A Literature and IT Review

The working title of my dissertation is ‘Famine Roads: breaking stones and hearts’.  The introduction will pose the question, ‘How did purposeless roads come to built in Ireland in the mid-1840s?’  The question is inspired by the fictional priest in two of George Moore’s short stories from The Untilled Field (1903), who grants that the authorities who ordained this form of public works were intelligent and sane, yet recognises something ‘Gradgrind’ in men who cannot see that the workers’ hearts are broken by such pointless labour.  Roy Foster has asserted that the ‘roads to nowhere’ referred to in so many sources are ‘often mythical’ (Modern Ireland, 326).  My initial reading of parliamentary papers suggests that not only were they very real, but that their existence weighed heavily on the minds of the officials concerned.  In this interdisciplinary study, I am in pursuit of literary and political representations of these roads, but first and foremost the realities.  Among the questions to be answered by my research are:

  • why was Peel’s initial intention to improve Ireland’s infrastructure set aside?
  • to what extent was British distaste for Irish landlords a factor?
  • to what extent was the British view of the Irish labourer a factor?
  • how did the Relief Committees and Board of Works reach and account for their decisions?
  • in what sources, if at all, can the voices of the ordinary people be heard?

Secondary sources
My first task is a general survey of famine historiography.  This includes chapters within general histories, including Chapter XVII in J.C. Beckett’s The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923 (London: Faber, 1966) and Chapter 14 in R.F. Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Penguin, 1988), as well as histories dedicated to the period.  Examples are James S. Donnelly, Jr.’s The Great Irish Potato Famine (Stroud: Sutton, 2002), especially the chapters entitled ‘Famine and Government Response 1845-6, and ‘The Administration of “Relief”, 1846-7’, and Ciarán Ó’Murchada’s The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852 (London, NY: Continuum, 2011), in particular Chapter 4, ‘The Blessed Effects of Political Economy: Public Works and Soup Kitchens’.

Background to the prevailing economic structure in the period is found in Cormac Ó Gráda’s chapters, ‘Poverty, population, and agriculture, 1801-1845’, and ‘Industry and Communications, 1801-45 in A New History of Ireland, Ireland under the Union 1801-70, vol. V, ed. W.E. Vaughan (Oxford: OUP, 1989).  In the same volume, Oliver McDonagh’s chapter on ‘The Economy and Society, 1830-45’ and T.W. Freeman’s chapter, ‘Land and People, c. 1841’ are also informative.  James S. Donnelly Jr.’s contributions seem to cover the same territory as The Great Irish Potato Famine, and are written earlier, but may produce other insights.  At a local level, Patrick Hickey’s Famine in West Cork: The Mizen Peninsula Land and People, 1800-1852 (Cork, Dublin: Mercier, 2002) has two particularly useful chapters, VII and VIII, ‘Rotting Potatoes and Road-making’ and ‘Swift Famine and Tardy Relief’.

A key secondary source is the magnificent Atlas of the Great Famine, eds. John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy (Cork: Cork UP, 2012), and its wide-ranging bibliography.  Other likely sources are Christine Kinealy’s Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), Sources for the history of the great famine in Skibbereen and surrounding area (Skibbereen: Skibbereen Famine Commemoration Committee, 2000), and Peter Gray’s Famine, land and politics: British government and Irish society, 1843-1850 (Dublin, 1995).

On the literature side, surveys such as Hungry Words: Images of Famine in the Irish Canon, eds. George Cusack and Sarah Goss (Dublin, Portland: Irish Academic Press, 2006), and Christopher Morash’s Writing the Irish Famine (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995) are useful.

Primary sources
UK Parliamentary Papers afford insight into the thinking of those whose influence prevailed over the relief programme, whether indirectly or directly.  For example, as this extract from the Final Report of the Board of Works, Ireland, Relating to Measures Adopted for the Relief of Distress in July and August, 1847 shows:

We still endeavoured, in accordance with your Lordships’ wishes, to undertake but small portions of projects in the first instance, with the view of bringing them to a prompt and rapid close.

