Blame game

The Irish famine: a documentary

Colm Toibin and Diarmaid Ferriter <em>Profile Books, 214pp, £15</e

The arch-villain in the story of the Irish famine that caused a million deaths in the middle of the 19th century was Charles Trevelyan, the assistant secretary to the Treasury. One of the documents assembled by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, to accompany an essay by the novelist Colm Toibin on interpretations of the famine, is a letter from Trevelyan to a landlord in County Limerick in October 1846. The English mandarin asserts that the administration is strained to alleviate the suffering he already acknowledges as a great crisis. He attests that he has never seen such devotion from the civil service as that inspired by the task of dealing with the suffering caused by the famine in Ireland. But his own view is that the failure of the potato crop is a gift from nature that may yet be a glorious corrective to the evil of Irish irresponsibility. "The cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all wise Providence," he writes, pleading: "God grant that we may rightly perform our part and not turn into a curse what was intended for a blessing."

Eight months after Trevelyan wrote that letter, a bewildered police constable in County Wicklow submitted a report about the case of a travelling pauper, Honor Kerwin, and her child. In the midsummer heat, they had collapsed from fever by the roadside, and remained there when no hospital could be found to take them. "There is no place to remove poor persons when they fall on the public roads," the constable writes. "Still every person calls me to keep the public passways clear of such nuisances."

The constable's dilemma reminds us that it was not only distant British officials with Malthusian fantasies who were unmoved by those dying of starvation and disease. Indeed, the attention of historians of the famine has switched from policy-makers such as Trevelyan to those Irish Catholic farmers who prosecuted trespassers for stealing turnips, who would insist that the constabulary keep the roads clear of corpses, and who benefited enormously from the famine that wiped out an entire class of rural labourers.

The collection of official papers, statistics, reports and letters collected in the second part of this book is intended to demonstrate the complexity of evidence about what happened during the famine, and how this is used to reach such different conclusions about cause and blame. In his essay framing the documentary record, Toibin asks why most accounts of the famine have failed to do it justice. If, as Amartya Sen states, in no other country was the proportion of people killed off by famine as large as that in Ireland of the 1840s, why is there no historical account that makes us feel as well as understand the depth of the calamity?

Toibin's is no arid survey of the historiography of the famine, but a stimulating quest, prompted by a personal and vocational curiosity. As such, his essay becomes a novelist's examination of the limitations of historical writing. He concedes that a judicious assessment of statistics and documentary evidence is required to answer the contentious questions as to what caused the famine and whether it could have been prevented. But he laments how you can read page after page of official documents without encountering the name of anyone who died. As a result, Irish writers, both of history and of fiction, have been prevented by history itself from gaining a fuller understanding of the catastrophe of the famine: the speed with which the famine transformed Irish society produced a distracting new society that was "too interesting and close and dramatic", as well as "a set of erasures rather than a set of reminders" for the generations that followed.

Implicit in Toibin's critique is a desire to move beyond the argument over revisionism in Irish history, between those historians who would reject the simplicity of colonial villainy and those eager to blame the English and the absentee landlords. To Toibin, the blame game is futile. And yet he is repelled by the timidity of historians who cannot grapple with these issues at all. This fresh little book points us towards a search for new terrain.

Maurice Walsh is a BBC correspondent

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far