The Great Irish Famine has been referred to as the greatest social disaster to occur in any one country in nineteenth-century Europe. At one extreme, County Roscommon lost, through deaths and emigration, almost one-third of its population over the Famine decade. Approaches to the subject among historians have changed over time. In the first half-century since Independence, the Great Famine fitted into a convenient mythology that blamed every Irish difficulty on the evil (English) Empire and their landlord sidekicks, although detailed scholarly research into the crisis remained slight. Historians of the 1970s and 1980s, seeking to distance themselves from the simplifications of what is called the Mope theory (the Irish as “Most Oppressed People Ever”), focused on establishing the causes, parameters, and outcomes of the Famine and on the fact that the responses of various social groups were far less starkly contrastive than they had appeared in the traditional account. In fairness, this later scholarship never lost sight of the human losses, but these were de-emphasized in the need to understand exactly what happened, and why. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine succeeds in integrating scholarly elucidation of the tragedy and exploration of the human cost with accounts that still have the power to shock after 160 years. [End Page 762]
Though the psychological impact on victims and survivors is immeasurable, every other aspect of the crisis is addressed in the vast range of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. This is not the first atlas of its kind; in 1999 Mapping the Great Irish Famine, compiled by Liam Kennedy, Paul S. Ell, E. M. Crawford, and L. A. Clarkson, pioneered the task of analysing the Famine in this format. However the present volume is a more lavish production with a far broader scope of enquiry, incorporating maps, artwork (both contemporary and modern), documents, poems, music, and photographs. A large production in every sense—too heavy for easy carrying—it draws on valuable recent research in excavating the causes and impacts of the Famine, issue by issue, region by region, at times down to the level of townland and estate.
The book is divided into nine sections, addressing (i) the broad picture before and after the Famine; (ii) the crisis viewed at a countrywide level; (iii) the work-house, so central for assessing the Famine’s effects; (iv) population and social transformations and their social impact at a national, provincial, and more local level; (v) contemporary witnesses of the Famine and their responses; (vi) emigration and its effects; (vii) the long-term political, social, economic, and cultural legacies; (viii) folklore memory and Famine memorials, art, and literature; and (ix), in “Hunger and Famine Today,” the relevance of the Great Famine in the twentieth century.
Among the sixty-one contributors are many names familiar to anyone acquainted with Irish studies. At the book’s core, author of fourteen of the essays, responsible for many of the splendid photographs, maps, and, one may surmise, much of the conception and execution of the book, is William J. Smyth (Emeritus Professor of Geography in University College Cork, former editor of Geography Ireland, and author of several important works on social and cultural geography). Simplifications of the past are gone and facts recognised—for example, that there were Catholic tenant farmers who evicted labourers, just as there were landlords who evicted tenants. A clear picture emerges of ideologically-driven government policies that precluded success in dealing with the food crisis. It was not just that the administration could not cope with an unprecedented potato blight, although that was inevitably part of the problem, but that the government was very well informed. Ireland, long perceived as a problem, was perhaps the best documented region in the world, and the Famine one of the era’s best chronicled events. Commitment to the market and to the idea that the removal of paupers was a necessary precondition for modernisation of Ireland hardened hearts to the human costs. Stigmatised poor were...