David Granville reviews The O'Brien Pocket History of the Irish Famine by Ruán O'Donnell, O'Brien Press, ISBN 978-1-84717-019-4, £6.99 pbk
The Irish Famine by Ruán O'Donnell is the latest in The O'Brien Press's compact and informative Pocket History series.
For those familiar with the author's weightier twin-volume works on the 1798 Rebellion or Robert Emmet and the 1803 rebellion, it may come as a surprise to find that O'Donnell, a senior lecturer in the history department at Limerick University, has succeeded in tackling this subject in a mere 134 pages.
He does so by filling this short work with relevant detail and tightly argued analysis and by not wasting words on rhetorical flourishes or political grandstanding. Acknowledging the complexities of the subject, and the controversy it has generated ever since, he nevertheless skilfully avoids oversimplification.
The author explores all aspects of the calamity, from scientific ignorance of the nature and cause of the potato blight and the inadequate, and ultimately negligent, response of the authorities through to English ruling-class prejudice against the Irish and the contribution of the Whigs rigid adherence to laissez-faire economics.
In brief, he concludes that nature was responsible for the blight, but that man, particularly in the guise of ineffective imperial government, compounded by an adherence to laissez-faire dogma, was responsible for the catastrophe which followed. Injecting an important element of class analysis, he points out that death during the famine period was not indiscriminate but closely related to economic standing.
With government counter-famine measures ranging from "inadequate to partially effective", the impact of mass evictions in the later years of the crisis simply added "exposure to the common causes of excess mortality" brought about by poverty.
O'Donnell's short history of Famine is a fine example of how a brief study need not be either shallow or short on scholarship. In many ways it is an ideal introduction to the subject and one which will undoubtedly stimulate further in-depth reading.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2009 David Granville