restricted access Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine by David P. Nally (review)
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Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine, by David P. Nally (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 348, 38.00.

In November 1989, Irish Historical Studies published Brendan Bradshaw's "Nationalism and Irish Historical Scholarship," a provocative thought piece that stridently critiqued modern Irish historians' efforts to write "value-free history." Bradshaw was particularly critical of scholars' lack of empathy for Irish nationalist sentiment, and he cited the relative absence of work on the Irish Famine over the previous generation as an indication of revisionists' inability to engage the traumatic events of the Irish past. Such a claim would be difficult to sustain now. Since 1990, there has been an outpouring of scholarship on the Famine, including major works by James S. Donnelly, Jr., Peter Gray, Margaret Kelleher, Christine Kinealy, Kerby Miller, Christopher Morash, Cormac Ó Grada, Cathal Póirtéir, and Robert Scally. Although it would be impossible to generalize across such a wide array of histories, it is fair to say that collectively this body of scholarship represents a post-revisionist consensus that treats nationalist interpretations of the An Gorta Mór with greater seriousness and sensitivity.

David Nally's Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine reflects the high quality of the new literature on the Famine. Rooted in the author's impressively wide reading of mid- to late-nineteenth-century British writing on the Famine, Nally's book focuses on the ways that the catastrophic event was written into being by a host of British intellectuals, policy makers, and travelers. He is particularly concerned with the ways that British elites (Irish elites are curiously absent from this story) created an Irish landscape dominated by poverty and then used the Famine to engineer an Irish society more amenable to the dictates of modern British capitalist interests. By focusing on the British ideological construction of the event, Nally stresses the manmade nature of the Famine, something that he believes Irish historians have missed in their focus on the question of blame. This ambitious historiographical frame is less than persuasive. Tto take two examples, James S. Donnelly's work on the [End Page 152] Famine underlines in meticulous detail both the precarious social landscape of prefamine Ireland and the role of British policy in configuring that terrain; and Peter Gray's Famine, Land and Politics (1999) carefully examines the contentious political struggles over Irish policy within the British government, highlighting the different paths that were available. Given Nally's reliance on these historians' archival research, his treatment of existing scholarship is unfortunate, particularly as there is much to like in this book.

To counter narratives of the Great Irish Famine that construct the event as somehow natural and inevitable, Nally features the voices of contemporary Britons, many of whom stridently disagreed with the Malthusian policies that had such a deadly provenance in Ireland. Although more familiar to Irish historians than Nally allows, figures like George Cornewall Lewis and George Poulett Scrope remind readers that British commentators provided a number of alternative answers to the Irish Question beyond the inhumane political economy of Charles Trevelyan and Nassau Senior. Given his focus on the ways that British writing (and the policy it supported) naturalized the Famine as part of a Liberal re-engineering project for Ireland, much of Human Encumbrances is devoted to a close analysis of Trevelyan and his allies. To my mind, however, Nally is at his best when he teases out the intricate details of less prominent contemporary Victorian accounts, such as George Nicholls's 1836 report that became the foundation for the Irish Poor Law or his fascinating, if tantalizingly underdeveloped, account of Thomas Carlyle's 1846 and 1849 tours of Ireland with Charles Gavan Duffy.

One of the prominent features of Human Encumbrances is Nally's use of two academic vocabularies rarely seen in the traditionally empirical and rather insular world of Irish historiography: famine studies and cultural-violence studies. They are not of equal value to this project. The former allows Nally to bring the insights of figures like Amartya Sen and Mike Davis to bear on the Irish example, and perhaps more productively, enables...