Book Review:

Gallagher, Thomas. Paddy's Lament. Harcourt Brace Javonovich, New York. 1982.

In 1845, the first signs of potato blight appeared in Ireland. Extensive enough to cause alarm but not starvation, the disease foreshadowed the disaster that followed in the next few years. The potato crops throughout Ireland (and the rest of Europe) were all but annihilated by a then unknown fungus, and prevailing social conditions of the time resulted in starvation, homelessness, and death on an scale unknown since the Black Plague.

Paddy's Lament is an embellished account of the worst Famine years (1846-7), by a second generation Irish-American Thomas Gallagher, after research into British-Irish antagonisms. Gallagher's thesis is that most of those present day antagonisms are rooted in Britain's response to the Famine of the 1840s.

Ireland at the time was an entirely agricultural nation, a food-supplying colony of mercantilist Britain, who had ruled since the Union of 1800. Intentionally deprived of industry by the British, Ireland had developed a poor imitation of a cash crop economy, wherein its most valuable produce (grains and meat) were given directly to landlords as rent and exported to Britain. What little money reached the farming class had to be spent on manufactured goods imported from Britain. Unable to even buy food, the Irish depended on the potato, a high yield, low labor tuber as their staple crop. The blight thus deprived them of the food that was for most intents and purposes, their only food.

The grains and meat exported to Britain, however, would have been sufficient (as Gallagher points out) to feed most of Ireland and Britain, if managed properly (short term importing would certainly have been able to make up the difference, considering the amount of american aid later provided). British political/economical theory and prejudices, however, prevented such prudent management. Strictly laissez faire in economics, the British government refused to interfere in what they claimed was the natural processes of supply and demand. While other blight-affected nations limited or prohibited food exports from stricken areas, the British continued exporting grain and meat from Ireland, only to attempt to sell it (at prices inflated by "demand"). Food went uneaten while people starved.

As the situation worsened, so did British attitudes towards the Irish. Always antagonistic, British sentiment turned into full scale racism, with the Irish considered a mentally and emotionally inferior people, easily controlled and commanded by evil men (i.e. the Pope), but too obstinate to obey proper authority (i.e. the Parliament). British supremacism led to the belief that the Irish were to blame for the Famine through overpopulation and sloth, using the blight as an excuse.

The average britainian was, of course, ignorant of the complexities of the Irish agricultural and economic system. Forced to pay high rents in crops, the Irish had only the worse land to feed themselves. Such land being incapable of supporting anything but potatoes, there simply was no real work left once the potatoes failed and the rent was paid. Irish who tried to support themselves with other crops had short term success, but ended up short on their rent and were quickly evicted, making them homeless (and completely unable to support themselves in the long run).

The Brit on the street thus supported his leaders, who often descended into full out genocidal racism, openly commenting on the hoped for weakening or extinction of the Irish people. Such sentiment only increased the British opposition to real aid for Ireland in the face of international outcry. Useless public works and inferior soup kitchens were built in Ireland to appease other countries, but contributed little or no actual relief.

The only substantial aid to Ireland came from the United States, although its effectiveness was blunted by British interference (which was nominally to protect laissez faire economics by prevented charity from undercutting mercantile prices; an interesting contradiction so common of protectionism). This probably contributed to growing sentiment among the Irish that the States was a better place to live than the United Kingdom. Such sentiment resulted in massive migration to the States, which was supported by British land lords (who wanted to turn Irish farm land into pastorage) and politicians (who were still in a supremacist mood, in addition to "merely" supporting the interests of business).

As Irish immigration to the States increased, the Irish became crucial to the functioning of New York and other large cities, empowering themselves in ways impossible in Ireland. They also (according to Gallagher) developed a hatred of the British that's probably more intense than the British supremacists' dislike of Ireland. While the British see Ireland as a problem to be dealt with or contained, the Irish see Britain as an overpowering evil hell-bent on their destruction as a nation and a people. The all or nothing situation as perceived by the Irish means they have no choice but to hate and oppose British rule.

The most fascinating aspect of Gallagher's book is its thesis and goal. By seeking to demonstrate the causes of British/Irish antagonisms, he openly announces (in the Introduction) his belief that the British are to blame for the entire situation. His text does convey the historical facts accurately enough, but characterizations (many apparently inspired by the Irish Folklore Department of University College Dublin) too often portray the British as one dimensional racists who have nothing better to do than persecute the Irish.

Accounts of the Irish people themselves are overly romanticized, especially in the continual references to their sense of humor, their generosity, and their "pagan past" (which shouldn't make that much of a difference when one considers it; every people has a pagan past). Combined with the images of the British presented in Paddy's Lament, Gallagher ends up presenting the Irish as an almost mythically virtuous people (with only virtuous flaws, such as being too trusting of the runners who greet the Mersey when it reaches New York) who are endlessly persecuted by the evil British.

This approach is especially flawed in its focus on the everyday Irishman versus the British capitalists and politicians (also known as "the Establishment"), blending a sympathy for the common man with a sympathy for the Irish. The opinions of a average British citizen are given such short shift that the reader is left not knowing where such British citizens stood. On the other hand, the historical role of the Irish upper class is for the most part neglected (including Catholic Church complacency during the Famine). In seeking to explain the mutual hatred of the British and the Irish, Gallagher neglects many of the original socioeconomic tensions that contributed to the situation (except for some brief comments on religious antagonisms), effectively placing the ethnic tensions in a vacuum.

In the end, Gallagher adequately explains a major source of Irish hostility towards the British, but neglects explanations of British hostility towards the Irish, except for some simplistic accusations about profit motives and laissez faire economics. Paddy's Lament simplifies a long and complex history of Anglo-Irish conflicts by blaming virtually all antagonisms on the Famine; the Rising of 1916 and the following decades of conflict in Northern Ireland are all but dismissed as a footnote to the Famine.

Paddy's Lament is best read in a manner unintended by the author; as an example of overly simplifying the historical Anglo-Irish antagonisms. It remains a useful historical account of the Famine as experienced and perceived by the Irish, but somehow fails to realize that the Famine is one of three great crimes that the Irish still seek to hold Britain culpable for (the other tow being the division of Ireland and the post-Bloody Sunday treatment of Northern Ireland). Perhaps Gallagher is one of many Irish-Americans who perceive later conflicts as motivated by irrational religious antagonisms and seeks a "rational" explanation of hatred in a less religious historical event.

Such hidden beliefs undermine the usefulness of Paddy's Lament. Serviceable as an in depth description of the Famine (and a more generalized example of harmful sociocultural influences on subsistence patterns), it is of questionable use as a stand-alone source, due to its romanticism and biases.

Filed at 01:01:46 AM EDT on 11 May 1992 from Toledo, OH