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The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and…

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (edition 2012)

by John Kelly

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1261195,586 (3.69)13
Title:The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People
Authors:John Kelly
Info:Henry Holt and Co. (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:history, food, illness, famine

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The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John Kelly

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
I was looking for a relatively short narrative account of the Great Famine to acquire some historical purchase on an event I mostly knew from family folk history. On that scale, this well-written book doesn't disappoint.

Kelly's thesis is that the death of >1 million Irish from hunger and disease was no more a pure Act of God than the destruction of New Orleans in 2005, but was instead a case of a natural crisis exacerbated to catastrophic proportions by political ideology, anti-Irish bigotry, and greed. Specifically, Kelly blames:

1) the greed of Anglo-Irish landlords who responded to the crisis (and increased taxation to support relief efforts) with mass evictions and "emigrant dumping"--i.e. paying the poorest of the poor to emigrate to Canada and the U.S. (comparable to one-way bus tickets to CA for the homeless); and

2) short-sighted, parsimonious relief efforts implemented by British civil servants committed to Malthusian and laissez-faire principles, who:
-refused to "artificially" lower the cost of food below market price lest they interfere with the "natural" workings of the market;
-refused to offer robust aid to the starving Irish lest it foster a culture of "dependency" on government;
-rationalized Irish mass death as a tragic but necessary, natural consequence of the failings of the Irish way of life;
-and seized upon the catastrophe as an exciting opportunity to "morally reeducate" a "backward" people and to modernize its agriculture along capitalist lines.

(Kelly's thesis obviously resonates with Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine about "disaster capitalism.")

Kelly's narrative is especially powerful when it juxtaposes the rationalizations of British capitalists with the unspeakable suffering endured by the victims of famine and government neglect. There are some images here of extreme privation and suffering I will never be able to forget. However, I will point out two problems:

-some of the events he recounts blur the line between history and folk tale (cf. 177, the story of Bridie Sheain which is very powerful, but which is sourced to an "old storyteller" and has the earmarks of legend)

-while I appreciate that the written record probably preserves the perspectives of British observers better than those of illiterate peasants, it bothered me that the narrative individualizes British civil servants while depicting the victims of the famine as an undifferentiated mass. This tends to subtly affirm the Malthusian perspective of the British gov't.

Other, smaller minuses:

-citations are not thorough; when I flipped to the back to find a source of a quotation it was usually quoted second hand from another historian.

-I was able to catch some basic historical errors (e.g. it was John Winthrop, not Jonathan Edwards, who spoke of "a shining city on a hill" [306]) so I suspect there may be others that someone expert on this subject would notice.

On the whole, this is a readable account of a tragic event with lessons for our time, and I recommend it. ( )
  middlemarchhare | Nov 25, 2015 |
This is a very thorough history of the Great Hunger in Ireland, which I will never call the Potato Famine again. A potato blight (throughout Europe) caused the crisis, but the famine was caused by misguided, ideologically driven government policy. Kelly pushes back somewhat against the theory that the famine was a result of a deliberate genocide, but the tale he tells of incompetence and blind ideology is in a way more chilling, because more apt to happen again.
Kelly doesn’t lay down an ideology of his own in the book, but for me it was easy to see disturbing echoes of the 19th century British government in today’s American GOP, with their cynical insistence the “dependence” engendered by any aid to the poor is worse than poverty itself. And as I was reading about the incompetence and mean-spiritedness of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was held in such high esteem in Britain despite the harm he caused, I heard myself muttering “Heckuva job, Trevvie.” ( )
  CasualFriday | Oct 5, 2015 |
A compelling, richly layered, vividly detailed chronicle of this horrific catastrophe and its consequences. ( )
  Sullywriter | May 22, 2015 |
There are valid reasons why today's biodiversity and ecological advocates repeatedly reference the "great" potato famine of Ireland when making modern day speeches on global food and crop security, but they often fail to satisfactorily explain how governmental trade, tariff, and property policies contributed as much (maybe even more) to the death and suffering in mid-1800's Ireland than the arrival of the spud's fungal nemesis, Phytophthphora infestans, did. Kelly fills in this gap. A very valuable read for humanitarian workers, food advocates, policy makers, biotech scientists, commercial farmers, anyone who questions the need for emergency food reserves, and the descendants of Irish who emigrated to the US and/or Canada during the mid-to-late 1800's. ( )
  dele2451 | Sep 25, 2014 |
Joy's review: God, but this book is a slog! Kelly has included every fact he uncovered in his research in this book and done so with out any kind of coherent narrative. The only reason I included the extra 1/2 star is that he did to a lot of research and I learned some interesting things. If only he had an editor to force him to organize this pile of facts into some kind of structure. All of our non-fiction group agrees: Kelly ruined what could have been an excellent book. ( )
  konastories | Apr 9, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Kelly intersperses the nitty gritty of the shifting Irish economic situation with horrific glimpses of its human toll ... Recognizing that the British handling of the famine was “parsimonious, short-sighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology” rather than deliberately genocidal is important because while powerful, paranoid, racist madmen like Hitler are relatively rare, our own time is replete with men like Trevelyan. ... That version of the story may not be as satisfying dramatically and morally as the one with the evil, homicidal Englishman, but it does do what history does best, which is to show us how not to repeat it.
added by lquilter | editSalon, Laura Miller (Aug 19, 2012)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080509184X, Hardcover)

A magisterial account of the worst disasters to strike humankind—the Great Irish Potato Famine—conveyed as lyrical narrative history from the acclaimed author of The Great Mortality

Deeply researched, compelling in its details, and startling in its conclusions about the appalling decisions behind a tragedy of epic proportions, John Kelly’s retelling of the awful story of Ireland’s great hunger will resonate today as history that speaks to our own times.

It started in 1845 and before it was over more than one million men, women, and children would die and another two million would flee the country. Measured in terms of mortality, the Great Irish Potato Famine was the worst disasters in the nineteenth century—it claimed twice as many lives as the American Civil War. A perfect storm of bacterial infection, political greed, and religious intolerance sparked this catastrophe. But even more extraordinary than its scope were its political underpinnings, and The Graves Are Walking provides fresh material and analysis on the role that Britain’s nation-building policies played in exacerbating the devastation by attempting to use the famine to reshape Irish society and character. Religious dogma, anti-relief sentiment, and racial and political ideology combined to result in an almost inconceivable disaster of human suffering.

This is ultimately a story of triumph over perceived destiny: for fifty million Americans of Irish heritage, the saga of a broken people fleeing crushing starvation and remaking themselves in a new land is an inspiring story of revival.

Based on extensive research and written with novelistic flair, The Graves Are Walking draws a portrait that is both intimate and panoramic, that captures the drama of individual lives caught up in an unimaginable tragedy, while imparting a new understanding of the famine's causes and consequences.


(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:24 -0400)

This compelling new look at one of the worst disasters to strike humankind--the Great Irish Potato Famine--provides fresh material and analysis on the role that nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism played in shaping British policies and on Britain's attempt to use the famine to reshape Irish society and character.… (more)

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