The Proper Response to Famine

How should we respond to disasters? Natural events – earthquakes, floods, forest fires – usually evoke an outpouring of sympathy accompanied by the dispatch of all manner of aid. Engineers, medics, machinery and food are flown in to the disaster area to ensure that victims receive succour. Appeals raise millions of dollars to support such efforts.

Is our response to famine different? Should it be? Are we more inclined to seek the cause of the catastrophe before making a commitment to assist? How deeply ingrained in our knowledge of Judao/Christian history is the story of how Joseph taught his Egyptian captors the importance of conserving the surplus from good years in order to provide for years when the harvest failed? We may not subscribe to Malthusian theories about the relationship between population and food production, but common sense tells us that there is indeed some form of interdependence between the two.

Natural disasters are just that. Largely unpredictable events beyond our control. Science has provided us with tools that reduce the unpredictability of earthquakes. Engineers have shown us how to design buildings capable of surviving any but the most intense. The same is true of floods. Even so, there are few circumstances in which we would blame the victims of such events. We might argue, after the event, that warnings had been ignored, that building design regulations had been flouted, flood defences neglected. In such circumstances we would be justified in apportioning blame to those responsible for the neglect, not to the victims.

Earthquake in Nepal. Image from


Flooding in Myanmar. Image from



Often potential victims are able to insure against such risks, although the premium might be prohibitive if the risk is high. And an insurer’s reluctance to underwrite the risk should act as a warning to anyone choosing to dwell in an area prone to floods or earthquakes. In such circumstances we might well withhold our sympathy on the grounds that they were aware of the risk when they took the decision to build their home on a flood plain or near a fault line.

Drought afflicted maize in Malawi earlier this year. Image from

The causes of famine – crop failure, drought, floods – are potentially just as predictable as are earthquakes. Tools and techniques to mitigate such events are well known. Could there, then, be some justification in attributing blame to the victims of famine? Maybe they failed to install proper irrigation systems; they chose not to plant disease resistant strains of their preferred crop; they did not make use of other agricultural techniques, such as spraying with insecticides, or sensible crop rotations to conserve soil fertility whilst allowing the disease bearing organisms to die before re-planting with the susceptible crop.

The Elephant in the Room

There is another factor in all these situations: population pressure. As populations grow, demand for food and housing increases, forcing people to build their homes, or to grow crops, in unsuitable locations. The corollary is true also: in good times people reproduce. Infant mortality reduces. The elderly survive for longer. Population increases. The likelihood of disaster grows. So, too, does the likelihood of war. Another lesson from Judao/Christian history concerns the wresting of the “promised land” from its occupants in order to provide a fertile home for former exiles.

Were I not an optimist I would say that, even without climate change, our planet is headed for catastrophe driven by the inexorable rise in population. Why do I remain optimistic? Because I believe in the power of education, of science and of technology. There will be great suffering, for sure, there always has been. Wars, natural disasters and famines will continue. Perhaps they will intensify.

In the past these would often have been attributed to providence, or the wrath of some invisible deity. The response would have involved religious rituals and invocations. But the advance of knowledge has given humankind an understanding of the causes of these calamities and the means both to mitigate their effects and to prevent their recurrence. I believe it will give future generations the power to find a sustainable balance between population and resource use.

Nineteenth Century History – a new project (or two) for me?

The story began a few years ago when a certain gentleman (I’ll call him Paddy) joined our local writers’ group. Some years previously he had suffered serious injuries in a road accident and had subsequently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. From being a successful professional, keen golfer and member of Toastmasters, he was facing the frustrations of a debilitating condition that makes communication difficult. Nevertheless, he was determined to produce a collection of anecdotes and stories from his family history, humorous incidents from his long career, and adaptations of Irish folk tales. With help from members of the group he succeeded in producing a small volume which sold well among friends and acquaintances.

I hadn’t seen him for a long while until he contacted me towards the end of last year seeking help with the compilation of a history of the organisation for which he had worked for more that two decades. I completed that task in January.

