Editing The Great Irish Famine

[Karen Sonnelitter reflects upon her experience editing her book in the Broadview Sources Series, The Great Irish Famine.]

The greatest challenge of producing an edited primary source collection on the Irish Potato Famine is choosing what to include. The Famine is perhaps the most well-studied topic in Irish history, and reducing it to a brief introduction and two-hundred pages of sources seemed an almost impossible task. It also seemed like an important one, since collections in the Broadview Sources Series make such an excellent addition to a wide variety of undergraduate classes. These types of collections allow students to develop skills of historical analysis and argumentation while also engaging with primary sources and learning in some detail about specific topics.

The Famine itself was well documented and heavily discussed while it was taking place and in the years that followed. There is also no shortage of primary sources from the years before the Famine, in which commentators lamented Irish poverty, the Irish land question, and Irish dependence on potato crops. The challenge was choosing, from among this vast array of sources, what to include and what not to include. There were some easy decisions, of course; the collection would hardly have been complete without excerpts from Charles Trevelyan’s The Irish Crisis (1848) or a number of James Mahony’s powerful illustrations from the Illustrated London News. While it was possible to include the full text of some newspaper articles, the task of choosing excerpts from books like Trevelyan was intimidating.

As I approached editing this collection I felt it was important to find a balance between the types of sources included, so that readers can get a sense of the political, economic, social, and cultural ramifications of the Famine. In an attempt to show the cultural aftermath of the Famine, excerpts from novels by Mary Ann Sadlier and Anthony Trollope are included. The demographic consequences are discussed in William Wilde’s report on the 1851 census. And the political ramifications are clear in John Mitchel’s The Last Conquest of Ireland (1861) and Maud Gonne’s “The Famine Queen” (1900).

As well-recorded as the Famine is, there are still gaps in the historical record. The biggest is that there are no examples of Irish peasants detailing their experiences of the Famine or of emigration in their own words. The experiences of Irish peasants comes to us only through intermediaries. Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carter Hall wrote on the peasantry in the years immediately before the Famine; the Quaker philanthropist, William Bennett, recorded his experiences in 1847; and Lord Dufferin and George Boyle wrote of their experiences visiting Ireland in 1847. Yet, sadly, the first-hand experiences of the people most affected by the Famine are largely absent from the printed record. Sadly this problem is all too common in history and there are no easy solutions for it. However, the sources contained in the collection do provide insight into government policy towards the poor and the perspectives of the wealthier classes. Readers can critically evaluate these sources to gain some perspective on how the Famine affected peasants.

I hope that students and other readers will come away from The Great Irish Famine with a more complete understanding of the complexities of the period and the challenges of researching it.

Posted on November 26, 2018