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Blame: Job of Historians, or Not?

I am not a historian. I have recently begun studying history in a very informal way. I have not studied under a professional historian as one would if one took a university course. I read the works of others who are professionals. Sometimes reading about the same events as presented by different historians is instructive. One quickly learns that each historian brings his or her own perspective to understanding the event or events. Often that perspective is, consciously or sub-consciously, political. For example, I find that many Irish writers discussing the famine that afflicted Ireland between 1845 and 1852 seem to approach it from a politically left leaning viewpoint. This comes across in their condemnation of landlords and the overt market economics being pursued by the British government at the time.

Finn Dwyer is a frequent podcaster and blogger about Irish history having covered the Black Death in a recent series which became a book. I frequently share his posts via Twitter and my author page on Facebook.  He is, like me, currently working on a book about the famine. In this blog post, published on his site today, he discusses the role of historians in apportioning blame. He does so in the context of the weekend’s revelations about infant deaths in mother and baby homes that were hidden from the public eye by means of burial without ceremony in mass graves.

My own view is that if we confine ourselves merely to establishing the facts, without attempting to understand the reasons why they happened, we have little chance of preventing their repetition at some point in the future. That may mean blaming circumstance and faulty thought processes rather than individuals or institutions. It is, after all, the thought processes that need to be challenged. And alarms can be sounded if we should ever see a similar set of circumstances appear.

Finn’s post is here:

Salutary Lessons for a Would-be Historian

photoJanet 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.

The Sin of Indifference

Thanks to Stevie over at for nominating me for the ‘Three Quotes for Three Days’ challenge.

The rules of the challenge are:

  1. Three quotes for three days.
  2. Three nominees each day (no repetition).
  3. Thank the person who nominated you.
  4. Inform the nominees.

For my first quote I am going to take one from George Bernard Shaw:

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity. From “The Devil’s Disciple” (1901), act II

I heard it recently during a television programme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster. For those who missed the publicity surrounding the anniversary and too young to remember the actual event, mine waste stored on a mountainside slid onto the village school burying it and many of its occupants. 116 children and 28 adults were killed.


At the subsequent enquiry the barrister acting for the villagers used that quotation during his summing up. The enquiry found that the people responsible for siting and maintaining the waste tip should have been aware of the risk that it could become unstable and ought to have taken steps to prevent what happened.

The significance of the quotation for me was in relation to my researches into the Irish famine years 1845-’52. Few now doubt that the suffering caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop was far worse than it needed to have been, nor that the attitude of many of those in positions of power contributed to the entirely inadequate response to the evolving situation.

The words I would have used to define that attitude would have been an absence of empathy. Shaw’s words offered an alternative: indifference. It’s what happens when people in positions of influence and power perceive a problem and either ignore it, as at Aberfan, or impose a solution regardless of the consequences for others.

It also characterises the way supposedly civilised people sometimes respond to modern crises like the arrival on European shores of refugees from poverty stricken and war-torn parts of North Africa and the Middle East. There was a vox-pop piece on a BBC news programme recently in which a bloke from Devon said: “We can’t look after our own, why should we bother with them?”

To which my response is along the lines of “sorry mate, but we do care for our own.” (There will be more about this in my next piece). We have health care free at the point of delivery, education free up to the age of 18. Those who designed some aspects of the benefits system could, however, be accused of indifference. Indeed, that is exactly what Ken Loach has done in his award winning film, I, Daniel Blake.

We also have a media, and quite a few citizens not unlike that man from Devon, who are so indifferent to the plight of those of our own citizens in genuine need that they characterise them as scroungers. The real point is that it should not be about choosing between looking after ‘our own’ and caring for others. We should be sufficiently concerned about all those in need, wherever their origin, to support whatever steps are necessary in order to relieve their suffering.

I nominate:

Janet Cameron and

Jennifer Young

Val Tobin