Family History

Meanwhile, he came to me with the idea for a book based on the life of one of his aunts. He hoped we could, together, create another ‘Brooklyn’. I produced about 8500 words for the beginning of this novel but got stuck because of the gap in Paddy’s story, between the courtship and marriage in 1931 and events some 40 years later. I could have invented material to fill the gap but feel I don’t know enough about life in Ireland in those years. Not that such lack of knowledge prevented me writing about Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries, but there are too many people still living who know the recent period intimately.

More recently, Paddy began studying the Irish Famine of 1845-51. I helped him transcribe notes he’d made based on a couple of books he had read. I also began doing my own research. Paddy’s intention was to produce, with my assistance, his own book about this terrible period in British/Irish history. For my part, I could see the possibility of another historical novel, this one set in that period and featuring a young woman who experiences the horrors of starvation and forced migration first hand. I already have the first couple of chapters drafted for the novel and am continuing to gather material for the non-fiction book and as background to the novel.

Lessons for today

Discussing the latter with Paddy earlier this week, we were unable to come up with a unique “angle” that will make our book different from those already written. After all, most of those have been written by professional historians and academics. Paddy told me a librarian had conducted a search for him and found no fewer than 130 books on the subject.

I think I have the answer, and the germ of it is in my earlier post about the famine, in which I pointed out how easy it is to move from scapegoating a particular group to genocide. From what I have discovered so far, it seems to me that there are many parallels to be drawn between the events of 1845-51 in Ireland and Britain and things happening today. They include forced migration and attitudes to migrants in the destination countries; the division of resources between rich and poor with great wealth existing alongside terrible poverty; the dominant economic, social and political ideologies, and conflicting religious beliefs.

Illustration found at
African migrants off the Tunisian coast, June 2011. Photo from AFP found at Mail and Guardian Africa.

Expect more posts from me on this subject in future. Meanwhile, if you have anything you would like to contribute to help me and Paddy to understand these terrible events, books you’d like to recommend, for example, or individual stories passed down to you through your own family history, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Five Reasons I Love Historical Fiction | The Wolfe’s (Writing) Den

I’m not sure my own effort at historical fiction (Strongbow’s Wife) satisfies all the criteria listed here. On the other hand, writers like Elizabeth Chadwick certainly do achieve the magical aim of showing us what life was like in the past.


Source: Five Reasons I Love Historical Fiction | The Wolfe’s (Writing) Den

If you read my recent post about the progress on my 2016 reading goals, you may have noticed I’ve been reading a lot of period fiction this year, and it’s really been inspiring my fascination with history! I love reading stories set in the past for much the same reason I enjoy science fiction and fantasy: they show me a world I could never see or experience for myself. And what more could you want from a fiction genre?

So continuing through my “five reasons” series, here’s a list of five reasons I love historical fiction. Enjoy!

1) It offers a deeper insight into human history.

History is fascinating, but there’s only so much we can…

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Final Solutions: the road from Scapegoat to Genocide

A recent article in the Irish on-line newspaper, reporting on calls for the annual commemoration of the 19th century potato famine to have a fixed date, drew an inevitable spate of comments pointing out that this event was really an example of genocide. Are such claims fair?

The starting point for my response is to look at motives. If you believe that the responsibility for the economic and/or social problems being faced in a particular place or time can be laid at the door of a specific group of people you are embarking on a journey that certainly can end in genocide. It has happened many times in history, not just in 1930s Germany.

Blaming immigrants, people of colour, the rich, the poor, the members of a religious group or of a profession – politicians, bankers, the police force – is always too easy as well as dangerous. But the question is where do you draw the line when it comes to proposing solutions. Do you stop at calls to ‘control our borders’? At demands to ‘send them home’? (These latter relating to immigrants). Do you insist on restricting the movements of those you regard as the source of the problem, or their forced removal to some other place – ‘transportation’? Or do you embark on a declared policy of rounding them up and imprisoning them, to be followed by a covert but systematic process of industrial scale murder?

There can be no doubt that the last of these qualifies as genocide1.

But what if nature presents an opportunity to bring about a cull of those you regard as blameworthy and you refuse to provide the kind of assistance that could prevent the natural tragedy? You are, arguably, not directly responsible for the many deaths that take place. You can claim that providence is to blame, that God’s punishment is being wreaked upon the victims – both claims made by British officials and politicians at the time.

