The prevalent British view of the famine, Coogan writes, was that it resulted from “a flaw in the Irish character — the fecklessness and laziness that produced the potato economy also produced the other ills that afflicted the unhappy country.” Famine was horrible, but seen from some corners of Whitehall as a necessary evil: a harsh but efficient solution to Irish overpopulation and disorganization, and the laziness supposedly inculcated by overdependence on the too-easy-to-cultivate potato. From London’s point of view, Ireland needed the taut discipline of a rigorously maintained free market — and a couple of million fewer Irish. Only then could the country’s disastrous system of landholding be straightened out, the “congested districts” relieved of population pressure, and Irish society modernized along with Irish agriculture.
British leaders, of course, could not see mass starvation in Suffolk or Sussex as a solution instead of a problem. But the hillsides and workhouses of southwest Ireland were a long way from Westminster in 1846.
Kelly and Coogan cover the same ground when describing the horrors of the famine and the inadequate, irresponsible, sometimes brutal responses of the British government. According to Kelly, “bad luck, a primitive infrastructure, and a poverty bordering on immiseration can only explain so much. . . . British policy makers also bore much responsibly for what happened.” Coogan agrees that natural disaster was compounded and magnified by political carelessness and indifference, but goes considerably further, insisting that what happened in Ireland during the famine conforms to the definitions of genocide in Articles 2 and 3 of the United Nations Convention on Genocide.
Did the British government cause the famine? One way to consider the question is to pose another one. Did the Bush administration cause Hurricane Katrina? No, nature did. But perhaps 300 years of American history had already created a situation whereby a particular group of people, African Americans in the poorest quarters of New Orleans, were more vulnerable than most to that storm. And perhaps the administration, for political and historical reasons, was not inclined to be closely in touch with or responsive to the well-being of that population. Perhaps the inadequacy of the initial response to the natural disaster was compounded by streaks of racial prejudice and ideological blind spots, as well as by good old-fashioned incompetence. Natural forces cause hurricanes. And crop failures. In Ireland and in America, however, history shapes a government’s intellectual, practical and political response, when Mother Nature flexes her sovereign power.
Peter Behrens reviewed this book for The Washington Post.