In a highly original account of a hugely traumatic series of events, Enda Delaney takes a novel approach by interweaving 50 years of history with the lives of four important actors: John McHale, the radical Archbishop of Tuam; John Mitchel, the firebrand nationalist; Charles Trevelyan, the Treasury civil servant who orchestrated government responses; and Elizabeth Smith, the Scots-born wife of a Wicklow landlord who kept rich diaries. The result is an at times gripping narrative.
Delaney carefully rejects images of 19th-century Ireland as universally poor and backward, and takes a close look at weaknesses in economic decision-making and social structure, for these things are too easily ascribed solely to Britons' brutality and the landlords' venality. Mitchel wrote that Ireland was "perishing of political economy", but Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish Catholic nationalist, professed no different creed.
Laissez-faire policy was the orthodoxy but this does not mean that the course of events was inevitable. Delaney describes the many positive developments of the 1830s, even though tensions underlay so many of them. Protestants such as Smith supported a new national school system that radical Catholics such as McHale loathed as undermining clerical control. Under-secretary Thomas Drummond, the best administrator in Victorian Ireland, worked himself to death tackling vested elite interests and reforming the justice system, while successive governments commissioned vast social investigations but learned too little from them. As Delaney observes, information was no guarantee of understanding.
Government, landlords and the people alike failed to comprehend the disaster befalling Ireland. For Smith, it confirmed her racist views of "Celtick" indolence. To the simplest folk in the West, the potato blight stemmed from the demise of the Connacht fairies. Protestant hardliners blamed the advent of religious equality for Catholics. The home secretary, Sir James Graham, saw the work of a "God, who judgeth the earth". McHale saw the same divinity decrying secular liberalism. Trevelyan preferred empirical evidence and immediately dispatched chemist Lyon Playfair and botanist John Lindley to Ireland to apply science in seeking solutions. Their conclusions drew scorn from nationalists, with the Freeman's Journal stating that they had "satisfactorily proved that they know nothing whatsoever about the causes or of the remedies for the disease".
The fall of Sir Robert Peel's government in 1846 allowed Trevelyan to harden his line. Whereas Peel had interfered with the market by introducing £100,000 worth of maize to be sold at knock-down prices, Trevelyan preferred public works. Here Delaney introduces something novel: comparisons with European responses to food shortages. From the Belgians, who suspended exports and removed all duties when the blight hit, committed free traders could learn nothing they would countenance. McHale had little time for Ireland's derelict landowners but admitted they could not shoulder the entire laissez-faire burden. Other nations with efficient local states had stayed the famine's hand: Ireland had no such structures. In 1847, expensive public works schemes were replaced by soup kitchens. Many benign landowners, like the Smiths, fed their hungry tenants, while the Quakers distributed soup on an industrial scale. By this time the world knew of the crisis and poured vast sums of money and aid into Ireland. McHale reckoned he spent 10 hours a day that year dispensing the £40,000 his archdiocese received.
The Curse of Reason focuses primarily on the years to 1848. By then, Irish society was shattered and rebellion rent the air. Mitchel increased his seditious writings and was arrested, tried and dispatched to Bermuda, and the remaining Young Irelanders organised a pathetically ineffectual rising in Tipperary. Sentenced to death, they were instead transported to Australia. In 1848 and 1849, legislation was pushed through that squeezed out bankrupt landlords and cleared the smallest plots of land by making them liable to rates. Through social inaction and manipulative legislation, the government had engineered its hoped-for transformation of Ireland.
Delaney shows how death and mass emigration continued so relentlessly in the decade after 1845 that more than 1 million people died and 1.5 million fled. Between 1841 and 1901, Ireland's population was cut almost in half, from 8.2 million to 4.5 million - a demographic trajectory utterly unique in a European context.
There are many books on these terrible events but this is one of the most fluent and original. Although it is based on large amounts of primary research, its style is accessible and engaging, and the result is a valuable study of a truly harrowing crisis.
The Curse of Reason: The Great Irish Famine
By Enda Delaney
Gill & Macmillan, 325pp, £15.99
Published 13 October 2012.