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The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy
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The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy

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by Tim Pat Coogan

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During a Biblical seven years in the middle of the nineteenth century, Ireland experienced the worst disaster a nation could suffer. Fully a quarter of its citizens either perished from starvation or emigrated, with so many dying en route that it was said, "you can walk dry shod to America on their bodies." In this grand, sweeping narrative, Ireland''s best-known


During a Biblical seven years in the middle of the nineteenth century, Ireland experienced the worst disaster a nation could suffer. Fully a quarter of its citizens either perished from starvation or emigrated, with so many dying en route that it was said, "you can walk dry shod to America on their bodies." In this grand, sweeping narrative, Ireland''s best-known historian, Tim Pat Coogan, gives a fresh and comprehensive account of one of the darkest chapters in world history, arguing that Britain was in large part responsible for the extent of the national tragedy, and in fact engineered the food shortage in one of the earliest cases of ethnic cleansing. So strong was anti-Irish sentiment in the mainland that the English parliament referred to the famine as "God's lesson."
Drawing on recently uncovered sources, and with the sharp eye of a seasoned historian, Coogan delivers fresh insights into the famine's causes, recounts its unspeakable events, and delves into the legacy of the "famine mentality" that followed immigrants across the Atlantic to the shores of the United States and had lasting effects on the population left behind. This is a broad, magisterial history of a tragedy that shook the nineteenth century and still impacts the worldwide Irish diaspora of nearly 80 million people today.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Peter Behrens
[Coogan] sounds like the witness who saw the crime…[his] pages spark and sputter with a deep, lingering, well-cherished rage at the British government and laissez-faire attitudes and policies adopted by Prime Minister Lord John Russell and civil servant Sir Charles Trevelyan.
From the Publisher

“Many intriguing points [are] made in this book…Coogan's pages spark and sputter with a deep, lingering, well-cherished rage.” —Peter Behrens, The Washington Post

“To many, Mr. Coogan… [is the] voice of modern Irish history… makes a compelling case for why we should revisit our current understanding of [the famine].” —The Economist

“Coogan's insistent examining of the moral dimensions of that nation's policies, and how they fueled the horrors on the ground, represents his greatest contribution to the voluminous scholarship on the Irish famine, and is this book's greatest strength.” —The Boston Globe

“In disturbingly graphic images and compelling language based on true stories from the Famine archives and peppered with his own perspective, Coogan captures the utter devastation wrought by Ireland's greatest ecological disaster which reduced the population by one fourth.” —Irish Edition

“The best part is that it did such a good job at keeping me interested that I'm eager to read on and learn more.” —Fingers and Prose

“Coogan makes no bones about accusing the government of the day of "a genocidal intent" ... His writing on Ireland's past is intelligent and accessible to a large readership.” —BBC History Magazine

Library Journal
Coogan (former editor, Irish Press; The IRA) is known for his colorful, anecdotal histories with a strong bias in favor of the Irish and against the English. His previous work has found a place in the canon by presenting original narratives from event participants connected to the IRA or to the Irish political scene, but here, he reproduces the same famine history told dozens of times since the mid-19th century. The book is a rehash of work done by other historians, such as Cecil Woodham-Smith (The Great Hunger) as well as his own previous work (Wherever Green Is Worn). He adds in his own family stories and observations of the current Irish situation to make the book seem fresh and relevant. VERDICT Readers who enjoyed Coogan's earlier, better work or those with a particular interest in the famine may wish to read this for the sake of completeness. Others would be well advised to skip it in favor of Woodham-Smith's work or Christine Kinealy's A Death-Dealing Famine.—Hanna Clutterbuck, Harvard Univ. Medical Sch. Lib., Boston
Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed Irish historian Coogan (Ireland in the Twentieth Century, 2004, etc.) opens up the truth about the Irish potato famine, and it's uglier than you thought. The potato was not just the staple of the poor Irish diet; it was all they had. For seven years beginning in 1845, Phytophthora infestans wreaked havoc on the potato crop in Ireland. Prime Minister Robert Peel made some effort to assuage the problem, however misguided, allowing the purchase of Indian maize from America, which the Irish couldn't properly grind and which made them sick. Coogan points out the many other problems to English aid--e.g., to obtain relief, you had to sign over your land, many soup kitchens would only give soup to those who converted to Protestantism, and no relief could be given outside the workhouse. Evictions, emigration and a policy of laissez faire were the British answers to the crisis. The author is hellbent on setting the record straight. He boldly condemns Irish historians, most educated by the English, who downplayed the horror and evaded the issue of British decision-makers' responsibility. They completely ignored the hate creation of the English press and the landlords who despised the human misery along the roadsides and in the filthy workhouses. The admission by Prime Minister Tony Blair of the failure of the English government to support a country that was part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world has set a good beginning to get at the truth. The Irish grew up with tales of the Great Hunger, but the full story is just now unfolding. This book is a great start.

