances that occurred on many estates; anassessment of the human toll in terms of both death andemigration; the political consequences of the disaster,including the failed rising of 1848; and, finally, the  4 ideological meanings ascribed to the Famine during the followinghalf century by nationalist writers.Running through the broad presentation of economicstatistics, social data and poignant human stories is thefundamental moral question of British responsibility. In JohnMitchel's Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps) , first published inbook form in 1861, the exiled nationalist leader declared: "The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the Britishcreated the Famine." This charge has remained prevalent eversince in popular conceptions of the Famine, but, untilrelatively recently, was dismissed by most professionalhistorians in Ireland as nationalist hyperbole. Donnelly arguesthat the recent research of historians on both sides of the Atlantic does support a sharpened focus on the responsibility ofthe British government, though one that emphasizes the role ofideological influences and ethnic prejudices on policy ratherthan an intentional program of genocide. As anyone who has ever given a public lecture or taught acourse treating the Famine knows, the most commonly accepted"fact" that clinches British culpability for the humancatastrophe is the export from Ireland during the late 1840's ofan amount of food that was purportedly more than sufficient tofeed the entire population, while masses of people starved. According to Donnelly, this aspect of the traditionalnationalist case has not held up under scholarly scrutiny. Hepoints out that, first, much less grain was exported during theFamine than had been the average during previous years; second,  5 imports of grain from abroad during the crisis vastly exceededthe exports; and, finally, the prefamine dependence of the Irishpeople on the potato for sustenance was so great -- fulfillingapproximately sixty percent of the country's entire nutritionalneeds by one estimate -- that the food gap could not have comeclose to being met even if all of the exported grain had beenretained.During the early stages of the Famine in late 1845 andearly 1846, the Tory government of Robert Peel purchased anestimated 44 million pounds of Indian corn and oatmeal tostabilize food prices and provide sustenance for those most inneed. The government distributed this food at cost to localrelief committees. Through loans to local grand juries andgrants to the Board of Works, the Peel government also sponsoredpublic works projects, mostly road building, which employed as many as 140,000 laborers. When the Whigs under Lord JohnRussell took office in late June, 1846, they expanded the public works programs, but in adherence to their laissez-faireprinciples initially refused to interfere with market forcesrelating to food imports or exports. By February, 1847,however, faced with extremely dire conditions, the governmentopened soup kitchens; these provided at least minimal sustenance without charge to as many as three million people a day by July,1847. Yet even these unprecedented efforts fell far short ofthe people's needs and, more troublingly, were phased out in thefall even as conditions continued to worsen. During the summer
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