You are surely guilty by virtue of your inaction. Is that genocide?

If not, is there a word in the English language that describes such a crime? And it is worth pointing out that it is a crime that continues to this day, when we turn refugees away from our borders, just as it did a century and a half ago when death by disease and starvation was permitted to run largely unchecked in what was then a part of the United Kingdom.

Moral Restraint

Thomas Malthus: propounded the theory that increasing population was bound to lead to starvation.

The man most frequently blamed for government policy towards the Irish at the time is Charles Trevelyan. Surprisingly few historians have made what to me is an obvious connection between those policies and the fact that Trevelyan was a student of Thomas Malthus. It was Malthus who first pointed out that population growth is geometric whilst that of food production is arithmetic. Sooner or later increasing population leads to increasing poverty and, eventually, famine.

The methods he proposed to overcome this problem included ‘moral restraint’ and delayed marriage, both with the aim of reducing the birth rate. The opening up of new colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa also presented an opportunity to reduce the local population by immigration. Troublesome subjects from both islands were sentenced to ‘transportation’, their removal to one or other of these far off lands, manacled in the bowels of ships.

In the fifty years preceding the famine the population of Ireland had doubled. An important cause of this was the arrival of the potato, a highly nutritious food that could be grown above

Women working on ‘lazy beds’ the traditional method of growing potatoes in Ireland

the soil, on land unsuitable for other crops, the tubers simply covered in a mixture of peat, straw and seaweed or manure, providing a healthy diet and increased prosperity. With greater health came increased survival of infants and a naturally increasing population. This brought about a dramatic reduction in the area of usable land available to each person.

Widespread crop failure

Potato blight first struck in Ireland in the autumn of 1845. Over night the whole field turned totally rotten. The stink of the tubers caused the air to be fouled. The same happened to varying degrees in each of the next 5 years. It was not only in Ireland that this phenomenon took place. Parts of mainland Europe and the Western seaboard of North America were also afflicted.

The spread of potato blight in North America, 1843 – 1845
The spread of potato blight across Britain and Europe, autumn 1845

Yet it was only in Ireland that the effects were so devastating. This was in part due to an over-dependence in Ireland on the potato as the principal food. The average consumption by 1845 was 14 lbs per person per day. An acre of land would yield up to 12 tons per anum and a family of man, wife and four children consumed 5 tons leaving an adequate surplus to feed a pig and a few chickens.

In the Midlands and East there was less dependence on the potato. Here the fertile soil was used to produce wheat and barley, most of which was exported to the mainland. These exports did not cease when the potato crop failed. They were, after all, an important source of food for that land’s occupants, as well as profits for the aristocratic owners of Irish lands. With such a dramatic reduction in the potato harvest people became undernourished or starved. Undernourished people are susceptible to disease. Sanitation in these times was inadequate to prevent the spread of typhus, cholera and dysentery, diseases which killed many.


There were attempts at relief. Against government opposition, Robert Peel imported maize from the USA. Trevelyan insisted that the Irish landlords should bear the brunt of any relief, but many were incapable of doing so. How can you provide assistance from rents received when the very people who require the assistance are the same people who pay the rent?

The construction of roads leading nowhere, an early form of ‘workfare’ in which poor relief was provided in return for labour.

An early form of what today is called ‘workfare’ was introduced, with a range of public works instituted to provide employment in return for meagre wages. This often entailed the construction of roads to nowhere, the heavy work often carried out by women and children too weak from lack of food to produce enough to earn the price of a day’s nourishment.

Workhouses imposed rules which meant that one had to have literally nothing in order to qualify for admittance. Men, women and children were segregated once admitted, splitting families (but enforcing the ‘moral restraint’ Malthus advocated as a way of preventing population increases).

Some evangelising protestants made the aid they provided conditional upon the conversion of Catholics away from their preferred religion.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that not all land owners were impervious to the needs of their tenants. Nor did all of those with religious motives impose conditions on the recipients of assistance.

The Quakers were the first to introduced soup kitchens

In particular, the Quakers established the first soup kitchens, financed fisheries and agricultural improvements, including the distribution of seeds, and funded industrial development.

