The Curse of Reason: The Great Irish Famine

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The Curse of Reason: The Great Irish Famine. By Enda Delaney. Gill & Macmillan, 325pp, Pounds 15.99. ISBN 9780717154159. Published 13 October 2012.

In a highly original account of a hugely traumatic series of events, Enda Delaney takes a novel approach by interweaving 50 years of history with the lives of four important actors: John McHale, the radical Archbishop of Tuam; John Mitchel, the firebrand nationalist; Charles Trevelyan, the Treasury civil servant who orchestrated government responses; and Elizabeth Smith, the Scots-born wife of a Wicklow landlord who kept rich diaries. The result is an at times gripping narrative.

Delaney carefully rejects images of 19th-century Ireland as universally poor and backward, and takes a close look at weaknesses in economic decision-making and social structure, for these things are too easily ascribed solely to Britons' brutality and the landlords' venality. Mitchel wrote that Ireland was "perishing of political economy", but Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish Catholic nationalist, professed no different creed.

Laissez-faire policy was the orthodoxy but this does not mean that the course of events was inevitable. Delaney describes the many positive developments of the 1830s, even though tensions underlay so many of them. Protestants such as Smith supported a new national school system that radical Catholics such as McHale loathed as undermining clerical control. Under-secretary Thomas Drummond, the best administrator in Victorian Ireland, worked himself to death tackling vested elite interests and reforming the justice system, while successive governments commissioned vast social investigations but learned too little from them. As Delaney observes, information was no guarantee of understanding.

Government, landlords and the people alike failed to comprehend the disaster befalling Ireland. For Smith, it confirmed her racist views of "Celtick" indolence. To the simplest folk in the West, the potato blight stemmed from the demise of the Connacht fairies. Protestant hardliners blamed the advent of religious equality for Catholics. The home secretary, Sir James Graham, saw the work of a "God, who judgeth the earth". McHale saw the same divinity decrying secular liberalism. Trevelyan preferred empirical evidence and immediately dispatched chemist Lyon Playfair and botanist John Lindley to Ireland to apply science in seeking solutions. Their conclusions drew scorn from nationalists, with the Freeman's Journal stating that they had "satisfactorily proved that they know nothing whatsoever about the causes or of the remedies for the disease". …