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The Famine Plot

England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy

By Tim Pat Coogan

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2012 Tim Pat Coogan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-04517-1



"My Lords, it is only by its government that such evils could have been produced: the mere fact that Ireland is in so deplorable and wretched a condition saves whole volumes of argument, and is of itself a complete and irrefutable proof of the misgovernment to which she has been subjected. Nor can we lay to our souls the 'flattering unction' that this misgovernment was only of ancient date, and has not been our doing ... such a system of government could not fail to leave behind it a train of fearful evils from which we are suffering at the present day.

We have a military occupation of Ireland, but that in no other sense could it be said to be governed: that it was occupied by troops, not governed like England."

Extract from a speech by Earl Grey, son of a former prime minister and, during the Famine, colonial secretary, speaking to the House of Lords during the early stages of the Famine on March 23, 1846

IN HIS GREAT NOVEL MOBY DICK, WRITTEN during the Famine era, Herman Melville described Ireland as a "fast fish," that is to say a harpooned whale lashed helplessly to the side of a ship waiting to be cut up by its predators. It was an apt description. The Famine cut Irish society to pieces. We can only estimate the number of deaths from the time the potato blight first struck in 1845 to the ending of the Famine period in 1851. People were buried in mass graves — appallingly, sometimes while still alive — some died in ditches and fields, by the sea and lakeshore, and, given the accompanying disruption of the population, it is hard to accept that their passing could have been accurately recorded. Historians have used the 1841 census to gauge the size of the population before the Famine hit and the 1851 census for the end date.

This placed the population of Ireland in 1841 at 8,175,124. But the figure was probably larger. The lack of roads, particularly in the West, together with the nature of much of the teeming peasantry's habitation, which was sometimes nothing more than a cave cut into a bog, would have made it nearly impossible for a census enumerator to give an accurate tally. The overcrowded slums of the cities also presented difficulties for an accurate headcount. Historiographical problems notwithstanding, it is generally accepted that during the Famine period Ireland's population fell to some six and a half million. The total given in the 1851 census was 6,552,365. But modern research, as indicated below, finds this figure masks the true extent of the population loss.

The statistics also mask the shock the famine caused Ireland. In our day we are used to reading reports of famines in the Third World, which sometimes claim hundreds of thousands of lives. These deaths occur in countries where populations are in the tens or hundreds of millions — many times greater than that of nineteenth-century Ireland. As a comparison, the terrible famine in Darfur in 2003, which claimed approximately one hundred thousand lives, did so out of a population of 27 million.

A direct result of the Famine was emigration. The hungry began to leave their homes in droves and continued to do so without interruption for some 150 years after the Famine. Ireland became a country to leave. Two highly respected historians, Joel Mokyr and Cormac O'Grada, point out that Ireland lost hundreds of thousands of people through "averted births," that is to say children who would have been born in Ireland, were it not for the Famine. Mokyr in fact calculates the figure for underreporting of those who died to be about 100 percent. He claims that his calculations "yield a total of 1.9 million people dying in Ireland in those five years," as opposed to the official census tables which report a total of only 985,000 people dying between 1841 and 1851.

