The best books on the Great Famine in Ireland

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the Great Famine in Ireland and why they recommend each book.

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The Great Hunger

By Cecil Woodham-Smith,

Book cover of The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849

When this book was released in 1962, it landed like a bomb, becoming an immediate, worldwide best seller. Woodham-Smith did not "invent" the famine as a topic -- every historian of the period was well aware of this tragedy, and its implications for the future of Ireland (mass emigration, smoldering indignation in the Irish diaspora, seeds for future rebellion) -- but many readers were unaware of the governmental machinations in London that so contributed to this humanitarian disaster. Some of Woodham-Smith's conclusions, and judgments, have been questioned by succeeding historians, but her narrative here is compelling, well researched, beautifully written, and germane to the troubles which afflicted the island well into the twentieth century and beyond.

Who am I?

My first introduction to Ireland was in 1953 when my parents took the entire family over for two months. We stayed mostly in Dublin as "paying guests" with a threadbare, though incredibly proud, Anglo-Irish mother and her adult daughter in their decrepit apartment. What a learning experience for a seven-year-old boy! My fascination with the country's culture and history has never dampened, climaxed by my purchase of a 16th-century ruin, Moyode Castle, in County Galway, now finally restored. Over the years I have written seven books, six of them on Irish themes, plus innumerable articles in scholarly journals. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland is my magnum opus as an Irish historian.

I wrote...

The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland

By James Charles Roy,

Book cover of The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland

What is my book about?

Histories dealing with the reign of the five Tudor monarchs of England in the 16th century, and particularly that of Elizabeth I, have largely been concerned with Continental conflicts involving Catholic Spain and France, "superpowers" in comparison, with more resources and greater populations. The less publicized difficulties with its island colony of Ireland, however, would prove a considerably more intractable problem, resulting in turmoil that even today is largely unresolved. The military conquest of Ireland by Elizabeth, in other words, created more problems than it solved.

This is the story of revolt, suppression, atrocities, and genocide, and ends with a dispirited queen facing internal convulsions and an empty treasury. Her death saw the end of the Tudor dynasty, marked not by victory over their great European enemies, but by ungovernable Ireland – the first colonial ‘failed state.'

A Slip of a Girl

By Patricia Reilly Giff,

Book cover of A Slip of a Girl

I’m a bit of a Celtophile but hadn’t heard of the Irish Land Wars of the early 1800s before encountering this book. In short: after The Great Famine, poor crop yields forced tenant farmers into a desperate fight to stay on farmland owned by absentee owners. Anna, the book’s protagonist, isn’t a typical mighty-girl heroine, but has a fierce love for her family, and the farm that was theirs long before their landlord claimed it. The author offers her story in perfect verse, weaving in bits of her family’s own history and historic photos as well. Anna’s a girl who knew what she wanted and never stopped believing it could and should be hers until it was. That’s a lesson all children, including this grown one, can really, really use.

Who am I?

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is truer.” Frederic Raphael. When I was a child, a relative often told stories of a cowboy gear clad cousin who visited our New York family from Texas and claimed he’d once served in Pancho Villa’s army. These tales were the spark that eventually led to Viva, Rose! and my interest in storytelling as well. There’s something about the combination of lived experience and fiction that I find irresistibly engaging and exciting. I’ve worked as a journalist, ghostwriter, and editor, but my happiest happy place is writing and reading stories birthed from a molten core of real life.

I wrote...

Viva, Rose!

By Susan Krawitz,

Book cover of Viva, Rose!

What is my book about?

When Rose’s brother left their El Paso family, he told them he was heading east, to Brooklyn. But he lied, Rose discovers, when she spots a newspaper photo showing Abe standing with the notorious Pancho Villa and his army!

He must return before their parents find out, but her attempt at contact backfires, and she’s kidnapped by Villa's revolutionaries. In the group of ragtag freedom fighters in Villa’s desert hideaway, she meets an impassioned reporter, sharp-shooting sisters with a secret past, and Dorotea, Villa's tyrannical young charge. As Rose waits for Abe to rescue her, she learns to lie, hide, and ride like a bandit. And when that rescue doesn't come, she’s forced to discover the true meaning of freedom, and what she's willing to risk to get hers back. 

