Sunday, August 26, 2012

Starved for attention

In The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People, John Kelly tells a tragic tale of national resilience

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

It was the blurbs that caught my attention on this one. Richard Rhodes, Douglas Brinkley, Adam Hochschild: these are heavy hitters. (Bill Clinton doesn't hurt, but he's not a master prose stylist.) John Kelly is no slouch either, having produced a string of well-regarded books, notably The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death (2006). He picked a worthy subject in taking on the Irish potato famine of 1845-47, a demographic catastrophe that killed twice as many people as the American Civil War and sliced Ireland's population by a third. As one might expect, Kelly approaches his subject from a multidisciplinary perspective that takes into account botany, politics, economics, and medicine. The result is a fully realized piece of history.

It's clear from the start that the famine, driven by a potato-destroying microbe that ravaged the European continent as well as the British isles, was going to be a disaster beyond the capacity of human prevention. The question was what was going to be done to mitigate it. The answer was also quickly apparent: not enough. The British governments of Robert Peel and John Russell faced dilemmas that remain depressingly modern: electorates controlled by rich and powerful elites that refused to shoulder the cost, and which showed an obsessive concern about creating government dependency, often going to bizarre extremes (like making people in workhouses wear straight, pointy shoes) to make welfare as uncomfortable as possible. Fears about waste and sapped personal incentive weren't exactly unfounded. But they were deeply myopic, and left millions dead and bereaved as a result.

That said, the crisis in Ireland was also exacerbated by specifically local traditions. An agrarian country in an industrializing Union, the island was strangled by the hold of its Anglo-Irish gentry, typified by Lord Palmerston (later British Prime Minister), who squawked at any mention of tax increases. When a poor relief levy based on the value of tenant holdings was rammed through over their objections, the big Irish landlords avoided paying it by evicting tenants with ruthless efficiency.

Kelly at one point mentions that the power of the gentry of highland Scotland had been circumvented in the nineteenth century via buying them out, a move that allowed that country to modernize. Significantly, Scotland did not suffer nearly as much as Ireland did from the famine. Kelly doesn't really develop this intriguing scenario, which seems to come as close as he gets to offering an alternative outcome. More often, he laments the cramped moral vision of bureaucrats like Charles Edward Trevelyan and editorial writers like those of the London Times, whose sometimes breathtaking callousness shows that Charles Dickens's Scrooge was no stereotype (though Dickens was no paragon of enlightenment himself when it came to the Irish).

In terms of narrative pacing, The Graves are Walking feels a bit pedestrian until Kelly shifts his focus away from government ministries more decisively to the situation on the ground as the famine takes root. These chapters are riveting and harrowing. Kelly charts the effects of starvation and the cascade of ills that surround it with precision, color, and empathy. As a case study in a public health challenge gone horribly awry, his account functions as a profound cautionary tale.

The Irish famine of the 1840s was also an event that triggered a global diaspora, and here too Kelly shines. He's particularly vivid in describing the impact of Irish immigration in Canada, which absorbed waves of illness that sent shock waves through Quebec and Montreal. American officials partially blunted that blow with taxes and regulations, though as we all know the effects were dramatic in the States as well, nowhere more than New York City, where 848,000 immigrants arrived between 1847 and 1851, about four times the population of mid-century Dublin and more than twice that of midcentury Manhattan. (The trip for many of these travelers sounds almost as bad as the middle passage of slaves.) The arrival of teeming, filthy, sick people hardly brought out the best in Americans, who developed a nativist animus against the Irish that would last for decades. Though it was hardly justified, Kelly makes it all too humanly understandable.

This is an upsetting, enlightening, necessary book that deserves multiple, durable audiences. It also stands as a testament to the resilience of a people under some of the greatest duress the world has ever seen.