The ultimate cause of these statistics was not the potato but backyardism, which dictated most of the recorded history of the relationship between the islands of England and Ireland. (Essentially, England considered its weaker neighbor, Ireland, its backyard, and therefore felt entitled to dictate what went on there.) It was backyardism that gave rise to Ireland's three damnations: colonization, proximity, and religion.

Raids by Irish pirates and disputes between representatives of the Irish church and the religious on the larger island who took their tone from Rome made minor outbreaks of hostility relatively commonplace between the two islands long before Columbus discovered America. But for our purposes it may be noted that the era of a more organized and sustained attempt at the colonization of Ireland could be said to have begun with the Normans. An Irish king, Diarmuid McMurragh, King of Leinster, invited the Normans to Ireland to help him in a dispute that arose when he kidnapped the wife of another chieftain.

The pope of the day was an Englishman: Adrian, who was advised by another Englishman, John of Salisbury. Adrian granted Henry II a Papal Bull, Laudabiliter, legitimizing the Norman invasion. The papal deal with Henry II in effect ushered in a prolonged era of two forms of colonialism, those of Mother England and of Mother Church. The Irish were to be saved from the barbarity of their ways by a combination of Vatican directive and Norman steel.

From the Vatican's point of view, the attraction of this arrangement lay in the fact that Rome would exert its authority through the appointment of hand-picked bishops, rather than having to struggle to assert its influence over powerful Irish abbots, who hitherto had often been appointed by their families who controlled the extensive church lands and monasteries. The attraction for the Normans was straightforward — it gave them access to Irish land which, with their advances in agriculture, they were able to exploit far more profitably than were the cattle-herding Irish. And so Christ and Caesar came to be hand in glove. Unfortunately, when Henry VIII defied the pope by divorcing his wife to marry Anne Boleyn, the gloves came off between king and pope, with disastrous results for the Irish.

From the time of Henry VIII's breaking with Rome, England became a Protestant nation and Ireland remained a Catholic one. Thus, apart from the inevitable attempts by a large country to subordinate a smaller neighbor, England's religious wars became superimposed on Ireland also. Not alone would the Catholic Irish lose their lands; they would also be forced to pay for the upkeep of the Protestant clergy. Not surprisingly in a land wherein the poet is both feared and revered, native Irish resentment at the superimposition of Protestantism found its expression in a bitter verse by Raftery, the famous blind Irish poet:

Don't talk of your Protestant Minister
Or his church without Temple or state
For the foundation stone of his religion
Was the bollocks of Henry VIII

Readers may make what they will of the fact that the translation of this verse into English was made by Monsignor de Brun, a Catholic priest then president of Maynooth who later became president of National University of Ireland, Galway.

The old English Catholics, who had settled peaceably enough in Ireland from Norman days onward to an extent that it was said that they became more Irish than the Irish themselves, now became bracketed with the native Irish as objects of detestation not for merely Henry VIII, but for those who came after him, notably his daughter Elizabeth and Oliver Cromwell.

Significantly for our story Lord Chichester, Queen Elizabeth's chief advisor, wrote: "I have often said, and written, it is Famine which must consume [the Irish]; our swords and other endeavors work not that speedy effect which is expected for their overthrow." Oliver Cromwell added a variant to the Chichester approach as he went through Ireland with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other exulting in the doing of God's work by the combined slaughter of both the Irish and old English. Cromwell coined the slogan "to Hell or to Connacht" as he drove Catholics from the good lands to the barren boggy areas of the West.

If ever one required an object lesson as to the validity of a saying I first heard in Vietnam — "When elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled and the people are the grass" — one need look no further than Ireland.

