A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland

By Christine Kinealy
London, Pluto Press, 1997.
ISBN 0-7453-1075-3

This important new book on the Famine was launched on Tuesday 20 May, 1997 during a reception at the Irish Embassy in London hosted by the Ambassador, Wexfordman Mr. Ted Barrington. Among those present were the historian Robert Kee and the film star, Peter O’Toole.
Launching the book Mr. Barrington spoke as follows: -
I would like to welcome you all to the Embassy and to say how delighted and honoured I am to see you here this evening to mark the publication of Christine Kinealy’s new book, A Death-Dealing Famine. There are a number of reasons why I believe tonight is important. As most of you will know, in Ireland for the past two years there has been a series of national and local events to commemorate the Great Famine. It has marked an important process of coming to terms with, and understanding, the Famine, an event of catastrophic proportions which was to change forever the face of Ireland and the course of Irish history. And which was also to have a profound impact on British history.
The Famine was profoundly traumatic in its immediate effects: in the death of a million people and in the migration of a further million. It is hard to credit that this should occur in what was then the wealthiest and most powerful polity on earth. The Famine had as well long-term consequences which, it can be argued, have persisted until recently and can be seen in our unique levels of emigration and patterns of marriage. It had a profound cultural impact and contributed to the collapse of the Gaelic language as the language of the majority of the population, the psychological effects of which are impossible to gauge.
The Famine also altered irrevocably the course of relations between Britain and Ireland. Through the influx of people to these shores it was to shape the development of modern Britain and to create Irish communities throughout this country. As President Robinson has reminded us, the story of the Irish in Britain was not just a chronicle of sorrow and regret. It was also a profound story of contribution and adaptation. I am struck wherever I go in Britain at the number of civic leaders - Lord Mayors, Mayors, Councillors – with an Irish background, and at the number of trade unionists, doctors, teachers, nurses who come from Ireland or whose ancestors came from our country. These are contributing to the building of civic society here in Britain. We can be proud of that contribution, and in commemorating the Famine we are commemorating that contribution too.
It seems to me to be appropriate that we in the Embassy mark an event of such significance in our shared history and seek to understand it, dispassionately and without rancour.
One of the points which has particularly struck me about Christine Kinealy’s work on the Famine is her critique of the adequacy of the official response to the Famine, and the role of ideology in exacerbating its effects. Even on a personal level, as a civil servant, I find these aspects of her work disturbing. I am encouraged, however, by the fact that in Ireland our commemoration of the Famine has led us to look more critically at our response to famine in the world today. Our experience shows that neither bureaucracy nor ideology can cope with a catastrophe of such dimensions. If there are lessons for today it is that bureaucracy and ideology are no substitute for an imaginative political and administrative response to the facts of famine. The Irish experience, I think, has helped us to empathise more fully with those who suffer hunger and poverty in a world marked by inequality. President Robinson has spoken movingly of this phenomenon and some of those here this evening will have heard her speak on this point on her visits to Britain.
Dr. Kinealy herself has a particular interest in how we respond to modern crises of development and is planning to carry out comparative research later this year in India. I am particularly impressed by this commitment and it is heartening to think that from the calamitous experience of the Irish Famine we can draw what are essentially positive lessons.
In many ways the Famine represented not so much a natural disaster, but, as Dr. Kinealy argues, a failure of imagination and a failure of compassion. It left a legacy of bitterness and despair. One hundred and fifty years later, it is clear that these wounds are ones which have healed. The fact that we can have an occasion such as this surely demonstrates that there is a maturity and openness in relations between Britain and Ireland. The process of recalling the detail of what happened is not to reopen old wounds. Far from it. It is to help us better to understand and respond to the world of today. As such I believe it is welcome, it is healthy and it gives us great hope for the future.
In helping us to understand the circumstances in which the Famine could occur, we are in Dr. Kinealy’s debt. I would also like to pay tribute to other scholars working in this field and we are honoured by the presence of some of these tonight. We recognise and value your role in helping to understand our past and ourselves better. I should also like to thank Pluto Press – not only for this book but also for their commitment to radical and serious work on Ireland over many years. It is a great pleasure to have representatives of Pluto here tonight and I will hand over in a minute to the Managing Director of the Press, Roger van Zwanenberg, to introduce Dr. Kinealy. Before I do so, however, I should like to advertise an event at the end of the month which is being organised by the British Association for Irish Studies and which I think is not unconnected with our topic tonight. On Saturday, 31 May, in the Irish Centre in Hammersmith, there will be a day-long conference on the relationship of Irish language and nationalism (The conference title is ‘Language and Nation’ - Ed.). Eleanor Burgess, who is here this evening, has all the details and I hope many of you will be able to attend.

Dr. Christine Kinealy, in responding to the words of the Ambassador, introduced her book as follows: -
In the autumn of 1846, the potato crop failed for the second consecutive year in Ireland. Daniel O’Connell wrote to the British government and warned them that unless they intervened quickly to provide relief, there would be a ‘death-dealing famine’ in the country. Sadly, O’Connell’s prediction proved to be true.
The Great Irish Famine was a turning point in the development of modern Ireland. In the space of six years, Ireland lost 25 per cent of her population through death and disease. This statistic alone marked the Irish Famine as one of the greatest human tragedies in modern European history.
Yet it is not only the number of people who died which makes the Famine such a tragedy. It is also the way in which they lost their lives. Death from famine or famine-related diseases is slow, painful and obscene.
Moreover, much of this death from the Famine need not have taken place. The Irish Famine was not just caused by food shortages, it was also due to political and economic choices. As a consequence, ideology triumphed over humanity.
In the face of food shortages, relief provided by the government was inadequate. Imports of food were too small to meet the scale of the problem. At the same time, large amounts of food continued to be exported from Ireland. In 1847 – ‘Black ‘47’ – 4,000 ships left Ireland, each carrying large cargoes of food to Britain.
This year marked the 150th anniversary of ‘Black ‘47’ – the single year when disease, suffering and mortality were at their highest. But the Famine did not end in 1847. In 1849, the level of mortality was almost as great as it had been in 1847.
Today – even though famine still exists in the world – it is hard to imagine the suffering, the sense of loss and the trauma of Irish people during those years. The recollections of a survivor of the Famine years convey some of this loss:

“The years of the Famine, of the bad life and of the hunger, arrived and broke the spirit and strength of the community. People simply wanted to survive… Recreation and leisure ceased. Poetry, music and dancing died. These things were lost and completely forgotten. When life improved in other ways, these pursuits never returned as they had been. The Famine killed everything.” (from the Irish)

Dr. Christine Kinealy is a Fellow of the University of Liverpool and has taught Irish History at universities in Dublin and Belfast. She is the author of The Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-52 (Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 1994).
In A Death-Dealing Famine she “focuses on the key factors which nurtured both policy formulations and the unfolding of events in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland. These include political ideologies, such as the influential doctrine of political economy; providentialist ideas which ordained that the potato blight was a ‘judgement of God’; and an opportunistic interpretation of the crisis that viewed the Famine and the consequent social dislocation as an opportunity to reconstruct Irish society. Kinealy also examines the roles of the Irish landlords and merchants, political factions in Westminster and the pivotal role played by civil servants within the British government.” (Publisher’s text).

First published in: The Green Dragon No 3, Summer, 1997.