But it is clear from the records of the time that the authorities, with their poor opinion of the Irish as a rebellious and ungrateful body of people, welcomed the opportunity that nature had presented. Does that add up to genocide – or simply guilt by omission?

Is it fair to liken it to the Nazi’s persecution of Jews and others with a programme of deliberate extermination, or with more recent events in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia? Probably not. But it most certainly ought to serve as a lesson in where the scapegoating of those who differ from us in some way can lead.

1Footnote: According to the United Nations: [G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The word did not exist before 1944 and the above definition was established in 1948.

For my Fellow Remainers: How to Take Back Control of Life After Brexit

A thoughtful and extremely helpful post from Adele Theron. Adele is a trauma counselor and change management consultant.

It’s been 3 days since the CTRL-ALT-DEL button was pushed on life as we know it. The United Kingdom decided to take the red pill and tumbled down a mahoosive rabbit hole. Now we are standing in what looks like the construct room of the Matrix: no plan, no mission, a white room full of nothing. There are many Leave voters who stare at the white room and see oceans of possibility and are excited, they are impatient that the rest of us aren’t seeing what they see. But for 48% of the population, this nothingness is frightening and for many they are experiencing the signs of being fairly traumatized: I know I was. As I work in the field of trauma and change, I wanted to offer a practical guide to the steps I went through to come to terms with this white room of nothingness and to offer healing and hope to those of you who are afraid and wondering what to do.

Read her blog post in full here

The Ultimate Tribute

If you are a true fan of an iconic band you probably take a dim view of any outfit purporting to be a ‘tribute band’, deeming them to be a pale imitation of the original. If you are a fan of The Eagles or of Fleetwood Mac then you would be surprised and delighted by the quality of the show presented by an Irish band called The Illegals.

I saw them for the second time last night and was blown away by the three hours of musical magic they provided for a packed audience in our local theatre.

The band is fronted by Naimh Kavanagh and her husband Paul McGahy. Niamh is, perhaps, best known in Ireland for her success in winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993. She also featured heavily on the soundtrack of the movie version of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments.

Last night’s show opened with a pictorial tribute to Glen Frey, The Eagles’ founder member who passed away in January this year. There have been a number of changes to the set list since I last saw them, but essentially what is offered is a selection of the best tracks from both bands. Whether channeling Linda Ronstadt or Stevie Nicks, Kavanagh’s voice has the power and versatility required to render such classics as Desperado and Songbird. Close your eyes and you could be listening to the real thing.

The same has to be said about the instrumentalists, two of whom double up as male soloists. Unfortunately I cannot name all of them here because none of the publicity material I’ve searched mentions their names, and I did not make notes when Kavanagh, in her role as MC, acknowledged their various contributions to the overall sound. Suffice to say that the familiar guitar solos/duets that feature in such classic numbers as Hotel California are rendered faultlessly.

The band does not have a website, despite having delighted audiences in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years. They do have a Facebook page and there is an outdated entry for Niamh on Wikipedia that makes no mention of The Illegals. Their reputation is based on word-of-mouth and personal recommendation.

The show is anchored by Kavanagh’s amusing introductions and asides and represents a superb evening’s entertainment. The Facebook page has a list of upcoming gigs. There could be one near you soon. Do go. You will not be disappointed.

Authors beware: A new danger for KU authors

It’s hard enough getting people to buy your books – then, just when you think you’ve achieved a breakthrough, this happens.

Darrienia: The Forgotten Legacies Series

Hi all,

Anyone who follows me closely will know my book was removed from Amazon for almost a fortnight after they registered some unusual activity. At first I was at a loss. What was it, where had it come from? But since I have learnt a terrifying truth behind Kindle Unlimited, it is one all authors need to be aware of. It is a KU scam that could ruin your career and put your money into fraudsters’ pockets.

In this post I will detail my own experience, in hope you know what to look out for.

I was running a book promotion, a push to generate interest in my first book. After approaching blogs and book promotion sites I began to run a 99cents promotion on Darrienia, which at that time was number one in two of its categories. Book two is coming out at the end of the year…

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