The victory of William of Orange over the Catholic King James II in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne finally broke Catholic power in Ireland and is still fervently celebrated by the Protestants of northeastern Ireland, in the province of Ulster. This exemplifies the confusions and contradictions that can ensue when a small country gets caught up in power politics. The pope sought a Williamite victory, as part of his larger European designs (mainly against Louis XIV of France), and ordered that a Te Deum be rung from all churches. More importantly, Pope Innocent XI also secretly gave William large sums of money, a fact that would have shocked both Protestant and Catholic protagonists and that was withheld from the public until documents came to light in 2008. They showed that the pope had contributed some three and a half million in today's euro values toward the purchase of swords and muskets to what in effect became the enslavement of the Catholic Irish.

Ireland was both crushed and conquered. Massacres carried out in the name of religion added to the bitterness of the race memory on both sides, a bitterness compounded from the conqueror's side by the ever-present threat of Ireland being used as a springboard for invasion by one of the Catholic powers, France or Spain.

Each successive invasion, each new outbreak of rebellion had the effect of adding to this prejudice, either through reports of sanguinary far-off events in Ireland itself or by the sight of Irish mendicants torn from their homes by the upheavals in Ireland and being forced to beg on English roads and streets. As a result, as the geographers Busteed and Hodgson have noted: for the English, the Irish provided the "richest, most enduring source of nationalist demonology." As we will see later, this demonology could and would be brought to life during the Famine when it suited their purposes, by British churchmen and politicians.

The demonology was multi-layered. In the first place it cast Ireland as a place of almost incomprehensible endemic political instability, warfare, and violence.

Yet despite the most ruthless application of the famine formula, accompanied by a scorched-earth policy that wiped both cattle and humans from much of the Irish landscape, England's conquest of Ireland remained partial for several centuries. Her sphere of influence largely consisted of what was known as the Pale, Dublin City, and parts of the counties immediately surrounding it. Thus Ireland became neither an integral part of England nor a developed country in its own right. The lack of a road and harbor infrastructure, particularly in the West of Ireland for example, would prove to be a major contributory factor in the Great Famine's death toll.

Irish trade was crippled by the partial conquest. Instead of being developed, valuable cattle, fishing, and woolen industries were taxed out of existence when they came into competition with either British trading interests or her military concerns, which led her to disrupt Irish trade with both France and America.

As a result, Ireland in the nineteenth century was a poverty-stricken land to which famine was a frequent visitor. Famine struck Ireland several times in the nineteenth century and even before that. One of the best-known landmarks on the Dublin coast is the obelisk on Killiney Hill, overlooking Dun Laoghaire. It was erected as a relief work, by a benevolent local landlord, John Mapas, during the famine of 1741, which was reckoned to have killed an eighth of the population. Prior to the outbreak of An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, in the nineteenth century, there were outbreaks of localized famine in 1800, 1817, 1822, 1831, 1835, and 1842.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, some gleams of prosperity and, most notably, of political development had begun to shine through the murk of centuries. The country obtained a degree of legislative independence from London. It was a degree only, and the Parliament of the period was representative of the property-owning Protestant class, not of the Catholic peasantry, but it contained enormous growth potential.

The move toward legislative independence may be said to have begun when Henry Grattan in 1780 moved an unsuccessful parliamentary address to the Crown stating that the condition of Ireland was no longer tolerable, and Irish landlords began attempting to secure more powers for the impressive-looking Irish parliament in Dublin, which was in reality completely subservient to its older sister in London. Then in June 1782 a group of powerful Anglo-Irish landlords furthered Grattan's suggestion. Led by Lord Charlemont and the Duke of Leinster, they took advantage of the American and French revolutions to set up a Volunteer Army, ostensibly to help England defend Ireland as England had been forced to weaken its Irish armies to bolster its American campaign. The need to strengthen Irish defenses had been highlighted by a series of raids carried out by the American privateer John Paul Jones, "the father of the American navy," along the Scottish and English coasts, culminating in the spectacular capture of The Ajax in Belfast Lough.

