The parallels between the plight of ordinary people in those years and the situation which ordinary Irish families face today are at once very different and strangely familiar.
The obvious difference is that it was an ecological disaster blight which first ruined the potato crop on which ordinary people relied to survive in 1845. But mass mortality was neither immediate nor inevitable. The state response was swift and effective—selling food at cost price to depress prices, then providing employment on public works schemes, and later, in the spring and summer of 1847, feeding the poor directly at soup kitchens. But an outcry in Britain at reports of widespread fraud on the public works resulted in the winding up of the most effective support systems. And therein was the road to catastrophe.
The ideology that shaped policy in the darkest years of the Great Famine stipulated light-touch regulation and limited state intervention—still today catch-cries of conservatives. Whether labelled political economy, or free trade or laissez fair economics, those policies were couched in appeals to reason and rationality, and predicated on an assumption that Ireland confounded reason. By leaving the fate of the poor and vulnerable to the ravages of the market, the state abandoned 3–4 million people.
The Curse of Reason describes how the Great Irish Famine saw Ireland descend into chaos in the mid-nineteenth century, despite being politically integrated into the most advanced industrial economy in the world. This character-driven new book tells the story of the Famine through the contrasting perspectives of four contemporaries. Each of these characters brings a unique perspective, influenced by who they were, what they witnessed, and what they stood for.
The Curse of Reason is published by Gill Books on Friday 19 October, priced at €19.99.
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