"The Graves Are Walking" is another of the current histories of the Potato Famine that places much of the blame on British governmental policy, but this work goes much farther.
Author John Kelly shows how a potato blight, opportunistic disease and social policy combined to turn a natural disaster into a deadly famine. From 1845 to 1847 Ireland was transformed from a poor, overcrowded country into a living hell. The blight began on the continent whence it spread to Ireland and Scotland. What made the Irish devastation unique was the dependence of the population on potato cultivation and the lack of industry to soften the economic blow. One thing led to another. People, weakened by famine, succumbed to disease. Driven to despair, those who could chose emigration to escape the horror that surrounded them. By the time it had passed, a majority of the Irish were dead or overseas, in England, the United States, Canada or Australia.
This book's particular contribution to famine studies is its focus on the people who influenced the famine and were influenced by it. As is the common saying, God sent the blight, but England made the famine. Kelly corrects the misconception that Ireland remained a net food exporter during the famine and gives credit to those who did provide relief to the suffering. He examines the changing policies of British politicians, most prominently the Prime Ministers, Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell and a civil servant, Sir Charles Trevelyan. Policies were influenced by deliberate attempts to reform the Irish economy, prevailing economic theories espoused by Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith, whose invisible hand directed the famine response so as not to disturb food markets, and the belief that the famine was God's punishment for Papists. The greed of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy who evicted their tenants shows that not all of the blame is directed toward England. The last initiatives of The Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, are given ample attention.
The story is not as clear as myth would have it. In many cases the shortage was less one of availability than one of payment. Even Indian corn and other foodstuffs that were imported were generally offered for sale, often to people without the means to pay. The relief work projects, through unwise incentives, left the landscape marred by roads to nowhere rather enriched by infrastructure that would have provided the basis for a modern economy.
Kelly has crafted a well written book. My only reservation about this work is the frequent detailing of the horrors of the Famine era. While some is sufficient to shock the reader into an appreciation of the extent of the tragedy but, at times, I felt that he had overdone it.
"The Graves Are Walking" compels reflection. As much as we resent the Famine England made, would we really want to be the heirs to an overcrowded island of subsistence farmers? Do our ancestors, who we remember and, to some extent idealize, deserve the esteem in which we hold them? When I read about the starving, illiterate and pathetic emigrants I think were Matthew Gallen and Thomas English like that? Did the Maher sister really leave, not the idyllic isle we visit, but a disgusting, filthy village visited by the Angel of Death? When you think about the conditions they left you can understand why the early generations were so anxious to assimilate, and why it took generations for love of and pride in Ireland to rise again. We now think of Ireland's loss as America and Canada's gain, but such was not the view at the time. Our ancestors were real drags on the countries into which they fled. It makes anti-Irish prejudice of the time more understandable and should make us stop when we think about our views of contemporary immigrants. Over all, we of the Diaspora have done pretty well, which suggests that there was real quality beneath the degraded conditions of our forebears. Our cousins whose families stayed have inherited an Ireland that is better suited to compete in the world economy than the one of the 1840s. The price was terrible, but the Irish survived and emerged from the Famine stronger than they entered it. Well, I have mused enough. Read it for yourself, contemplate our people's place in history and draw your own conclusions.
The Irish famine is one of the most tragic and contentious periods in the long and often tragic and contentious history of Anglo-Irish relations. Talk about the famine still causes controversy and outrage today, more than 150 years later; and the mass exodus of Irish citizens fleeing the desperate situation at home has had a lasting influence on the populations of Ireland, Britain, Canada and the United States. One could quite reasonably argue that the Irish famine went further towards creating the modern state of Ireland than almost anything else in its history.
'God sent the potato blight but England sent the famine' is the traditional, and most certainly the Irish, view of the great famine of the nineteenth century - and as John Kelly points out in this admirably even-handed book this view is not entirely without merit. The British government of the time was guilty of a mass of faults and failings when it came to Ireland - to quote, 'bureaucratic delays and incompetence, shipping shortages, legislative measures and tax policy, cowardice on the part of some officials and stupidity on the part of others' - but the Irish famine was never the result of any kind of intentional policy of genocide or even wilful and deliberate neglect. The government in fact did embark upon an unprecedented programme of emergency relief: government provision of food, an extension of the poorhouse and soup kitchen scheme, funding of public labour works to employ the poor, charity drives - but in too many cases it proved to be too little and too late, and therefore cannot excuse the disappearance of nearly a third of the Irish population through starvation, disease and emigration.
The famine was a perfect storm of circumstances: the potato blight; poor weather; a worldwide food shortage; an Irish peasantry almost entirely dependent on the potato crop and living in a barter economy with almost no access to ready cash; the lack of development of the Irish infrastructure which meant there were no rural shops to supplement the potato diet and few links between town and country to facilitate emergency distribution of relief; the greed and avarice of a home-grown Irish merchant class who were more concerned with protecting their profit margins than feeding their fellow citizens; an Anglo-Irish aristocracy with no qualms about evicting tenants in order to lower their poor rates; and yes, a British government who held the Irish in contempt and who in many cases looked on the famine as an opportunity to 'remake' Ireland in England's image.
It's a heart-rending period in history, and John Kelly tugs at all the heartstrings. He succeeds in presenting both views of the famine - the official government and bureaucratic records alongside the stories of a people barefoot and half-naked, diseased and desperate, greeting inevitable death with a resignation only seen in people beyond all hope. The need to blame someone, anyone, is all too understandable, reading this book, and the Victorian government deserves to shoulder the lion's share, it not entirely all, of the blame.