The National Catholic Review
Tom Deignan

In recent years, several states have passed laws mandating that the Irish Famine of the 1840’s be taught in public schools, alongside African slavery and the Jewish Holocaust. Equating this trinity of horrors, Famine curriculum supporters say, is not only appropriate but historically enlightening.

In his introduction to the brief, provocative The Irish Famine: A Documentary, Colm Tóibín quotes an ardent supporter of such lessons, New York’s Governor Pataki: History teaches us that the Great Hunger was not the result of a massive Irish crop failure, but rather a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive. One can imagine Pataki’s remarks earning lusty applause. But Tóibín and his co-author, Diarmaid Ferriter, want Irish Americans to stop applauding and instead fundamentally re-examine their views on the Famine. New Jersey’s Irish Famine schools curriculum, Tóibín contends, is disturbingly typical.

The text is full of emotional language, selective quotation and vicious anti-English rhetoric. It asserts, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Ireland remained a net exporter of food during the Famine. It is as shocking in its carelessness and its racism as the London Times editorials were about Ireland during and after the Famine.

This is a shrewd bit of writing by Tóibín. Lest this acclaimed Irish novelist be accused of being (gasp!) pro-English, Tóibín makes it clear that he understands that many in 19th-century Britain thought the Catholic Irish were subhuman and that the Famine was God’s punishment.

But according to the Famine-era documents that Ferriter, a historian, has collected, the British government was in fact pursuing Famine solutions seriously, if not successfully.

In February 1846 the Downpatrick Recorder newspaper described several British bills aimed at the Famine as so many steps in the right direction.They will tend to the physical improvement of the country. Such measures ought to stop the mouth of agitators.

With The Irish Famine: A Documentary, Tóibín and Ferriter take aim at the historians and politicians who became 20th-century agitators, arguing that the Famine was essentially British-sponsored genocide.

Catholic society in Ireland in the 1840’s was graded and complex, [and] to suggest that it was merely England or Irish landlords who stood by while Ireland starved is to miss the point, Tóibín writes. An entire class of Irish Catholics survived the Famine; many, indeed, improved their prospects as a result of it, and this legacy may be more difficult for us to deal with in Ireland now than the legacy of those who died or emigrated.

Tóibín’s introduction is an eye-opener and should not be dismissed as either sacrilegious or silly. Like all historical events, the Famine is open to different interpretations. Neither Tóibín nor Ferriter believes the British acted nobly. They acknowledge the dismissive tones used by many British leaders, as hundreds of thousands of Irish starved. But Tóibín adds, If you take into account the fact that the British government and Irish landlords wanted land clearance on a vast scale, then the obvious question arises: could it be that, on the one hand, there were these attitudes and ambitions and, on the other, there was a famine, but that the two are not necessarily connected, or not connected enough to constitute cause and effect?

Some readers will be made uneasyor outragedby Tóibín’s detached introduction. But that’s his point: that emotion has skewed history when it comes to the Irish Famine. It is not outrageous to suggest that people, especially in the United States, have exploited the psychological, even political, value of the Irish Famine.

Tóibín’s essay is impressionistic, ironic, occasionally even funny. But since these are probably not the methods by which even open-minded Irish Americans want to ponder the terrible Famine, he might have tried some plainly-stated polemics of his own. The Irish Famine: A Documentary seems aimed at readers in Ireland, as opposed to melting-pot America. Here distasteful as it may bethere is still competition among the oppressive narratives of various ethnic groups, creating a wrinkle in the Famine debate that this book does not, or perhaps cannot, probe.

The documents selected by Ferriter are, nevertheless, fascinating and revealing. They are also, of course, very dry reading. Nothing beats primary sources. But, to return to the earlier document cited, I personally do not know if The Downpatrick Recorder had, say, a bias toward London. Ferriter probably should have offered more in the way of context to introduce the documents.

But then, the more he explains, the less power the documents themselves hold. As it is, Ferriter humbly contends: These documents...do nothing to settle the [Famine] argument; instead, they establish its terms and complexity.

The Irish Famine: A Documentary is at its best exploring how the United States and Ireland have treated the Famine so differently. Ultimately though, since there is not much of an outcry in this country for a revisionist look at the Famine, I don’t see many readers giving Tóibín’s book a chance. Even if (say) George Pataki chose to plow through Famine-era proceedings from the House of Commons, I don’t see him toning down his rhetoricnot with thousands and thousands of Irish American voters in New York, most of whom are quite comfortable with their instinctual disdain for British actions during the Famine.

Tóibín does offer up a positive model of Irish American scholarshipthe Famine curriculum for New York State schools prepared by Rutgers University’s Professor Maureen Murphy. It is worth noting, however, that when this diverse, 1,000-page document was released, Professor Murphy was lambasted in many quarters as a sellout to the Brits.

They don’t call them the Fighting Irish for nothing.

Tom Deignan, an editor and columnist at The Irish Voice in New York City, is currently writing a short history of Irish immigration for Ivy Press. He has taught history, cinema and English at the City University of New York and St. Johns University