Friday, March 17, 1995

Books on the Great Famine

In this the 150th Anniversary of the first year of the Great Famine understandably there is great interest in that sad event which represented the greatest social catastrophe in Irish history. Many new publications relating to the Famine are currently on the bookshelves and many more are expected during the year. I am prompted to write this item this week because of the many requests I have received, especially from school-children involved in school projects for information on the Great Famine.

For a detailed account of the period it would be difficult to overlook Cecil Woodham Smith’s book “The Great Hunger”, first published in 1962 and now reprinted in paperback form. An early book published by Brown & Nolan in 1956 was “The Great Famine” edited by Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams, both of UCD. It consisted of a series of chapters written on various topics relating to the Famine by academics in the Irish Universities. An even earlier publication was Canon O’Rourke’s “The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847”, first published in 1875 and reprinted several times thereafter. Canon O’Rourke was parish priest of Maynooth and his pioneering work was a valuable social document prepared as it had been with the assistance and co-operation of people who had lived through the Famine.

Books recently produced include John O’Connor’s paperback publication entitled “The Workhouses of Ireland” which is of relevance to an understanding of that most feared of pauper institutions. Another new paperback is “The Great Irish Famine”, published to coincide with the Radio Eireann Thomas Davis series of lectures on the same topic. Christine Kinealy has written a scholarly work published last year by Gill and MacMillan under the title “This Great Calamity - The Irish Famine 1845-52”. It takes a more analytical look at the Great Famine than the other books mentioned and as such might not be regarded as one for the general reader. Two other books still in the bookshops which would certainly appeal to the average reader are “Famine Diary” by Gerald Keegan and “A Farewell to Famine” by Jim Rees.

Keegan’s book is in fact a fictionalised diary account of a journey endured by Irish refugees aboard a coffin ship as they journey to the new World. Jim Rees’ book deals with the people from Wicklow and Wexford who, led by Fr. Thomas Hore, travelled across the Atlantic to set up homes in America. It is an interesting insight into the experiences of famine emigration. The last book I will mention, again in paperback, is “The Famine in Ireland” by Mary E. Daly, published by the Dublin Historical Association in 1986 and still available in the bookshops. This gives a useful concise outline of the famine period.

A number of other publications on the famine are planned for publication throughout the year including what I believe is a book of essays on the famine in County Kildare. This I believe will come out in June or July.

There is no doubt as to the importance of what we commonly refer to as the Great Famine in Irish History. It shattered the confidence of the Irish people and accelerated the flow of Irish people from our islands. The devastation it left in its wake is beyond imagination but in this the 150th anniversary year we have an opportunity of learning more of the hardships endured by those who lived or died in those dreadful times.

Last week two men who had shared their experiences with me and of whom I have written previously passed away. Paddy Kehoe who played a significant role in the early development of Macra na Feirme and who was a close friend of Stephen Cullinan, died at an advanced age. Billy Cunningham who left Athy in 1954 and settled in Manchester and whom I met in “The White Sheaf” on Oldham Road this time last year died after a long illness. One of the great pleasures on writing a weekly article on the past is the opportunity it affords me of meeting and listening to men and women whose experiences of life in Athy are always interesting, always enlightening and never without a touch of humour. As a corollary to this there are also the sad moments such as last weekend when two men who had shared their experiences and thoughts with me died. May they rest in peace.

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