John Kelly’s insight and commentary together with his use of primary sources gives an immediacy to The Graves are Walking that makes it one the best and most readable accounts of the Irish famine that I have come across.
The famine began in 1845 when the potato crop was hit by a bacterial infection thereby depriving the Irish poor of their food source and leading over the following five years to a disaster that saw the country’s population decline through death and emigration by a third with roughly 1,000,000 dying and a further 1,000, 000 emigrating in the years between 1847 and 1851.
“If the famine has any enduring lesson to teach, it is about the harm that even the best are capable of when they lose their way and allow religion and political ideology to traduce reason and humanity.”
Statistics quoted by Kelly speak eloquently to the sheer scale of the disaster –“only one in three Irishmen born in Ireland around 1831 would die in Ireland of old age”, “between 1847 and 1851, the eviction rate rose by nearly 1,000 percent, overwhelming the Irish Poor Law system” and “between 1847 and 1851, 848,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York”.
But Kelly goes beyond the statistics using contemporary news reports and journals to tell the stories of real people and the sources he draws on provide sometimes surprising insights into day-to-day life in the 1840s from transport to public works programs such as road building to the use of private militia by landlords seeking to evict their tenants.
There are also surprisingly contemporary parallels to be drawn in respect of public policy making and the desperate consequences of poor decision-making. On famine, for example, Kelly observes: “In modern famines, starvation often arises not from an absolute shortage of food, bur from access to food — and among the things that govern who has access and who does not is the cost of food.”
The Graves are Walking is very accessible to general readers — Kelly’s research and writing are excellent and he lets the sources and facts speak for themselves. Books like this should be compulsory reading for public policy makers.
The Graves are Walking by John Kelly is published by Henry Holt & Co and is available for Kindle. ISBN 978-0-571-28443-6.