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Reading about the famine that afflicted Ireland in the years 1845-52 is to discover story after story of the horrors that ensued. The families found naked and dead huddled together in some filthy hovel; the evictions that left other families to seek shelter in ditches and under hedges.
It is also to enter the strange world of statistics. Did a million die, or more? Did a similar number emigrate? We have census figures for 1841 and 1851 which show a fall in population of around two million. Some have tried to interpolate what was the likely increase in population over the 5 years from 1841 to 1846 when starvation really began to bite. It is then that the possibility of up to 3 million reduction in population begins to look possible. And no-one can be certain of the accuracy of the census figures to begin with.
Without in any way wishing to belittle the significance of such a monstrous figure, I want to know more about the 6 million or so who survived. How many of them went through 7 years of suffering, losing parents, siblings, off-spring? How many were sufficiently well endowed with material goods to continue to thrive? How did they respond to the appalling conditions they must have witnessed?
One of the biggest contributors to the number of deaths was not starvation but disease. And infectious diseases like Cholera, Dysentery and Typhus did not confine themselves to the hungry. There is a considerable number recorded deaths among doctors, priests and others tending the sick.
I think it fair to suppose that, faced with such a tragedy today, most ordinary citizens would react in two ways. First they would launch a fund raising effort to help and, second, they would institute a political movement with the aim of forcing the government to take appropriate action. Where, I wonder, was the 19th Century equivalent of the Occupy movement?
There was one such organisation – the Young Ireland movement. And it did attempt to mount an armed rebellion. This was quickly quashed by the British government. Why did that not galvanise a much larger section of the population, in the way that the internment and execution of the 1916 rebel leaders did 70 years later?
There were, too, many donations of money from many different quarters, including Queen Victoria.
I have concluded that the story that I want to tell is that of those who lived through the horror and survived. One such individual is Captain Arthur Kennedy. You can read a lot about him here on the County Clare Library Service website. In brief, he was appointed as Poor Law Inspector, responsible for ensuring that the Poor Law Union that covered a vast area of County Clare from its base in the Kilrush workhouse, was operating properly.
He arrived there with a young family late in 1847 and remained for 2 1/2 years. His reports were published as a Parliamentary Blue Book, from which the Clare Library Service website has many quotations. He seems to have been at loggerheads with the Board of Guardians and its chairman, Colonel Crofton Vandeleur who owned most of the town.
What the published reports, and the material on the Library website, much of which is based on contemporary newspaper articles, does not say is anything about the family’s domestic situation. Where did they live? Assuming the children attended the local school, how did they relate to the other pupils, given their father’s job and the fact they were outsiders? Did the Kennedy’s socialise with Vandeleur and the other Guardians? What, in fact, was life really like for a middle class family thrust into the heart of an unfolding nightmare which they were duty bound to try to alleviate?
I have spent the past year gathering generalised background material to provide a context for what I believe could be an enlightening historical novel based on the life of The Poor Law Inspector. Now I need to start writing. I also need to visit Kilrush in order to glean what information I can about the lives of the 70% of those who resided there in 1845 and survived the next 7 years.
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.