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The Great Hunger

by Cecil Woodham-Smith
Harper and Row, $6.95

This book goes on and on like the terrible times it describes, and then it just stops, as they did—a long drum roll of a book, with little or no relief, no trumpets. Mrs. Woodham-Smith, with her special gifts, might have done more—something for literature and perhaps even more for historiography—had she approached her material indirectly, as she has before, getting at its meaning through the characters of the principal actors, but then, of course, she would not have written the book she has, the best general history of the Irish famines.

Mrs. Woodham-Smith speaks of a British Army officer’s daughter who was astonished to find that, while in England no girl could ramble in the woods and fields alone, she could roam the mountains of Mayo without fear of molestation, even though at this time Irishmen who had taken part in the rebellion of 1798 were being hanged by the English on Ballina bridge. According to Mrs. Woodham-Smith there is an historical explanation for Irish dignity, hospitality and easy good manners: “Three times, at least, the native aristocracy was conquered and dispossessed; many fled from Ireland to exile in France or Spain, but many others remained, to be forced down by poverty and penal legislation to the economic level of the peasantry.”

Be that as it may, Ireland, after the Union, with its absentee landlords and their blood-sucking agents, its manufacture almost legislated out of existence, its agriculture also crippled by law, and with its spectre of an established church, was in bad shape and sinking fast. Only the potato could sustain people so poor in land as the peasants of Ireland had become—large families down to a half an acre. When the potato failed, there was misery and there was death, but these were things the Irish were able to live with and even benefit by. They were good soldiers abroad, and at home, although the standard of living there was the lowest in Europe, they were good subjects and a bit more, if the British officer’s daughter was right.

By 1845, though, all that stood between the poor Irish and disaster was the potato. When the blight hit it that year the Government was not alarmed, not at first, taking refuge in hopes that the potato would yet right itself. But the Duke of Norfolk suggested that in place of the potato the Irish should learn to consume curry powder “on which, mixed with water,” Mrs. Woodham-Smith says, “he appeared to believe the population of India was nourished.” Daniel O’Connell called for the immediate stoppage of the export of corn and provisions and for the prohibition of distilling and brewing from grain, but these proposals and others were coldly received by the Government.

The Government was Sir Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Charles Edward Trevelyan, his righthand man who became the director and dictator of Irish relief, and the policy of the Government was to help the victims of the famine but not to encourage…

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