Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Famine Plot by Tim Pat Coogan

"It would have pitied the sun
to look at them"
--James Hack Tuke

I have long been interested in learning more about the Irish potato famine—its causes and effects—but haven't been up to diving into a dense, detailed history.  The solution to the problem was The Famine Plot.  In a brief 235 pages, an overview of Ireland's modern history with a focus on the popular and political opinions around the time of the Great Famine (1845-1852).

Coogan, asserting that "Irish historians as a class have not done justice to the Famine," makes some bold claims about "England's role in Ireland's greatest tragedy."  Focusing mostly on the role Charles Trevelyan played in refusing aid to the famine stricken peasants, and influencing opinion about the Irish in general, it is easy to see that the outcome of those fateful years would likely have been very different under a different influence.

I can't begin to count the number of passages I underlined, nor can I think how to properly reduce all I learned into a few inadequate sentences.  The chapter talking about souperism and the Catholic/Protestant conflict were fascinating, and I found his observations on popular opinion quite captivating in light of how enlightened we now think we are.  The truth is that there is no perfect, easy answer to such a complex, multi-faceted problem, even though it is hard for me to read such derogatory opinions about the Irish people.

His writing did get a bit repetitive towards the end, but his tone wasn't near as accusatory as I feared it might be based on the title and subtitle.  The best part is that it did such a good job at keeping me interested that I'm eager to read on and learn more.

"For our part, we regard the potato blight as a blessing.  When the Celts once cease to be potatophagi, they must become carnivorous.  With the taste for meats will grow the appetite for them; with the appetite, the readiness to earn them.  With this will come steadiness, regularity, and perseverance; unless, indeed, the growth of these qualities be impeded by the blindness of Irish patriotism, the short-sighted indifference of petty landlords or the random recklessness of Government benevolence."
The Times, September 22, 1846

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