’s The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People
first came to my attention when my father sent me a New York Times article about Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia
. I got all excited when I saw that it was the same author as The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time
(of all time!), which I read back in college and which was absolutely fascinating. And then one day, there it was, staring up at me from the bargain nonfiction table at Brookline Booksmith
which I should probably never be allowed to walk past again, all in hardcover with nice thick ivory pages and a lovely engraving of starving people in rags picking moss off the rocks on a beach.The Graves Are Walking
is just as fascinating as The Great Mortality
, and it is notably more political. This is unsurprising, as the Great Hunger has always been highly political event—doubly so in the minds of the Irish and their descendants, and I will eat my copy of the book if a dude named “John Kelly” isn’t at least partly Irish. (The British at the time considered the famine to have been sent by Providence, but the Irish have always been quite steadfast in maintaining that Providence only sent the potato blight; the famine was England’s fault.) While Kelly gives credit where credit is due, debunking various conspiracy theories that inevitably cropped up in the wake of mass devastation and taking note of the strengths and weaknesses of all the involved historical notables, he also has no qualms about straight-up judging various policies and policy ideas as good, or bad, or ridiculous, or disastrous, or downright insane. It’s fairly hard to argue with his conclusions, though, if you have any belief that mass death is indeed bad and that government has any responsibility to try to rein it in.
The book, it must be noted, doesn’t cover the whole famine, which is generally considered to have lasted for about eight years, from 1845 through 1852. Instead, it gives a very thorough and detailed account on a wide range of topics up through “Black 47”— the worst year of the famine, 1847 (and also the name of a New York Irish rock band
, because of course) (please note that I have no idea if they’re actually any good or not so if anyone wants to check them out and report back, that’d be great). This gets us through most of the story about policy formulation, which is the heart of the book. By 1848, the British basically had their new Poor Laws in place and just stuck to their policies regardless of what was happening for the next several years, so we really only get a cursory look at that time period.
We get some history of Ireland before the famine, which is pretty essential to understanding why Ireland was so incredibly fucked up that a crop failure that occurred worldwide would turn into the largest loss of life in the 19th
century in just the one country. At the time, everyone had their own ideas about why Ireland was such an ungovernable mess, some of which boiled down to simple racism and ass-covering—there was a popular idea in England that the “Celtic temperament” meant that the Irish were “incapable of self-government,” which I guess was a justification when it came to Britain owning Ireland but a complaint when running it turned out to be work—but a surprising amount of which all converged on one opinion, a theme which pervades the whole book, which is that the Irish landholding system was fucked and its landlords were fuckers. There are politer ways to say that, but I’m not sure any of them can concisely describe quite how nonsensical this system was nor how maliciously and willfully useless and whiny the entire landowning class was. They don’t do a single thing in the whole book that doesn’t manage to piss off everybody
. The landowners were mostly members of the “Protestant Ascendancy
,” ethnically English Anglicans who had been awarded land in Ireland when the Penal Laws in the centuries earlier destroyed the native Catholic gentry by barring Catholics from owning land, living in incorporated towns, etc. The Penal Laws had since been repealed, but not until a small class of now “Anglo-Irish” Protestants had taken over everything the Catholics had been dispossessed of and were firmly ensconced as the top rung of society. Most of the aristocratic landowners resided more or less permanently in England and subcontracted the actual running of their farms to a rapacious class of middlemen, and their goal was basically to get as much money out of their estates as possible so they could continue to afford to live in London or wherever year-round and never have to actually go home. While the British had installed these people into power, after a century or two, their unending reluctance to actually administrate their land or do right by their tenants in any way was earning them the ire of those elements of British political society who wanted Ireland to be a functioning and well-run part of the Union. The Anglo-Irish seem to be considered English—or at least, a tool of British oppression—by the Catholic/Gaelic Irish, and Irish by the frustrated English. By the summer of 1847, even the Canadians hated them!
In addition to history, we get some really quite interesting science and medical reporting—the author is actually a medical journalist by trade—about the potato blight, the effects of starvation, the various pestilences that began to ravage the island in 1846, when the weakened immune systems of a malnourished population met a spate of terrible weather and a stupid and cruel public works system that had people outside, building and breaking up (ugly, useless, badly planned, and leading-to-nowhere) roads, in all conditions. Seriously, don’t read this book unless you’ve got a strong stomach, because you’re going to learn all
about typhus, relapsing fever, scurvy, dysentery, and starvation. We also get a lot of human-interest anecdote type pieces—the stories of individual peasants, officials, landlords, doctors, policemen, people from all walks of life who either recorded what they saw or whose stories were recorded by others. From the farmer in Skibbereen
whose wife’s head was dug up out of her grave by a starving dog, to the peasant John Costello, whose cabin was torn down without warning on the orders of a landlord he hadn’t even seen in nine years, we see the devastation of the famine through the eyes of the souls that lived it—or, in many cases, that didn’t live through it. These anecdotes are well spaced, seamlessly woven around discussions of bills, laws, finances, food aid, political theorizing, and demographic statistics, so the academic stuff is never presented too far from the people it affected. It gives the whole book a moving narrative quality that I really appreciate.