From the outset the Volunteers made it clear that henceforth they would only obey laws passed by "the King, Lords and Commons of Ireland." Ireland would be loyal to the Crown but reserved the right to protect its own interests. Primarily these interests were those of the big landowners, the Anglican "ascendancy" as they were known, but in the eighteen years of the Irish parliament's operation the Irish economy did show an improvement. Despite the fact that competition from the more advanced British weaving industry crippled the Irish linen industry, particularly affecting parts of Ulster in the North and Connacht in the West, notably Mayo, trade and enterprise showed an upward curve. Capital was attracted to Ireland, and public works such as the building of the Newry Canal were commenced.

Cultural activity also flourished. For those with money, Dublin became an attractive place to live. Fine public buildings and imposing houses obscured the view of the teeming slums and their attendant filth, disease, and overcrowding.

The realities that lay behind Dublin's fine architecture could well have served as a metaphor for the political and economic condition of a great section of the majority of the Irish people. Through Wolfe Tone, the Protestant leader of the Society of the United Irishmen who sought to unite Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter in the rectification of their grievances by breaking the link with England, contact was established in the late eighteenth century with the French government.

French assistance resulted in two attempts at landing French troops in Ireland. However, in the first, a protestant wind blew up in 1796 and scattered Admiral Hoche's fleet; a second force under the command of General Humbert did manage to land at Killala, in County Mayo, in 1798. Humbert's force was easily defeated by the British, but uprisings broke out in various parts of the country. However, rebellion, spearheaded by the United Irishmen, was bloodily suppressed.

At the time it was frequently said that the 1798 rebellion was secretly encouraged by direction of the English prime minister William Pitt so that it would go off half-cocked before the Society of United Irishmen could succeed in their aim of uniting Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter against the Crown. Certainly English policy seemed directed at fermenting rather than aborting rebellion. Troops were forcibly billeted on unwilling Catholic farm owners and the yeomanry; the Protestant militia was given a free hand in oppressing their Catholic neighbors. Fair-minded Protestants were outraged at what they saw: On Easter Tuesday, April 10, in Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow a Protestant farmer named Joseph Holt, attending the town fair, "was sickened to witness Ancient Britons cutting the haunches and thighs off the young women for wearing green stuff petticoats."

Holt subsequently became a general in the revolutionary army, but Wolfe Tone's once fair hopes of uniting Ireland's differing traditions were drowned in a debauch of blood and atrocity. A respected historian of the period has written: "1798 is the most violent and tragic event in Irish history between the Jacobite wars and the great famine. In the space of a few weeks, 30,000 people — peasants armed with pikes and pitchforks, defenseless women and children — were shot down or blown like chaff as they charged up to the mouth of the canon."


Excerpted from The Famine Plot by Tim Pat Coogan. Copyright © 2012 Tim Pat Coogan. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tim Pat Coogan is Ireland's best known historian and the author of numerous important works on Irish history, including Michael Collins and The IRA, published to wide acclaim. The former editor of The Irish Press, he lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Tim Pat Coogan is Ireland's best-known historical writer. His 1990 biography of Michael Collins rekindled widespread interest in the revolutionary era. He is also the author of The IRA, Long Fellow, Long Shadow, Wherever Green is Worn, and The Famine Plot.

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The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
dardo More than 1 year ago
i believe this book to be one of the most revealing historical reports of english criminality carried out by a race of people who hated the Irish because they would not crumble under the vicious and frequent attempts to bring a proud race of people to its knees.over the centuries the english tried (with some success) to obliterate the Irish nation and make it totally subservient to the crown. Mr. de Valera's answer to Churchill's snide goading of the Irish post World War ll is probably as succinct an answer as you will find remind the warmongers of their ongoing roguery. Niall Quaid
Anonymous More than 1 year ago