The graves are walking : the great famine and the saga of the Irish people

by John Kelly

Hardcover, 2012





New York : Henry Holt and Co., 2012.


This compelling new look at one of the worst disasters to strike humankind--the Great Irish Potato Famine--provides fresh material and analysis on the role that nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism played in shaping British policies and on Britain's attempt to use the famine to reshape Irish society and character.

Media reviews

Kelly intersperses the nitty gritty of the shifting Irish economic situation with horrific glimpses of its human toll ... Recognizing that the British handling of the famine was “parsimonious, short-sighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology” rather than deliberately genocidal is important because while powerful, paranoid, racist madmen like Hitler are relatively rare, our own time is replete with men like Trevelyan. ... That version of the story may not be as satisfying dramatically and morally as the one with the evil, homicidal Englishman, but it does do what history does best, which is to show us how not to repeat it.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Chatterbox
"By the summer of 1847, newspaper readers in North America and Europe could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Irish knew how to do any more was die."

That sums up the horrific story of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1848ish, a dreadful event that was sadly in need of a new and readable history. That is what John Kelly has delivered -- in spades. He does the world a service by not arguing that the collapsed of the potato crop was artificially manufactured and created by the British with the express purpose of triggering what ended up becoming the equivalent of a genocide of the Irish, nor does he romanticize life in pre-famine Ireland. What he does do is deliver a crisp, well-researched and authoritative history of the cataclysm and its consequences.

In Kelly's eyes, the English have a responsibility for the astonishing fatality -- about a million died; another million emigrated -- but it's of a different kind. English policies and especially the commitment to policy ideals rather than the preservation of human life (eg the government determination that no one should interfere with the market's operations by providing free grain or selling below the market price) had an impact that proved devastating. Kelly makes clear that the starting point of their thinking was radically different than what ours might be today, 160 years later: to the English of the 1840s, it was easy to see the famine as a kind of divine judgment, whether on the over-reliance on the potato crop, the antiquated system of barter rather than a modern cash economy, or simply the fact that the Irish were Catholic. To them, the crop failures were a welcome opportunity to reshape Ireland, and the policies that they tried to execute exacerbated the catastrophe.

In the wake of any tragedy of this kind, it's easy to slip into the "but they should have known..." analysis -- 20/20 hindsight. That has been particularly true of the famine, which has played a critical role in the thousand years or so of conflict between England and Ireland, so it's not surprising that Kelly does do a bit of that. (Another example of what I mean by this: it's akin to the comments made about Jews in Germany and Austria in the mid-1930s -- why didn't they leave? Didn't they realize?? Kelly occasionally slips into comments along the lines of "they should have realized...") But the deft marshaling of the complicated facts and the juxtaposition of these against some vivid writing (the only other history of the period I've read was very very dry) and an anecdotal style more than offsets this.

Many of my ancestors are Irish, although Irish protestants, with names like Duke (Kelly quotes a Co. Leitrim physician, John Duke, who was viewed as a savior by some of his Irish Catholic patients and whose grave marker is still decorated with flowers today) and Casement (yes, as in Roger), but most left before the famine, in the 1820s or 1830s, in the aftermath of the failed 1798 rebellion. Most were themselves small farmers or craftsmen, not peasants, but not landowners. I wish that my g-g-g-g-grandfather Francis Duke had left some mention of what he thought of his great-nephew's actions during the famine, and what he thought of the flood of new Irish immigrants to Canada in the years before his death. What is sure is that the Co. Leitrim he left today has a population that is only about 10% of what it was before the famine -- and that for every person now living here, there are at least 7 or 8 members of the Irish diaspora who can trace their roots to Leitrim. That's an example of the impact of this horrifying few years of Irish history, a period that still affects the sense of what it is to be "Irish", and that country's relationship with England.

Kelly has a knack for combining great historical detail and accuracy with narrative detail and vivid writing, making this compelling reading. Recommended: 4.4 stars.
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LibraryThing member Richard.Mansel
If you are keenly interested in the Irish Potato Famine and its effects on the Irish people, this book is essential. However, there is a very large caveat to anyone who decides to read this book. It is unrelenting, brutal and mind-numbingly depressing -- just as the Famine was to the millions who suffered so horribly in this famine. I can't imagine how Kelly made it through the research and writing without losing his sanity.… (more)
LibraryThing member konastories
Joy's review: God, but this book is a slog! Kelly has included every fact he uncovered in his research in this book and done so with out any kind of coherent narrative. The only reason I included the extra 1/2 star is that he did to a lot of research and I learned some interesting things. If only he had an editor to force him to organize this pile of facts into some kind of structure. All of our non-fiction group agrees: Kelly ruined what could have been an excellent book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A compelling, richly layered, vividly detailed chronicle of this horrific catastrophe and its consequences.
LibraryThing member dele2451
There are valid reasons why today's biodiversity and ecological advocates repeatedly reference the "great" potato famine of Ireland when making modern day speeches on global food and crop security, but they often fail to satisfactorily explain how governmental trade, tariff, and property policies contributed as much (maybe even more) to the death and suffering in mid-1800's Ireland than the arrival of the spud's fungal nemesis, Phytophthphora infestans, did. Kelly fills in this gap. A very valuable read for humanitarian workers, food advocates, policy makers, biotech scientists, commercial farmers, anyone who questions the need for emergency food reserves, and the descendants of Irish who emigrated to the US and/or Canada during the mid-to-late 1800's.… (more)
LibraryThing member Gingermama
Gerard Doyle did a fabulous job narrating the audio version. Kelly's book does a fine job detailing the famine years, covering everything from the political to the personal stories. Truly unforgettable.
LibraryThing member Jeannine504
John Kelly is a worthy successor to David McCullough. This book, heavily annotated and footnoted, is a scholarly work with enough flesh and bones to keep it animated. I love the author's sly ironies. For example, the last line of the book describes the mood of a 1848 New Year's party in England thusly: The famine was over and it had had an expectedly happy ending: the Irish people were learning how to help themselves.

The struggle between the haves and the haves-not is nearly always won by the haves. (Is the moral of the story "get some"?)
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
This is a very thorough history of the Great Hunger in Ireland, which I will never call the Potato Famine again. A potato blight (throughout Europe) caused the crisis, but the famine was caused by misguided, ideologically driven government policy. Kelly pushes back somewhat against the theory that the famine was a result of a deliberate genocide, but the tale he tells of incompetence and blind ideology is in a way more chilling, because more apt to happen again.
Kelly doesn’t lay down an ideology of his own in the book, but for me it was easy to see disturbing echoes of the 19th century British government in today’s American GOP, with their cynical insistence the “dependence” engendered by any aid to the poor is worse than poverty itself. And as I was reading about the incompetence and mean-spiritedness of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was held in such high esteem in Britain despite the harm he caused, I heard myself muttering “Heckuva job, Trevvie.”
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