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the guide to historical resources • Issue 1: The Victorian Era •


The Victorian Era

Book cover: A Death-Dealing Famine

Author's response

Book:

A Death-Dealing Famine: the Great Hunger in Ireland

Christine Kinealy
Pluto Press, London and Chicago, 1997; Pp. viii+192;
Hb. 40 ISBN. 0745310753
Pb. 12.99 ISBN. 0745310745
Reviewer:

L.A. Clarkson

In this curious 'book review' by Dr Clarkson, the author seems to be unclear whether he is in the business of seeking to implement a professional review on a book, or is attempting to attack my supposed character and attitudes. In both regards, this tepid collection of pretentious assertions is as pathetic as it is inaccurate. The wild conjectures, contradictions and ill-conceived conclusions raise more questions about the competence and motivations of Dr Clarkson than they reveal about my book or my personal motivations and personality (of which he has no knowledge). In the latter context, my admission - in the preface to my book - of Irish ancestry and possession of a Wicklow sheep dog is sufficient basis, it seems, for Dr Clarkson to launch a litany of speculation and invective. Perhaps I should also have mentioned in my preface that I am married to an Ulster Unionist - or would that have skewed his spurious stereotyping?

Moreover, his comments have to be seen in the context of someone who states the importance of being 'faithful to the evidence and to interpret that evidence honestly and fairly'. The major problem with this review is the conspicuous failure by the author to heed his own advice.

This inadequate collection of anecdotal speculations and meandering lacks both a logical and a factual foundation. A number of key examples will illustrate the nature of this bizarre tract:

i. I am not trying to assume the role of anyone else, including the cited Roy Foster and Cecil Woodam-Smith. I am astonished that such a statement could appear in a serious review. I am content to assume the role and identity of Christine Kinealy. In that role I am happy to acknowledge (and have done so many times elsewhere) the unique contributions to Irish historiography of both those mentioned.

ii. Regarding the weary revisionist arguments of whether historians should allocate 'blame', and the need to judge the official response to the Famine in the context of the time. I do not use the word blame myself, but I do seek to understand why certain events occurred, even if this means confronting unpleasant realities. In a less emotive context, Irish people (and even some historians) might be interested in understanding if - in the context of the time - it could have been possible to alleviate the effects of the loss of the potato crop. The answer, if we look at the evidence, is very clear. The debate at the time, the massive food exports at the time, the resignation and disillusionment of senior officials at the time due to the parsimony of official relief, the example at the time of how other countries were responding to the loss of their own crops, are compelling evidence of an inadequate government response. This can hardly be said of Dr Clarkson's effort to depict Charles Trevelyan in a more favourable light than his actions would permit, given Trevelyan's knowledge of conditions at the time. Moreover, as I stress in my book, Trevelyan's responses have to be viewed in the context of a weak minority government, an economic recession in Britain, and an aggressive press campaign which reflected a wider public resistance to giving more relief to Ireland. The issue is complex, yet facile generalisations lie at the heart of this review. I can only conclude that not only has Dr Clarkson not been true to the evidence, he seems unaware of its existence.

iii. Regarding the quasi-philosophical argument in relation to 'value-free' history. Here, Dr Clarkson indulges in one of his common tactics - that of attributing to me some supposed stance which he then proceeds to criticise. To propose that the interpretation of history is not capable of being value-free (as I suggest) is not to say that history is a subjective polemic (which he states I suggest). Would that there was such a thing as a value-free review.

iv. Then there is the other tactic. All the things that I allegedly did not do and should have done in my book. These range from a definition of famine (lets try, in essence it is a sustained lack of food which leads directly or indirectly to death) to how dependence on the potato came about. In agonising over the academic niceties of a definition of famine, Dr Clarkson seeks to introduce a dimension to the debate that is unclear in its practical relevance. I am certain that at the time people were not concerned with cerebral arguments over the 'system of entitlement' and related concepts. They knew that there was a shortage of food that led to the ignominy of emigration, disease and death. The practical concept of famine - no matter how it is surrounded with pretentious conceptualisations - is a reality even today. From my own involvement with famine relief organisations, it is clear that it has changed little in its fundamentals.

The complex interplay which led to the Irish dependence on the potato could be the subject of another book. My book is essentially about the Famine (although pages 48 to 53 examine the role of the potato in the pre-Famine economy). A failure to look at famines in Sweden, Finland and Russia at the end of the century (although I do look at concurrent famines in France, Scotland, Belgium and Holland) is a further criticism. What the suggested Cook's tour of famines throughout the decades would have achieved is unclear. To have undertaken such a wide-ranging study (even if it were relevant or of interest) would have resulted in a radically different book. If Dr Clarkson believes these matters to be so important but neglected, perhaps he should seize the moment and write a book about them himself.

v. He asks how I came to the estimate that one million people died during the Famine. We cannot know precisely the number of dead when reliable sources of evidence do not exist. One million dead is probably a conservative estimate and few people would argue that mortality was any less than this number. My figure is based (as I say) on earlier work done by Professor Cormac O'Grada and others, and corroborated by contemporary estimates. What is Dr Clarkson's evidence for contending this estimate (or has he discovered a new source ?).

Dr Clarkson's 'review' is not only professionally inept, it is also offensive. He refers to the recent 'deluge' of writing on the Famine - does this not beg the question of why a silence persisted for long when there were such historians as Dr Clarkson around ? Why was one of the most profound events in modern Irish history ignored for so long by academics in Ireland? The self-imposed censorship has now been replaced with an attempt to destroy the character of people who have broken that silence, yet who do not belong to a remote inner-circle of Irish historians.

I cannot fail to recall in this context the remark by the former Labour Minister, Denis Healy, who once (famously) said of his then Parliamentary opponent, Sir Geoffrey Howe, that 'being attacked by Sir Geoffrey is like being mauled by a dead sheep'. My sheep dog and I consider ourselves to be so mauled.

December 1997

Original review

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