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  • "The Historian is a Haunted Man":Cecil Woodham-Smith and The Great Hunger
  • Christine Kinealy

In the late 1970s, when I was embarking on my doctoral research, my supervisor at Trinity College Dublin told me that I must extend my dissertation on the Poor Law in Ireland, 1838–45, to include the famine period. He then informed me that I should first read Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger. The second suggestion came not because he liked the book—he did not—but because he believed it was the only comprehensive narrative of the tragedy that had made extensive use of archives in Ireland and England.

Reading that book proved both heartrending and enlightening. After only a few pages, it was obvious this book went against the prevailing orthodoxies about the Famine, which lay at the heart of the revisionist interpretations. The opening paragraph made the author's sympathies clear:

At the beginning of the year 1845 the state of Ireland was, as it had been for nearly seven hundred years, a source of grave anxiety to England. Ireland had first been invaded in 1169; it was now 1845, yet she had been neither assimilated nor subdued. The country had been conquered not once but several times, the land had been confiscated and redistributed over and over again, the population had been brought to the verge of extinction—after Cromwell's conquest and settlement only some half million Irish survived—yet an Irish nation still existed, separate, numerous and hostile.1

Words like "invaded," "conquered," "confiscated," and "an Irish nation" would have been anathema to historians anxious to play down the colonial dimension of Ireland's past relationship with Britain.

Moreover, Woodham-Smith clearly was emotionally engaged with her subject matter. But I was fascinated by the book and the controversy it had caused, and I could not wait to visit the archives and learn more about the Great [End Page 134] Famine. Almost thirty years later, I am still learning more about the Famine, in the archives and from recent fine books on the topic. Yet—in terms of readability, quality of research, and scholarship—few can match Woodham-Smith. Yes, the book has its faults and limitations, but some of these flaws have been exaggerated by those who regarded The Great Hunger as undermining the dominant revisionist interpretation which, since the 1930s, had sought to challenge and destroy the "myths" of Irish nationalism.2 In general, revisionists have portrayed the Famine as being inevitable, and adequate relief as being beyond the capability of the British government. By challenging these viewpoints, Woodham-Smith's account became an unwitting tool in the early debate between revisionists and non-revisionist historians. After the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969, the debate intensified, and the divisions widened.3 The meaning of the Great Famine became an ideological battleground on which some of these battles were fought.

When The Great Hunger was published, Cecil Woodham-Smith was aged sixty-six and already much acclaimed as a biographer and historian. Her background made her an unlikely candidate to be the chief chronicler of the Great Famine or the subject of ongoing controversy in Irish academia. She was British, wealthy, and described as possessing an "aristocratic appearance"; she would arrive for research visits at the Public Record Office in London in a chauffeur-driven car. Both sides of her family had served as officers in the British army, and she received an English, upper-class education. Though born in Wales, her family background was Irish; her father was descended from Lord Edward Fitz Gerald, a leader of the 1798 Rebellion. Her own rebellious streak was obvious early in her life when she was expelled from the Royal School for Daughters of Officers in the Army, for being absent without permission. While at St. Hilda's College in Oxford, she was temporarily "sent down" for attending an Irish demonstration.4 Her interest in Irish politics persisted. In 1964, she wrote a letter to the Times supporting de Valéra's latest plea for a united Ireland, and gently chastising the BBC for providing daily weather forecasts only for the North.5 [End Page...