In the time of Ireland's Great Famine, poor people were, in places, so "reduced" that they treated each other with brutal callousness. Husbands abandoned wives and children. Mothers snatched food from the hands of infants. Neighbours stole each other's rations. People even killed for food. And this callousness extended to the dead. Human bodies were dumped in mass graves or left unburied to be ravaged by dogs and pigs, rats, ravens, and gulls. There were reports too of cannibalism. In later years, some people, who themselves suffered in the 1840s, were ashamed of having failed to offer human solidarity to others in distress. Yet if there were subjects lacking words—things difficult to describe or explain—those who had been to the abyss did talk of it. Survivors of other humanitarian crises have shown human beings to be remarkably resilient. And, in the case of Ireland, there is no basis for the facile and insular notion that the Great Famine was "so deeply tragic as to be too traumatic to recall".
About the Author
Breandan Mac Suibhne is associate professor of History at Centenary University, New Jersey. Among his publications are The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2017), and, as editor, with Enda Delaney, Ireland's Great Famine and Popular Politics (Routledge, 2016). Mac Suibhne is also editor of two annotated editions—John Gamble, Society and Manners in Early-Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Field Day, 2011), and, with David Dickson, Hugh Dorian, The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal (Lilliput, 2000; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001). Some of the research on which this essay is based was made possible by a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, a Franklin Grant awarded by the American Philosophical Society, and an Irish American Cultural Institute/Centre for Irish Studies Fellowship in the National University of Ireland, Galway.