The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan

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The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history of the Irish famine of the 1840s, in which the author argues that Britain was partly responsible for the tragedy in what was one of the earliest recorded cases of ethnic cleansing.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780230109520

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The great famine of Ireland in the 1840s was a major disaster and a tragedy. As a result, about a million of its citizens died from starvation and a further million emigrated, with so many perishing en route that it was said you can walk dry shod to America on their bodies. The net total was about a quarter of the existing population. Yet as Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan argues in this account, the famine was more than a tragedy. The title indicates a fierce polemic, and the thrust of his book is that the British government of the day was not merely responsible for exacerbating the famine conditions through mismanagement and failure to respond adequately to the failure of the potato crop, but in fact deliberately engineered a food shortage in what was one of the earliest cases of ethnic cleansing.

At the first signs of the problem in 1845, the Tory administration of Sir Robert Peel at Westminster took steps to import American corn in order to feed the people. This might have averted or at least minimised the problem, had the Whigs not come to power under Lord John Russell the following year. Several powerful cabinet ministers in the new government had large estates in Ireland, and it was in their personal interests (in other words, their profit margins) to reduce the number of people on the land in order to keep more cattle and holdings there instead. Instead of famine relief, useless work schemes which were poorly paid and too taxing for the workers' failing strength were instituted, while the old and the infirm were expelled from workhouses; poorly-clothed, hungry families with young children were driven from their cottages during the worst of the winter weather; and food depots were closed.

To salve their consciences, the government and the press alike portrayed the situation as being brought on by a combination of the incompetence of Irish landlords, the inadequacy of the Irish character in general, and the will of Providence. Even The Times welcomed the famine as 'a blessing', while Punch, which prided itself on being moderately subversive if not exactly left-wing by the standards of the day, was crudely and unashamedly racist in its references to the Irish at their time of greatest need. Two of the leading Whig government personalities, namely Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the treasury, and Lord Palmerston, foreign secretary, are named as being particularly culpable as responsible for withholding relief and in effect using the Famine to reshape the Irish population. Perhaps it is significant that while Russell eventually saw the error of his colleagues' ways and tried to pass a bill curbing evictions, Palmerston – 'the people's Pam', often regarded as one of the great radicals of his age - blocked it on the grounds that any improvement in the social system of Ireland depended on a change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and that such a change implied a long continued and systematic ejection of smallholders and 'squatting cottiers'. Almost equally at fault were the landlords who found it cheaper to pay for their tenants to emigrate, in terrible conditions which might (or might not) ensure the survival of the fittest, rather than to feed them.

All in all, Coogan labels the measures when taken as a whole as deliberate genocide. He traces in stark terms the history of the potato blight, the deliberate failure of the government to ameliorate the ever-escalating disaster, and the forcible evictions of families, with some horrific accounts of individual cases, with barefoot, inadequately clad women and children with no roof over their heads, spending the night under an open February or March sky in heavy rain and severe frost. The worst of it was that as the famine became ever worse, the public became inured to the reports of sufferings as expulsions continued which were at best premeditated manslaughter and at worst culpable homicide.

The political impact and consequences reverberated for several decades. A massive Irish diaspora, particularly in America, aided the quest for Irish independence, through the activities of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, leading to the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish war and the subsequent troubles, up to the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

There have been several histories of the Great Famine, although I have never yet read any which puts forward the case quite as passionately as this one does. There is a parallel to be drawn between events of the mid-nineteenth century and the present day, with a crash in property values forcing people to sell their homes and businesses to creditors at knockdown prices that meet the needs of neither owners nor creditors. In addition there are lessons to be learnt, asserts Coogan, from Ireland's loss of sovereignty today which makes the innocent and vulnerable suffer the lash of austerity as they struggle to pay Brussels and the International Monetary Fund for the criminal negligence of its bankers, politicians and senior state officials, aided by the activities of accountants, lawyers and stockbrokers who misled clients and puffed up shares. Greece and other European countries might well concur with this argument.

This is a forcefully argued and very angry book. Reading it will certainly bring home the general horror of the events it describes in such detail. Thankfully, despite the passion with which every page is written, the author concludes that a country which could weather such a trauma could also emerge with some strength from its contemporary difficulties, as 'a land that could survive the Famine can survive anything'.

If this book appeals then you might also appreciate The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony 1845-1852 by Ciaran O Murchadha

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Buy The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan at


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