The bicentenary of the Great Irish Famine has been marked by both abundant new research and outrageous oversimplification, like Governor George Pataki’s declaration that the Famine “was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.” 1 The flood of scholarly publications has begun to ebb, not so much because 150 years have elapsed since the end of the Famine (its direct effects in Ireland continued until at least 1852), but because another commemoration—the bicentennial of the 1798 Rebellion—has preempted the attention of the Irish historical profession. Certainly there are drawbacks to allowing the public fascination with round numbers to set our research agenda, but the practice has at least the merit of concentrating a few of the most reflective minds in the profession on how to enable the public to cope with the complexity and ambiguity of the past. Two notable examples occur in the work under review.
Donald Akenson explores how Old Testament Jews loaded meaning into the words that came to be translated into English as “exile,” and how other communities have borrowed from their propagandistic vocabulary. Then he turns the tables with an explicit injunction that Irish historians eschew the word “holocaust” lest they “travel on other people’s wounds” (13–14).
Robert Scally suggests that by making impersonal market forces central to our accounts of the Famine, we can “mute and refocus the question of blame” and “put some of the restless dogs of both nationalism and colonialism to sleep for good” (23). What makes this juxtaposition of admonitions especially interesting is that most Irish historians would classify Akenson as one of the “revisionists” who, during the past generation, have tried to wean the Irish public from highly emotive versions of the past, and Scally as a member of the “post-revisionist” school, which takes the revisionists to task for forfeiting the ear of the very public that they hope to educate. Yet, it is Akenson who, in this book, urges respect for emotive memories—albeit those of another people—and Scally who stresses the impersonal precisely to avoid the most divisive of those memories. Thus do we grope for a new synthesis in the profession.
Considerations of space make it possible to mention only a few empirical contributions that break new ground. Patrick Duffy thoughtfully explores the motivations of estate agents in contexts where assistance for emigration was a central issue. Trevor Parkhill considers the same issue as it arose for the local boards that governed workhouses in [End Page 318] Ulster. Brenda Collins offers a nuanced interpretation of the relationship between the Famine and the decline of handloom linen weaving. As a whole, the collection is a useful sample of a growing and significant literature.
1. Pataki quoted in Anna Mundow, “Irishwoman’s Diary,” The Irish Times (Dublin), 7 Jan. 1997.