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Interview with John Kelly, author of The Graves Are Walking, on the Irish Famine

Rural Intelligence ArtsAfter the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, “What’s the point of being Irish if the world doesn’t break your heart?” Central to that tragic view of life was the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that left more than a million people dead and another two million fleeing for their lives, about half of them to the United States.

The famine’s scientific, economic, political, and religious causes are the subject of Berkshire County resident John Kelly’s carefully documented and elegantly written new book, The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (Holt, $32). The result of six years of historical research and writing, Kelly’s book also speaks to today’s U.S. political debates over immigration, religion in the public square, and the role of government in hard times.

Kelly, in photo above by Richard B. Migot, will be speaking about his book this Saturday, September 1, at noon at the Spencertown Academy Festival of Books, following fast on the heels of his reading and signing at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Thursday evening. RI asked Columbia County author Edward Tivnan, who grew up in a family of Irish politicians in Worcester, Massachusetts, to talk to the Boston-born-and-raised Kelly about how the Great Famine changed the history of Ireland – and America.

ET:  Your last book, The Great Mortality (Harper Collins, 2005), was about the “Black Death,” the 14th-century plague that wiped out half of Europe’s population. What led you to research another human catastrophe?

Rural Intelligence ArtsJK: Drama is essential to any good story, and catastrophes like famine and pestilence are inherently dramatic. You don’t have to force the material.  The subject has another attraction for me.  As a writer, one of the things I most enjoy is drawing word pictures of different times and places. The Great Mortality gave me an opportunity to render the medieval world; in The Graves Are Walking my canvas was not just Victorian Britain and Ireland but mid-19th-century Europe. Too often, books on the famine treat the potato failure that reduced the population of Ireland by a third as an exclusively Irish affair. In fact, the 1840s were years of hunger, hardship, and crop failure throughout Western Europe. One of my goals in Graves was to open up the famine story and show how the crop failures in Germany, France, Holland, and Britain impacted events in Ireland.

ET:  In the 19th-century, the Irish became known as the “potato people.”  How important was the potato in the diet of other countries?

JK: Very important. The potato is cheap to grow, bountiful—you can grow six tons of potatoes on an acre of land—and extremely nutritious. It is one of the few inexpensive foods that contain all the essentials of a healthy diet. These characteristics made the potato an important food for all of 19th-century Europe. The continent was in a period of historic population growth and needed a cheap nutritious food to support not only its rural population but also its expanding cadre of industrial workers.

ET: In 1846, the year 90 percent of the Irish potato crop failed, there were also major crop failures in France, Germany, and Belgium. Why did only Ireland experience mass death?

JK: Irish poverty and backwardness played a role in the famine, which killed over a million people. Ninety percent of the population lived in the countryside, and rural Ireland was devoid of a monetary economy. The Irish peasant bartered his labor in return for an acre or two of land on which to grow potatoes. So when the potato failed, the farmer often had no means of purchasing food. Moreover, since there were very few provision shops in the countryside, even the people who did have money often went hungry. The British also have a lot to answer for. Nineteenth-century Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. In theory, that meant London was obligated to respond to catastrophe in Ireland as energetically as it would to one in Kent or Essex. In practice, however, Ireland was treated as a colony. British assistance was inadequate, often slow in coming.  And in the effort to prevent exacerbating an Irish national flaw—“dependency on government”—the Crown required the peasant to purchase his relief food.
ET:  Then you agree with the Irish nationalists who charge that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide on the part of the British?
JKOne has to be very careful about the use of that word.  Were the British responsible for a needless loss of life?  Yes, tens of thousands—probably hundreds of thousands—of lives could have been saved if Britain had responded to the famine more energetically.  But Robert Peel and John Russell, the two British Prime Ministers who oversaw famine relief, were not proto-Nazis plotting to exterminate the Irish race. Truly evil men like Hitler or Stalin are relatively rare, thank God. The British officials represent a more pervasive and insidious danger: intelligent, decent, God-fearing men, who, in the thrall of a political or economic ideology, lose their moral bearings and become willing to countenance human suffering in the name of “the greater good.”  In the case of the British, the greater good was using the famine to implement in Ireland a program of what today would be called “nation-building.”

London had longed dreamed of modernizing the Irish economy by consolidating the hundreds of thousands of small, uneconomical farms that littered the countryside into large commercial agriculture enterprises, but had hesitated for fear of igniting a rebellion among the displaced peasant farmers.  The famine, which weakened the peasantry physically and morally, gave the British government the opportunity it had been seeking, and it used relief measures to advance its program of economic and agricultural change. For example, to get assistance, a small farmer was required to give up his land. Those who accepted the terms got government food; those who did not—and a fair number of men did not—were left to fend for themselves.

ET:  Sounds like genocide to me.

JK: My own view is that, while British policy was not deliberately genocidal in the way that Hitler and Stalin’s policies were, the effects of the British actions was. 

ET:  How did Irish immigration affect America?

JK: Researching those chapters of the book, I was struck by how little has changed. Every nasty, racist thing that was said about the nearly one million famine Irish who arrived in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s was said about the subsequent waves of Italian, Jewish, Polish, Asian, and Mexican immigrants. The Irish newcomers were charged with undercutting the wages of the American workman, of threatening the Protestant character of the country, of being idle, shiftless, lazy moochers who were a burden on God-fearing, over-taxed Yankees everywhere. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

ET:  After years of research into the saga of our tribe, maligned by the Brits and then discriminated against by American nativists and anti-Catholics, can you please explain to me why so many prominent conservative pundits and politicians ranting against taxes, immigration, and dependency on government are Irish-American?

JKThe 19th-century phrenologists who expressed alarm at the pattern of bumps on the Irish skull were not entirely wrong.  Just look at Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy.

John Kelly will read at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Thursday, August 30 at 7 p.m, and appears at Spencertown Academy’s Festival of Books on Saturday, September 1 at noon.

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