Janet Cameron has posted a thoughtful blog about the pitfalls of historical writing. In my reading about the Great Irish Famine I have yet to discover a full length book by an English historian, something I believe is necessary in order to gain a proper English perspective on the events. I have read several books by Irish historians and it is sometimes too easy to conclude that the writer’s view point – the unconditional condemnation of the British authorities and the British landlords – is distorted by excessive subjectivity.
That is not to say that I have not read accounts by English historians that form part of a work covering the period as a whole and including the famine as one of many episodes in the history of Victorian Britain.
Such accounts bring the, to me, essential ingredient of setting the tragedy within the context of the time. A time when there was endemic poverty and disease in English cities, when children were employed in factories, when slavery was still practiced in North America and the Caribbean. A time, moreover, when the great thinkers of the time were still grappling with the problem of how to respond to poverty, a problem that seems as intractable today as it ever was.
Janet refers to the “Two separate issues [that] need to be addressed. The first is the facts: what happened, where and when? The second is interpretation: why did it happen?” It is the second of these, the “why”, that has been of greatest concern to me in seeking to do justice to what is, without doubt, an event that did more than any other to shape the relationship between the Irish and their neighbour and still resonates today.
I shall bear Janet’s words very much in mind as I continue to search for the truth about the Great Irish Famine.
4 thoughts on “Salutary Lessons for a Would-be Historian”
Thank you for highlighting this excellent post by Janet Cameron. I was especially struck by her cogent observation, “We cannot always be sure what is true, nor can we be entirely sure what is untrue. We can only strive for truth and that is the purpose of history…”
If only more people realised that!
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Thank you for this, Frank – what a lovely response to my blog. Also thank you, Phyllis E. 🙂
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My pleasure, Janet.