About halfway through the book, we leave Ireland, following the path of the famine emigrants as they fled Ireland in droves, often penniless and half-dressed, packed onto tight, unseaworthy “coffin ships
” that exacerbated all the health problems that had broken out in the population as a result of starvation, bad weather, and social instability. Illiterate, many of them Irish speakers with little or no English, often lacking in any sort of marketable skills due to the extreme poverty and low standard of living in Ireland even before the famine—we’re talking about people who couldn’t scrub a floor because they’d never seen a non-dirt floor before—the famine Irish overwhelmed the immigration infrastructure in Liverpool, in Quebec, in New York, everywhere they went, bringing with them the squalor, disease, and social upheaval they’d been fleeing from just as much as the starvation. (This is the bit where the gentle Canadians hated the Anglo-Irish landlords—many landlords, while unwilling to provide employment for their tenants, were willing to front the cost of a ticket to Canada in order to clear out their “excess” tenants and turn their land into large commercial farms. With droves of dispossessed former tenants showing up on their shores and causing a typhus outbreak
all along the St. Lawrence river, the Quebecois, doubly unhappy between sympathy for the peasants that had been tossed away like garbage and fear of the actual effects of huge numbers of fever-ridden people turning up and dying on their shores, excoriated the Irish landed classes in the press in a way that I’ve never seen Canadians excoriate anybody.) We learn how the Irish were received abroad—not well—and their bumpy journey towards establishing themselves, particularly the development of the Irish-American community in major U.S. cities.
The real center of the book, however, is the bumbling-arse efforts at relief and emergency control put forth by the English and Irish political classes, and particularly the ways in which ideological commitment to various political fashions—free-marketeering, Moralism, Malthusianism, etc.—got in the way of the relief effort’s ability to be either compassionate or effective. Sir Charles Trevelyan doesn’t come off here as quite the callous genocidal monster he’s generally portrayed as in the Irish folk memory, but he’s certainly an asshole, and his condescension, lack of sensitivity, arrogance, and commitment to Moralist beliefs meant that even his most genuine good-faith efforts to mitigate the crisis frequently come off as almost willfully misguided. A number of the British political elites, mindful of the political truism that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, tried to use the crisis generated by the crop failure as a mechanism to modernize the Irish economy—ending the barter economy and potato dependence, and getting the Irish peasants onto a cash wage so they could purchase their food instead of growing it—and to teach the Irish peasantry good work habits, personal responsibility, end their “dependence on government,” all that sort of thing. As someone whose Baby’s First Irish History narratives and general family milieu growing up were all informed by the opinion that the British government was never a legitimate government in Ireland and was always a foreign occupation, every mention of Irish “dependence on government” reads like abuser logic to me—pissing and moaning that the victim isn’t doing stuff that you’re actively preventing them from doing, acting like they’re stupid that they’re making it sooo hard for you to control them—it was actually quite difficult for me to put myself into the minds of the British statesmen who honestly and legitimately believed that the “Union” was actually one Kingdom and the Kingdom should be administrated in a nice efficient freedom-maximizing way. I kept thinking “If you want to see how they self-govern you could maybe give them their country back…”
although subsequent Irish history has shown that it might actually be true that the Irish are politically skilled at everything except running a country. Anyway, between ideological rigidity, some really stupid administrative clerking mistakes (REALLY stupid, not minor mistakes, stuff you should have multiple people look at and sign off on), various incompetent people overselling their experiences and getting stuck in jobs way too big for them, Nature herself seeming quite determined to make the job as hard as possible, and the stone-cold recalcitrant stupidity and whining of the large landowners, the crop failure was practically guaranteed to turn into a full famine.
A lot of this had to do with “Indian corn,” or what we in the U.S. just call corn (in England, “corn” refers to all cereal grains, apparently). I’d heard before that corn was part of the issue because Ireland had little experience with it, and I assumed it meant the populace didn’t know how to cook it. This could certainly be a problem, since improperly prepared corn can cause digestive issues. This turned out to not be correct—any idiot can boil up cornmeal and water into an unappetizing but more or less edible mush, once you have properly ground cornmeal. No, the issue here was the merchants and government officials who ordered whole kernel dried corn from the U.S. and didn’t have the knowledge or infrastructure to mill it, since corn has to be ground differently than wheat or barley. Yet the government continued to rely on corn in a deliberate attempt to have corn replace potatoes as the staple food of the Irish, planning that it would stay this way even when the famine was over. One of the reasons they did this was due to a weird Victorian belief that cereal grains were “higher” foods than potatoes, that they had more nutritional content (corn, at any rate, doesn’t), and that they “encouraged thrift” and other weird shit that food doesn’t do. The other reason is that you can’t grow corn in Ireland, so it would have to be purchased, thus forcing the Irish to work for cash wages so they could buy it. It takes some serious ideological commitment to look at the situation of the Irish peasant in the mid-1800s and determine that the issue was that they didn’t have enough
middlemen in their lives getting between themselves and their ability to acquire life basics, and what they really needed was a whole supply chain inserted between themselves and their food. It takes double ideological blinders to do this while simultaneously complaining that the Irish weren’t self-sufficient enough.
Overall, this book is an amazing work of nonfiction, and I recommend it to… well, people who like Game of Thrones
, really. It’s got similar levels of squalor and violence and horror, the cast of characters is about as big, and there are ample opportunities for getting really hopped up on hating on people saying and doing stupid things and a couple of satisfying moments where other people call them out on it (“The landlords in England would not like to be shot like hares and partridges … [but] neither does any landlord in England turn out 50 people at once and burn their houses over their heads” –Lord John Russell, regarding several murders of landlords). It’s quite difficult to write a truly boring book on Irish history, because it’s been so weird for so long, but The Graves Are Walking
looks at one of the most messed-up times in a long messed-up history and really pulls no punches.