The bare statistics of the Great Irish Famine are chilling enough: in 1845-55 more than a million people died of starvation and disease and a further two million emigrated. Ireland’s population fell by more than a third.
John Kelly does an excellent job of sketching the background in The Graves are Walking: massive population growth (the Irish population doubled in the second half of the eighteenth century and almost doubled again in the first four decades of the nineteenth), division of land into ever smaller plots and consequent dependence on the potato, exploitative landlords, resentment at rule by London.
When blight struck the potato crop in 1845, it was not as if the British government was unaware of the danger ‒ ‘If the potato fails . . . famine becomes a fatal certainty’ declared the Home Secretary of the day. And to begin with, disaster was staved off by relief measures and government work-schemes. But successive crop failures, rising food prices, the continuing export of food, the unwillingness of Irish taxpayers to shoulder the burden of relief and the indifference of most landlords to peasant suffering all led inevitably to famine.
Kelly does not spare his readers the horrors: dead babies at their mothers’ breasts, skeletons walking, dogs devouring corpses in the streets, the frabhas dubh (typhus) and ruit fola (dysentery) which killed so many. In a sinister foreshadowing of a twentieth-century horror, he tells of clothing pawned by desperate peasants going to make paper in England and Irish hair fetching a good price on the English market.
The big question is, of course, how in relatively modern times, in a part of the United Kingdom, the world’s most advanced economy at the time, such things could have been allowed to happen.