In the autumn of 1845, a new fungus, later named Phytophthora infestans, struck potato crops. The disease was not restricted to Ireland, ranging as widely as Silesia in Poland, and the US. The blight, as it was dubbed, heavily affected all potato-reliant cultures, ravaging the Highlands of Scotland as well as Ireland. However, whereas hundreds perished in Scotland, the death toll in Ireland numbered approximately 1 million, and at least as many again emigrated to avoid the famine's effects. At once, then, we can see the key differences. When a society as reliant upon this single crop as Ireland was struck by the blight, the consequences were dire. When the fungus returned year on year until the 1850s, the effect was incalculable.
Ireland's greatest human catastrophe has not always had levels of scholarly and popular interest commensurate with its importance. Prior to the sesquicentenary commemorations of 1995, there had been relatively little work on this immense human misery. A volume of essays to mark the famine's centenary appeared in 1956 (R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams' The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52), while the 1960s were notable for Cecil Woodham Smith's populist account, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. Since then, Joel Mokyr, Cormac O Grada, Jim Donnelly, Peter Gray, Christine Kinealy and others have added greatly to scholarship on the subject.
Ó Murchadha's book neatly fits this pattern by attempting to create a popular account based on scholarly research. The result is a highly readable, nuanced book.
Beginning with the state of Ireland prior to the famine, the author makes good use of the works of many travel writers who left us vivid descriptions of the poverty of ordinary Irish people. Beggary and misery abounded; and the poor Irish were in no state to resist persistent and total attack on their staple food.
Comparisons with subsistence crises in the Third World today are not out of place. The author describes a rising population, increasing emigration and the failures of the British to understand a country they ruled as a virtual colony. The British imagined Ireland as a backward subsistence economy lacking the UK's entrepreneurial dynamism. Various attempts were made to curtail the growing crisis. Local relief organisations, public works and charitable interventions all were tried and failed. A change of government in the UK in 1846 worsened rather than improved matters. From late 1846 to mid-1847, three-quarters of a million people laboured on Ireland's road network, something Ó Murchadha sees as "a reflection of the lengths to which the ideologically driven government of Lord John Russell was prepared to go rather than actually feed the starving".
In a book graphically illustrated with contemporary images, Ó Murchadha plots the details of the famine period with clarity: crop failure, food shortages, social disorder, epic evictions, government inertia and the mass migrations that saw 500,000 Irish people disembarking in Liverpool in 1846 and 1847 alone. The landless and poor peasant class (cottiers) died in huge numbers; those further up the social scale experienced gradual destruction as their resources and resolve crumbled. Emigration was often the only release valve. The famine revealed wider political mindsets. Much has been written about the roles of anti-Irish racism, evangelical laissez-faire economics and blind faith in providence. Ó Murchadha helps readers understand how political elites in London, who held such beliefs, allowed the famine to achieve its fullest negative effect. While the British did not create the blight, successive governments did far less for the starving than they might have done. Such neglect was to have dramatic political consequences, and 150 years later, Tony Blair would apologise for his predecessors' dereliction of duty.
The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony, 1845-1852
By Ciaran Ó Murchadha. Continuum, 2pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781847252173. Published 2 June 2011