What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Was the Irish famine genocide? The latest addiition to the debate...

"By the summer of 1847, newspaper readers in North America and Europe could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Irish knew how to do any more was die."

That sums up the horrific story of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1848ish, a dreadful event that was sadly in need of a new and readable history. That is what John Kelly has delivered -- in spades. He does the world a service by not arguing that the collapsed of the potato crop was artificially manufactured and created by the British with the express purpose of triggering what ended up becoming the equivalent of a genocide of the Irish, nor does he romanticize life in pre-famine Ireland. What he does do is deliver a crisp, well-researched and authoritative history of the cataclysm and its consequences.

This is a book that appears to be causing quite a kerfuffle amongst readers who are committed to the proposition that the tragic famine was a deliberately genocidal act, readers who focus their attention on the use of English forces to export the country's grain crops and sustain commercial/mercantile contracts at the expense of human lives. (In fact, for commenting that this seems to me to be the outcome of stupidity, extreme callousness, lack of imagination, etc. rather than an explicit intent to  exterminate the Irish, which is what needs to be in place to rise to the level of genocide, I have been told in other forums that I am callously genocidal myself; I'm happy to entertain fact-based, rational debate and disagreement on this in the comments section, but will remove any comments that descend to vituperation and personal hostility; civil discourse is fine, but reasonable people know how to disagree reasonably without descending to that level.) In spite of the hostility of some readers, it is clear that in Kelly's eyes, the English are responsible for the astonishing level of fatalities -- about a million people died; at least another million emigrated -- but it's of a different kind than that assumed by those who say the intent was genocidal.

English policies of the era was not benign, as Kelly spells out for readers. Bizarrely to our eyes, a series of politicians and civil servants somehow seized on the crisis as an opportunity to exercise some "tough love" (for want of a better phrase) and force the Irish into what they viewed as a better way of life. That they were wrong in their prescriptive approach appears probable from Kelly's detailed analysis of the famine's aftermath;  within a few decades, for instance, land ownership once again was widely dispersed, with small plots being at the heart of the agricultural system. Were they wrong in their analysis? Perhaps not: certainly, utter dependence on a single foodstuff is a recipe for catastrophe, especially given that the tremendous crop failures of the mid-1840s had been preceded by several devastating but more minor ones; certainly, the fact that Ireland (outside the major cities) had little in the way of a "modern" market economy or even a cash economy exacerbated the impact of that crop failure, so transformation seems to have been a reasonable objective. But to prioritize such a transformation in the midst of a crop failure, famine and disease? That's something else again, and Kelly illustrates in damning detail just how each decision made that prioritized policy ideals over the preservation of human life proved devastating. (He devotes a lot of attention to the government's determination that no one should interfere with the "free market" operations by providing free grain, or selling grain below the market price, for instance, at the heart of the actions that have convinced many that the English authorities were deliberately genocidal.)

Few of the English politicians and civil servants whose actions and inaction doomed so many Irish to starvation, disease or forced emigration come across looking rational, reasonable, etc., (much less humane) in Kelly's book. But what the author does do is to remind us that their starting point was a radically different way of thinking than ours today is. More than 160 years ago, it seemed reasonable to Victorians to view the crop failure as some kind of divine judgment, whether on the island's over-reliance on the potato crop, the antiquated land ownership system or simply the fact that the Irish were Catholic or lazy. Hard to conceive today, especially with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but then, it was difficult for many Austrian and German Jews in the mid-1930s to view Hitler as anything more than the harbinger of a new kind of survivable pogrom. (It is with the benefit of hindsight that many of us can and do say 'why didn't they just flee when they could?') Kelly reserves a particular kind of icy cold vitriol for Irish landowners who used the famine and the epidemic of typhus that followed as a way to depopulate their estates, evicting their tenants and forcing them onto what amounted to plague ships. He doesn't need to use hyperbole or even dramatic rhetorical flourishes: the facts speak for themselves, as when he paints a portrait of a team of doctors in the St. Lawrence River, with the masts of ships stretching far up river, unable to keep pace with ships that were arriving with holds full of stricken, dead or dying "emigrants".

I have spent a reasonable amount of time in Ireland in the last decade, including visits to the archives of the country's famine museum in Co. Roscommon, and have talked to some of the historians working there. Their stories were more chilling and horrifying than the only major history of the events that I have read (which was thorough but dry). So Kelly's deft marshaling of the complicated facts and the juxtaposition of these against some vivid writing and an anecdotal style made this a compelling read. To me -- as a reader whose interest is in what happened, rather than defending English policies or insisting that authors label this a deliberate genocide -- it emerged as a compelling narrative that clearly spelled out the tragic consequences of people who are convinced that they know better than others, and those who put political ideals or social engineering ahead of humanitarian considerations. He pulls no punches, but he does let the facts speak for themselves -- which I appreciated. I read it cover to cover in two nights. And yes, the story gave me nightmares.


  1. I read this, interesting but unnerving.

  2. Indeed, and whatever opinions you hold on the topic are tested by what you read. Which to my mind is often the sign of a great book.