The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine And The Saga Of The Irish People, by John Kelly
I am not sure whether the historian of this book deserves blame, but when reading a book I felt rather exasperated at the Irish people (especially their political class) and rather sympathetic about the wrongful abuse that the English government has suffered for generations because of the Irish desire to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility for what happened in the Irish famine. I know the author probably intended the reader to feel compassion for the poor suffering Irish masses, but in view of their laziness and corruption and in their refusal to buy food even as they purchased weapons and their preference for destroying property and rising up in rebellion as opposed to working for their survival, the Irish in this book came off as generally unsympathetic to me. Even more to the point, the author’s desire to blame the English for seeking to use the Irish potato famine to support necessary cultural change struck me as disingenuous because the English, for all of their flaws, were far more right than the author and indeed the Irish and their corrupt political leadership. And that is a great shame.
This particular book of more than 300 pages is told as a narrative history in sixteen chapters. The author begins with an introduction and then discusses the activities of three Englishmen in Ireland (1). The beginning of the famines and the bad news about the failure of the 1846 crop then follows (2), along with a discussion of how the Irish can live on anything (3). This leads to the want that began to afflict the island (4) and then the hanging of one Bryan Serry (5) and the discussion of religious motivations for England’s behavior (6). After that corrupt Irish politicians argue about politics (7) while the starvation of Ireland is viewed as a threat to the legitimacy of England’s rule (8). The author then discusses moralizing (9) and the cold of the winter of 1846-1847 (10) as well as more arguments in England about what could be done for Ireland (11). After that there is a discussion of the illnesses that struck the famished Irish masses (12) and more questions about sin and atonement and what could be done for the Irish (13). Finally, the book concludes with chapters about the flight of the Irish for other lands, especially the United States (14), the process by which they were Americanized (15), and the catastrophe and its consolations (16), as well as an afterword, notes, acknowledgments, and an index.
This book has at its core a fateful internal contradiction, which does not make the book less interesting as a narrative history but certainly less authoritative in its perspective. The author is constantly insulting the English leaders of the time for their insistence that any solution to the Irish famine problem involve questions of political economy, but the book itself reveals the importance of questions of political economy to the well-being of the Irish. Their continual efforts at fraud when it came to preferred forms of the dole and their lack of a worth ethic are at the core of the sufferings of the Irish people, and their refusal to work for food until it was too late to prevent mass suffering and the refusal of the political class of the Irish to provide employment, relief, or even paying of their taxes to help pay for aid for the Irish also demonstrate that the famine was not so much a problem merely due to the potato blight but due to the failures of the Irish people themselves. All of the blaming of the English for seeking to use a crisis to encourage the moral development of the Irish people does not change the fact that the English were perfectly right to do so, and that the Irish were responsible for a great deal of the suffering that befell their nation during the 1840’s. All of the sympathy for poor, starving Irish masses does not erase the fact that they would have been less poor and starving had they been more virtuous and industrious before and even during the famine itself.