Why, in Ireland, a part of the richest empire in the world, did over three million people die or emigrate during the years 1845 – 1852 ?
Tim Pat Coogan’s “The Famine Plot” offers us a valuable perspective on the Great Irish Famine. The book is a welcome rebuttal of and polemic against revisionist histories of An Górta Mór. Revisionist historians went in with an agenda, he says, to disprove John Mitchel’s claim that; “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine” rather than providing an accurate and honest history of the period and in particular Britain’s actions during this time. Thoroughly researched and brilliantly written, Coogan compiles a book of evidence which leads one to the conclusion that John Mitchel was right all those years ago. It is certainly the conclusion Coogan himself reached.
The catastrophe of the Famine was not mismanagement, Coogan claims. A concerted policy to clear the land of peasants to allow “high farming” was behind the tragedy. “Natural causes” would deal with the displaced millions. Death or emigration. Coogan offers extensive and convincing evidence to support his claim.
Behind the headline grabbing assertion that the famine was genocide Coogan hauntingly describes the horrendous conditions that some three million people lived in during that time. Their mud hut dwellings, the workhouses, the “work schemes”, the coffin ships and the horrendous slums the Irish fled to in America and beyond are all brought to life by Coogan’s pen. Above all it is the suffering that the Irish were subjected to that will occupy your thoughts long after finishing this book.
He thoroughly deals with the different personalities who were in power at the time – he is kind to some such as Robert Peel and outright damning of others, such as the infamous Trevelyan. While others have tried to explain away the policies of the day as being ground in ignorance and the economics of the day, Coogan tears these feeble excuses to shreds and points out the uncomfortable truths – such as the fact that many of those in power were absentee Irish landlords who knew well the conditions of Irish peasants and the consequences eviction would have.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the analysis of the role British media played in what Coogan calls genocide. The downright racist, demonising content of papers such as the Times, a newspaper considered the voice of Britain, (to such a degree that Trevelyan literally wrote editorials for it under a pen name), is exposed in damning fashion and the central role they played in hardening attitudes towards the Irish is explored.
One of the things which always confuses me is the fact that the Irish largely acquiesced to starvation, with notable exceptions of course. Relatively few landlords or agents were killed, despite atrocious conditions half of which would have prompted outright rebellion in Britain. Coogan attempts to explain this by theorising that the Irish suffered, and continue to do so, from a condition called “learned helplessness”. Coogan at length explains what this is but in basic terms it means someone’s spirit is broken by extended abuse and mistreatment to such a degree that when an escape from their plight is in reach they don’t bother grabbing it – they think it’s pointless. They have learned to be helpless, even when they are not. He claims that this perseveres today with the Irish people’s meek acceptance of bondholder bailouts and austerity. It’s a fascinating treatise which warrants further thought and examination.
In conclusion, “The Famine Plot – England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy”, is not the definitive book on the period: others offer more detailed research and material and deal more extensively with specific events during those years. It is a very valuable piece of work. It is flawed; some events are only lightly touched on when they deserved closer examination. In addition there are a handful of rather annoying typos – a pet peeve of this reader.
Much of the book’s value is in the fact that Coogan is brave and confidant enough to come to the necessary and correct conclusions. Where others have feared to tread and skirted around – with the obvious conclusion left hanging – Coogan boldly leaps in and proclaims the truth, free from undeserved and ideologically motivated mitigation. In doing this he has done a great service to Ireland as a whole – but especially to those who died during those terrible years.
I thoroughly recommend this book.
Saoirse go Deo 19.12.2012
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