Magazine article The Spectator

A Case of Compassion Fatigue

Magazine article The Spectator

A Case of Compassion Fatigue

Article excerpt

BLACK '47 AND BEYOND: THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE IN HISTORY, ECONOMY AND MEMORY

by Cormac O Grada Princeton, 21.50, pp. 296

Cormac O Grada is, and has been for many years, Ireland's leading economic historian. In recent years he has published extensively on the famine - this is his second book devoted solely to the topic, and there have been numerous articles and chapters elsewhere. It is a most impressive, even brilliant, work: focussing on neglected contexts -- climatic, medical, urban - he gives us a full account of the impact of the blight phytophthora infestans which destroyed the potato crop which had underpinned Irish population growth, then the fastest in western Europe.

`Professor O Grada belongs to the camp which wishes to `talk up' rather than `talk down' the famine in which a million people died. He uses the folklore evidence to sharpen our understanding of the human misery involved, though nothing equals in intensity the accounts given (`hideous facts . . . death in every paragraph') by the contemporary Irish provincial press, a source which has still not been fully exploited by scholars. But he is far too toughminded to engage in any of the politically motivated exploitation of the famine which has been a feature of Irish public life in recent years. He does not subscribe to the myth that the Irish are notably more generous to the Third World because of their own famine experience - indeed, he is impressed by the way in which later generations have moved on and the famine has left few surviving physical traces, even in places like Schull and Skibbereen, now bustling and expensive tourist spots in West Cork, where 150 years ago thousands of poor wretches demanded admission to the poor- house not in the hope of being saved - it was too late for that - but in the hope of being buried in a coffin.

For O Grada the total spent on relief by London was niggardly, making a striking comparison with the sums wasted in the Crimean War shortly afterwards or even the rather more impressive efforts of Tsarist Russia in 1891-92. He is inclined to downplay issues of agency; the role of waste and maladministration of relief schemes. O Grada may well be right, but it is not how it seemed, even to angry contemporaries. The Cork Examiner, for example, claimed that if 10 million, as the government claimed, had been spent in 1846-47, `the expenditure of such an enormous sum, without producing any [benign] results, could only be the effect of . . . incredible incompetence'. Indeed, John Mitchel claimed the incompetence was so extensive it must have been deliberate. O Grada plays down the crisis of UK public finances in 1847, but the Treasury papers reveal that, subjectively at least, the Treasury genuinely believed there was a severe crisis. It was nonetheless hyperbole to imply, as the Times did in a leader on the subject, that there was a danger of Lancashire starving to feed Galway and Tipperary. …

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