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New International, July 1938


E. Robertson

John Bull’s Other Hell

From New International, Vol.4 No.7, July 1938, pp.222-223.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


by Liam O’Flaherty
466 pp. New York. Random House. $2.50.

O’Flaherty’s latest and finest book is a novel which puts flesh once more around some of the grimmest bones in the history of British imperialism. In 1845 a famine wiped out 729,000 of the 8 million inhabitants of Ireland and drove hundreds of thousands overseas. The superficial cause was a sudden and mysterious blight which destroyed virtually the whole potato crop. The real cause was English capitalism. In the previous century the peasantry had been dispossessed of the fertile eastern lands and driven into the disease-breeding bogs and barren rocks of the “western world”. By allowing a half-acre of arable soil to each fifty acres of bog, the English parliament fostered a new growth of population and of stock and grain production, and drained off into England every penny of the new wealth as it was created. The land rentals were raised to keep pace with fertility so that if a tenant put a new shirt to his back he was taxed for it. In 1798, under the stimulus of the French Revolution, the Irish rebelled, and were promptly shot into submission or transported for life. A period of hopeless submission followed, fostered by the swarming priests who wished to keep their own tithes secure. Reviving resistance was diverted by native demagogues like O’Connell into fruitless campaigns for taxation of the landlords. The bloodsucking continued meanwhile; in the year 1844 the English squeezed from Ireland five million pounds in rent, one million head of stock, and practically all the grain grown. It was this strangulation which created the conditions for general starvation when, the next year, blight destroyed the one food permitted the Irish, potatoes.

O’Flaherty’s book is primarily concerned with the sufferings of starving Irish in that year but he shows himself fully aware of the causes leading up to it, and he dramatizes also the instructive conduct of the British rulers in the emergency. Peel’s Government first saw to it that every pig and cow was shipped to England for back taxes and that those still in arrears were driven on to the roads. Then the Mother of Parliaments lent Ireland money at five percent for a fantastic plan which anticipated the worst features of Roosevelt’s WPA and the English Means Test. It was a works-scheme which expressly stipulated that “no useful work was to be performed”, neither reclamation, industrialization, nor road-building, and that no peasant still with a scrap of blighted land to his name or a copper saved was to be employed.

Instead, the half-starved evicted males were set to work at eightpence a day throwing dirt down the hillsides to block existing roads. With the pennies they were supposed to buy American cornmeal sold through private traders at incredible prices. A horde of boondoggling English officials, sent over to watch that no landholder got food and that none of the dispossessed did useful work, quickly embezzled the funds. Men died of starvation while at work; those with money bought passage to America; the masses, caught on the putrefying potato lands, existed for a while on nettles and scraps, then died in hundreds of thousands from famine and the plagues generated by it. The mask of Catholic civilization slipped away; men survived by abandoning their parents, by theft and murder, by eating the dogs which had fed from the corpses of their own relatives. Some went insane and killed their children. Rebellion, which could have been powerful a year before, was now impossible except from the most vigorous youth. The authorities occupied themselves with outlawing and shooting these, and with burying the plague victims to avoid being infected themselves.

O’Flaherty does not attempt to picture the whole enormous tragedy but epitomizes it in a cross-section of “Black Valley”, a Galway parish of 5,000 people in the fatal year. At the apex of the local pyramid is Chadwick, resident agent for the absentee landlord. A drunken impotent sadist, he acts on the theory that the country is over-populated and the more Irish who die the better. He is eventually exterminated by a sudden revolt of the workers he has driven into famine. The sole doctor of the valley is a wistful incompetent, a Chekhov type, ineffectual because of his own ignorance, the general poverty, and the superstitions which have clung to the peasantry since the days of the Druids. A kindred character is the neurotic Protestant parson, vaguely altruistic, talking like a village Norman Thomas. His flabby efforts to aid are foiled by the jealous priests and by the hatred of the Catholic masses who are taxed to pay his living. The more representative cleric is Father Roche, also well-meaning but stupid and self-deceived by the Christian dogma “that no cause was worth the shedding of a single man’s blood”. Only when it is too late, and the Great Hunger is on them, does he see that this precious blood “was going to rot in starved bodies; bodies that would pay for the sin of craven pacifism the punishment that has always been enforced by history”.

The focal characters of the story are a peasant family, the Kilmartins. The old man is the world-type of farmer, enduring, ignorant, toiling forever, clinging to the land as “the life that God ordained” – and left to die on it, the last human being in the valley. Half his children had already died from the tuberculosis which was bred, like the blight, of bogs and poverty. One son, Martin, is hunted for the killing of the agent Chadwick; he escapes to the islands and is protected by a mysterious “big man with yellow hair”, an organizer for the revolutionary Young Irelanders. Their maxim is that “them who strike a blow deserve to be looked after. Them that won’t fight can die of the hunger”. It is the stark minimum of the revolutionary principle, renewing and perpetuating itself. Martin and his enduring young wife and child are smuggled on a ship for America; there they are to join other emigrés and return with strengthened forces “to free Ireland”.

Incomparably better than The Informer, Famine has, for obvious reasons, not been similarly publicized by Hollywood. It is not only an illuminating historical study to set against the prissy fairy tales of Yeats and the fake primitivism of Playboy Synge; it is also a finely conceived story, with a sombre unity of theme lightened and yet intensified by passages of idyllic prose. The early love of Martin and Mary recalls the finest of O’Flaherty’s early sketches, such as Milking Time, and there are incidental portraits which are like the best of Turgenev, sharp with oddity and yet carrying the ring of truth. The prose is not entirely free from monotony or from narrative cliches, but the general effect is one of clarity and dramatic concentration.

The book fails chiefly in its inability to survey the tragedy as a whole, and to get inside the skin of its revolutionaries. To convey the total Irish scene, the author relies mainly on historical asides almost in the manner of Scott, while, within the microcosm of Black Valley, he concentrates upon the types of secondary social significance – the futile petty bourgeois, the aging peasants, the rapacious agent. Least individualized are the outlawed Martin and the yellow-haired Young Ireland who, historically, represent the most heroic and the most miraculous beings of their day. To the endurance shared by others they added the fire and craft and intelligence of the revolutionary. When O’Flaherty proves capable of re-creating the rebellious as vividly as the passive victims of Britain in Ireland he will have arrived at full stature as a novelist.

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