Life Sentences

By Billy O'Callaghan,

Book cover of Life Sentences

Set over three generations of the one family, this is the story of their fight for survival. What I love here is not just the prose, because there is no one finer than O’Callaghan, but also because it touches on the depopulation of Ireland’s small islands during the famine and the small island to which he refers has a very significant family connection for me. Partly based on O’Callaghan’s own family, Life Sentences tells an epic story of working-class life in Ireland from famine right through to modern-day. It is an unforgettable tale of love, abandonment, and reconciliation.

Who am I?

I love great writing and great storytelling too. As a child I liked nothing more than when my father made up bedtime stories for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate how writers work exceptionally hard not just at getting the plot of a story right but in the words they chose. Being Irish, I love to support the wealth of enviably good writers that seem to spill out from these shores. In each of these books you will find love and loss and laughter. It never fails to make me smile when abroad to see one of these guys on the shelves of the bookshops I visit. 

I wrote...

Listening Still

By Anne Griffin,

Book cover of Listening Still

What is my book about?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to chat with the dead about what they wished they could have done while alive? Meet Jeanie Masterson, a funeral director in a small Irish town, who can do just that. Jeanie has possessed this gift, which at times proves more burden than bonus, since the day she was born. Now aged thirty-two, Jeanie listens to those clients asking for her help, while struggling with how her own life has ended up tied to the family business and her comfortable marriage, and wonders, is it too late to run.

Praised as “a warm and funny read, full of lovely characters and poignant moments,” (Good Housekeeping) Listening Still promises to keep you engrossed from beginning to end.

The Third Horseman

By William Rosen,

Book cover of The Third Horseman: A Story of Weather, War, and the Famine History Forgot

The Third Horseman combines a discussion of climate change with a major disaster, the great famine of the fourteenth century. Vividly written and fast-paced, this well-written book makes history enjoyable. The author wears his research lightly, which makes for a rattling good story. Not a global book, but it will make you think.

Who am I?

Brian Fagan is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of numerous books about archaeology, the past, and climate change for general audiences. I was asked to write my first climate change book (on El Niños) and was astounded to find that few archaeologists or historians focused on the subject, whether ancient or modern. Now that’s all changed, thanks to the revolution in paleoclimatology. I’m convinced that the past has much to tell us about climate change in the future. Apart from that, the subject is fascinating and vital.

I wrote...

The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization

By Brian Fagan,

Book cover of The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization

What is my book about?

Humanity evolved in an Ice Age in which glaciers covered much of the world. But starting about 15,000 years ago, temperatures began to climb. Civilization and all of recorded history occurred in this warm period, the era known as the Holocene-the long summer of the human species. In The Long Summer, Brian Fagan brings us the first detailed record of climate change during these 15,000 years of warming and shows how this climate change gave rise to civilization. A thousand-year chill led people in the Near East to take up the cultivation of plant foods; a catastrophic flood drove settlers to inhabit Europe; the drying of the Sahara forced its inhabitants to live along the banks of the Nile, and increased rainfall in East Africa provoked the bubonic plague.

The Long Summer illuminates for the first time the centuries-long pattern of human adaptation to the demands and challenges of an ever-changing climate-challenges that are still with us today.

Star of the Sea

By Joseph O'Connor,

Book cover of Star of the Sea

Even professional historians need to slow down and read fiction sometimes! And Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea his is one of my all-time favorites. Set on an emigrant sailing ship during Ireland’s Great Famine, this dark thriller skillfully interweaves the stories of a number of different passengers, one of whom happens to be a murderer. O’Connor, one of Ireland’s leading novelists, finds that perfect balance between “historical” and “fiction.”

Who am I?

As an emigrant myself (I left Ireland in the late 1980s), I’ve always been interested in understanding the process of moving from one place to another; of existing in that liminal space between “being here” and “being there.” I spent several years researching the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century Irish migrants for my book, The Coffin Ship, but found the answers led to new questions on how other peoples, in other places, have managed being somewhere between “here” and “there.” These are some of the books that have helped me along that long, emotional journey.

I wrote...

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

By Cian T. McMahon,

Book cover of The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

What is my book about?

The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s Great Famine is one of the tired clichés, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, I offer a vibrant, new perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself.

Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet, as my book demonstrates, the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history.

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