FOR LOVE OF BOOKS: Author chronicles tragic history and hubris of Irish famine

Wednesday November 21, 2012

"The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga

of the Irish People"

By John Kelly

It’s rarely acknowledged that Vermont owes much of its population to Irish emigration, but the 2000 Census indicated that of 621,760 people in this state, 117,622 said they have Irish ancestry -- twice as many as French-Canadian.

In his new and well-received book, "The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People," researcher John Kelly offers a tantalizing clue to the Irish presence here. His detailed history focuses on three terrible years on the agricultural island: from the harvest season of 1845, through that of 1847. As the years of starvation and disease stole the lives of 1.1 million Irish, another 2 million chose to leave home, crossing the Irish Sea to Liverpool, where most of the trans-Atlantic ships began their journeys. When America and Canada began to panic at the diseased refugee populations arriving at their ports, they framed economic and legal barriers to slow the tide. All things considered, it was easier and less expensive to reach Canada. Then, for the sake of climate, jobs, and the chance to reconnect with shreds of family, Irish refugees slipped across the border, and Vermont was one of the receiving states.

But that’s about all you’ll find of "local news" in this 400-page volume. Written in fluid narrative style, and without notes to interrupt the text (they come at the end), "The Graves Are Walking" piles up the letters, experiences, political maneuvering and critical decisions of leaders at the time -- decisions that made three terrible farm years into an instrument of class warfare and colonial maneuvering.

Kelly demonstrates that although, at first, so much food was shipped to England that the blighted potato crop tore away the only sustenance that working Irish people had, there was no initial intent to starve or crush the peasant-based farm system on the Emerald Isle. Eventually the food shipped to Ireland in the final year of the famine outweighed what was taken away.

Yet during the famine years, "in the mind of the British public, the Irish -- Catholic and Protestant, gentry and peasantry -- were melding into a single impoverished, slothful, whining mass, and all the various branches and divisions of this great glutinous sludge of humanity suffered from the same horrible affliction: the ‘present habit of dependence on government.’"

Time and again, Kelly demonstrates, English and Anglo-Irish leaders made choices that reflected their determination to reform the Irish, not necessarily to punish them but to teach them, as if they were children, that they must take action to support themselves. Unfortunately, the math didn’t add up: It’s impossible to even earn a half day’s wage moving dirt and breaking rocks if you haven’t eaten anything but watery soup for three months. Plus those who had power in Ireland, the people who owned large areas of land where tenant farmers owed them rent, chose to evict the workers, rather than pay taxes to help feed them.

Kelly outlines the devastating effects of the Poor Laws and the assumption that the famine was a God-sent punishment on a lazy populace.

In these years that mesh with the buildup to America’s Civil War, the Irish peasants in some ways suffered more than many slaves. In order to evict them, their landlords sent in armed thugs who smashed the houses, tore down the roofs, crushed the walls and tossed entire families of 10 or more people out into snowy fields in the evening, without shelter, clothing or food. Babies and grandparents died. People sold their clothes for food and ended up shoeless or even naked in winter, begging. Dogs tore apart abandoned corpses, buried without coffins.

And it all grew worse, as the second year of no potato crop struck with justified terror and heartbreak. The workhouse system was manipulated to prevent timely aid, and eventually turned into a set of "pestilence" structures where the sick and dying outnumbered the simply starving. Time and again, politicians turned to high-minded "principles" instead of to drastically needed aid.

Kelly demonstrates, one document at a time, his point: "Many members of the Anglo-Irish gentry, and most of the British absentee owners, remained unwilling to assume responsibility for the well-being of the people they ruled."

Eventually the prejudices against this suffering population emerged as the blatant racism and classism that had festered all along. Of course, this could be blamed on the Irish gentry, rather than on the British government, as was done publicly. But the reality was that the political linkage that supposedly forged "Great Britain" failed Ireland, over and over again. And some of this was deliberate, a successful effort to dismantle the system of small farmers of the island nation and destroy its heritage, family structures and pride.

"The Graves Are Walking" is a must for anyone willing to face the devastation and manipulation that made up the underpinnings of the "Irish Potato Famine." It will become the new standard against which upcoming researchers and historians test their archives and their conclusions. John Kelly’s smoothly structured narrative and deftly painted personalities make the book compelling and engrossing.

Although things do indeed get worse and worse over the three famine years, there is hope embedded in Kelly’s pages: the hope for survival from the darkest days, by some of the people. Yet although Kelly doesn’t look far forward from his chosen time period, it’s clear that the Irish Troubles that would later erupt can justly be said to have rooted deeply during the famine. There is room to wonder: What kind of reconciliation can lie ahead for this troubled land and people after such a tragic saga?

Reviewed by Beth Kanell of Kingdom Books, Waterford. Kanell is the author of three history-hinged young-adult novels ("The Darkness Under the Water," "The Secret Room" and in 2012, "Cold Midnight") and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or


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