Cecil Woodham-Smith, Cecil
Blanche Fitz Gerald Woodham
Smith, Charles Woodham,
The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849
(Penguin, 1995)

The authors do a more than meticulous job on The Great Hunger: Ireland 1854-1849. Their aim is to give as complete a picture of the famine years as is possible. All aspects involved are covered including relief efforts undertaken and mis-taken, effects on the people of both the potato failures and the government's efforts, the lack of assistance granted by reticent landlords, the emigrations and their often disastrous results, and attitudes both foreign and close to home (often unflattering) towards the starving Irish people. Woodham-Smith, et al, turn a kind eye toward the Irish, striving to give them a respectability denied so often by both the British and the Americans (who sympathized with them over there , but simply didn't care to have them over here).

Viewing the Irish people as honorable human beings often is coupled with a jaundiced opinion of the British monarchy and government. The authors certainly do not spend a great deal of time defending actions and choices made by the powers that be, but at the same time, they do not dedicate undue verbiage to berating and condemning them. The unifying factor that appears again and again, page after page, identifies the craven culprit causing the distress to be the institution know as laissez-faire. The drive to keep from upsetting the market and its merchants is the blackest villain involved in the whole disaster. Untold numbers of lives were sacrificed for its benefit.

If pointing this out was not the authors' driving thesis it bloody well should have been. Cultural and class prejudices are kept to a minimum; they goes to great lengths to give as complete a picture as humanly possible. If there is a shortcoming here it is simply that the reader is overwhelmed with case after case of heart-wrenching tragedy.

After every reading this book, I found myself in the same state of numbed shock that followed the reading of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and after viewing Night and Fog, the French documentary about the liberation of Dachau. This reaction proves the success of The Great Hunger. The realities are portrayed in readable prose that haunt long after the book is closed. Emotions are stirred and run to extremes : anger, hate, pain, despair. As one can easily ascertain, I was swept into the book, forced to keep reading even as the story unfolded and repelled me.

In this modern day, we are too often carefully and safely cocooned from the harsh, cold realities and tragedies of this world. I found this book powerful in its brutish, bare-faced reporting of the tragedy. It has certainly made its mark on me. I will remember, and isn't that the point?

[ by Debbie Gayle Rose ]

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