- Ireland's Great Famine: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
It may come as a surprise to some that prior to the 1980s, the Irish historical profession paid little attention to the Famine of the 1840s—the event in Irish history of which non-Irish readers are most likely to have heard. The sesquicentennial observances in the mid-1990s prompted a blizzard of discourse in disciplines ranging from cultural studies to econometrics. From the latter discipline, the most important contributor is Ó Gráda, who published a masterful synthesis of his famine research of the previous two decades in Black '47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (Princeton, 1999).
The work under review is a collection of a number of articles upon which that synthesis was founded. Topics include pre-Famine standards of living, landlord bankruptcy, disease during the Famine, the utility of [End Page 114] Irish famine scholarship for understanding of present-day famines, and studies of Dublin during the Famine and of the experience of Famine emigrants in New York. "Mass Migration as Disaster Relief" (co-authored with Kevin H. O'Rourke) most clearly illustrates how econometric history of the Famine has developed over the past two decades. In Why Ireland Starved (London, 1985), Joel Mokyr (co-author of two of the articles in the book under review) had displayed a dazzling array of hypotheses for Ireland's plight, alongside ingenious methods for testing them with data aggregated to the level of counties (of which there are thirty-two in Ireland). Disappointingly, however, these methods failed to yield definitive results, over and over again. By turning to data at the level of baronies (327 smaller administrative units), Ó Gráda and O'Rourke are able to produce models that make sense of demographic changes between the 1841 and 1851 censuses. This willingness to go beyond the most accessible data is the key to Ó Gráda's econometric success. Whether it is coding ten times as many observations of aggregate census data, poring through the records of the Encumbered Estates Court, or drawing a sample from the admissions register of the North Dublin Workhouse, Ó Gráda has been willing to do the historian's tasks that allow him to take full advantage of his econometric skills.
Ó Gráda's work, however, goes beyond the disciplines of history and economics. He takes advantage of his fluency in Gaelic to exploit folklore materials that document how the Famine was remembered by later generations. The fact that he can pose the hardnosed questions of the economist and also discern the meaning of bitter, even if inexact, popular recollections makes Ó Gráda's contributions to the highly charged debates about responsibility for the tragedy especially worthy of attention. He is also at pains to identify ways in which the Irish Famine can shed light on present-day famines as well as to point out problems in applying our understanding of modern famines to those in the past. For Irish historians from the generation of this reviewer, the book also offers a special treat—a revealing history of the government-sponsored centenary history of the Famine that was supposed to appear in 1945 but did not appear until 1956. [End Page 115]