Board of Works officials were making decisions with one eye on the wishes of their political masters.  A comparison of the Hansard papers on Poor Law debates in the House of Commons held in 1846 and 1847 reveals the extent to which initial decisions about relief works were made on the assumption that they would not be needed for long.  The debates also reveal the competing interests which could impede progress as well as provide justification for delay, inefficiency or inaction.  Bills, such as that ‘For the Appointment of additional Constables for keeping the Peace near Public Works in Ireland’ (1846), attest to the fear of public gatherings felt by those in authority.

Notices, such as that communicating with the tenants of John McDonnell, in December 1846 confirm that local public works were considered both useless and costly to the locality, and explain how disputes over ticketing were incited.  Peig Minihane recalls her father-in-law having been dismissed from labouring on the ‘The Public Work Road’ when ‘someone complained him’ (Beara Woman Talking, 15).  This evidence suggests another way in which ‘hearts were broken’ on the roads: communities were divided by the selection and refusal of would-be labourers.  The court cases which arose as a result of deaths – literal heart-breakings – occurring due to failure to pay labourers (see my Wikipedia entry, Famine Roads) will also be a good source, should they be available.

There are promising sources held by the National Library of Ireland, for example the Minute book of the Cóbh famine relief committee, 1846-7, and copies of correspondence of Maria Edgeworth and the Central Relief Committees in Dublin relating to distress in the Edgeworthstown area, 1847-8. It is also an online source for ephemera, such as the broadside dated 1846-7 (<http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000267476&gt;), which called for amendment in the law to allow Relief Works to build harbours and piers.  Louise Kennedy of the National Archives has kindly furnished invaluable leads, for example a general source: <http://www.nationalarchives.ie/topics/famine/Great_Famine.pdf&gt;, and access to records of the Office of Public Works at  <http://www.nationalarchives.ie/research/research-guides-and-articles/guide-to-the-records-of-the-office-of-public-works/&gt; and <http://www.nationalarchives.ie/topics/OPW/OPW_local_history.pd&gt;.  Much of this work will be done with hard copy documents at the National Archives.  Where records that might shed light on the period are already gathered, such as in Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland (Dublin: E. Burke, 1996), I will take advantage of them.

I have done journal searches, and these have produced little of direct relevance so far, but examples are ‘A Time of Desolation: Clones poor law union 1845-50’ by Brian MacDonald
 from the Clogher Record, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2000), pp. 3-146 (stable URL: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27699456 >.  Publications such as the Dublin University Magazine are useful, for example an article describing relief works during the famine, entitled ‘Ireland’s industry and Ireland’s benefactors’ is found in Vol. XXXIII, pp. 118-131, January, 1849.  One of the most productive sources of contemporary views and representations is the press, and I use the British Newspaper Archive’s online service for access to all the key publications.  At present I am concentrating on the Cork area, reading the Cork Examiner and Cork Constitution, and keeping an eye on the national picture with the Nation, the Freeman’s Journal and the London Times.  For visual representations, I will also be looking at the London Illustrated Journal among other sources.  I am hoping that I will learn more of the people’s perspective from the results of the Irish Folklore Commission’s questionnaire carried out in 1945-46.  Personal accounts, such as Asenath Nicholson’s Ireland’s Welcome (1847), Lights and Shades (1850) and Annals of the famine in Ireland, ed. Maureen Murphy (Dublin: Lilliput, 1998), and Alexander Somerville’s Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847, ed. K.D.M. Snell (Dublin: Irish Academic Press,1994) will also be consulted.  Contemporary articles, such as Charles Trevelyan’s The Irish Crisis (originally published anonymously in the Edinburgh Review, 1848), and polemical writing, for example John Mitchel’s Jail Journal, will also be of interest.

Finally, the fictional sources already consulted include Anthony Trollope’s Castle Richmond (1860), but the heritage of memory which has produced reflections such as Eavan Boland’s ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’, in In a Time of Violence (Manchester: Carcanet,1994) will also be considered.

Works Cited
(not fully in body of text)

Ó Murchú, Tadhg. Beara Woman Talking: the lore of Peig Minihane.  Folklore from the Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork. Ed. and trans. Martin Verlag. Cork: Mercier P, 2003.

Featured image: <http://www.historyireland.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/A-Non-Famine-History-of-Ireland-4.jpg%5B1.3.17%5D&gt;

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