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Liam O’Flaherty: Famine

Many of O’Flaherty’s novels were about the sufferings of the Irish people, particularly as a result of British colonialism, and their struggles to establish their own identity and independence. There was perhaps no worse episode in Irish history under British rule than the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. It resulted in the deaths of around a million people and two million more emigrated. Much of this disaster could have been avoided if the British government of the Whig Lord Russell had taken appropriate action, which they could have easily and relatively cheaply have done. This novel tells the story of one village and one family in particular during the mid-late 1840s, when the famine was at its worst.

The novel tells the story of the Kilmartin family in Black Valley. The Kilmartins are certainly better off than many of their neighbours. They have land and are even able to rent some out. Brian Kilmartin, now in his seventies, is the patriarch. He is tough, ruthless and demanding. He is married to the long-suffering Maggie. They have already lost four children to disease and now their adult son Michael is coughing and spitting up blood. Despite this, he carries on working and drinking. He lives with his parents, as does the (initially) fairly weak Martin, married only a month ago to Mary, who will become the heroine of this novel. Mary is the daughter of a landless weaver and Brian has not welcomed the marriage, as he considers Mary and her family beneath him and his family. He, however, had succeeded by marrying Maggie and getting land, as a result, both from her and from her brother, Thomsy, who handed over his land in return for being kept by Brian. Thomsy still lives with them and spends much of his time drinking. At the start of the novel, the potato blight, which will destroy most of Ireland’s potato crop, the source of 60% of the sustenance of the Irish peasants, has just been spotted in the neighbouring village. It rapidly spreads to Black Valley, first destroying the crop of Patch Hernon, Brian and Maggie’s son-in-law. Initially, the Kilmartins are only affected to a small degree.

In addition to the problem of getting food for their own needs, all the peasants have to pay rent to the absentee English landlord. Mark Thompson’s family had lived there in the past but he has now permanently moved to London, leaving behind an agent, an army friend, Jocelyn Chadwick. Chadwick is interested in the good life – horse racing, eating and drinking and women. He is not in the slightest bit interested in the fate of the tenants. He wants to collect the rents, evict those who do not pay and then go away for a while. When the local Protestant vicar comes to see him in order to pass on a message about how the peasants could mitigate the blight, he is completely indifferent, more concerned with how his new racehorse is doing and with squeezing the breast of his maid. When things get worse, he really does become the caricature of the evil landlord’s agent, ruthless and cruel, taking advantage of the defenceless women, indulging in gluttonous and debauched living and even prepared to steal from the landlord.

When a second year of blight occurs – there is a wonderful description of its arrival in Black Valley which is long on poetry if somewhat short on science – the Great Hunger descends on the people. Inevitably, there is considerable political unrest and considerable political repression – O’Flaherty has no doubt which side he is on. Many leave for the United States, the captured rebels are transported to Australia and many, as we know, die. The little bit of sympathy that is shown is by the priests, both Catholic and Protestant, and various do-gooders, who send aid and, in the case of the Quakers, even visit. But, eventually, the side effects of famine occur. The people have distended stomachs and, when they get given food and eat too much, it makes them very ill. What they call the plague, actually typhus, strikes and the weakened people die of that. Some effectively commit suicide, others try to move elsewhere. Meanwhile the government, shopkeepers and landowners maintain that it is just a small, localised problem. Giving food to the poor would be unfair on the shopkeepers who have paid hard-earned cash for the food they have to sell.

O’Flaherty spares us little in the horrible effects of the famine and the ultimate cause of it. Unlike most other famines found elsewhere throughout history, there was food available but it was not getting to those who needed it because they had no money to acquire it and/or it was not reaching their villages. In Black Valley, even as people are dying of starvation, the priests, the landowners and the police are eating, while the poor are dying. All too often the poor are blamed for what has gone wrong. If you have read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, which is recommended for a more historical account of this famine, you will be aware of what happened but O’Flaherty’s account, telling how it affected individuals, is a very powerful novel.

Publishing history

First published 1937 by Victor Gollancz