on January 27, 2006
Because he was famous as a participant in the Irish Civil War (in 1922, he raised a red flag over the Dublin Rotunda) and because his best-known book is "The Informer," Liam O'Flaherty is regarded primarily as a novelist of the Irish rebellion. In a letter to the Irish Statesman, he celebrated "the wild tumult of the untamed storm, the tumuilt of the army on the march, clashing its cymbals, rioting with excess of energy." Like our own Theodore Dreiser, he was capable of being crude, grandiose and melodramatic, and he was often swamped by his own rhetoric. But he was also capable, far more than Dreiser, alas, of reaching and expressing astonishingly delicate perceptions of the human soul.
At his best, O'Flaherty was one of the great natural forces of 20th Century literature. Like Jean Giono or Knut Hamsun, when writing about the land, the sea and the simpler creatures, including here peasants and seamen, his writing takes on the elemental forcefulness of classic folk tales. "Famine," his greatest work in this mode, is matched only in his best short stories. It reads as freshly today as it did when it was first published 45 years ago.
In 1845, the population of Ireland was estimated at 8.5 million. By 1851, it had been reduced by two million, half of whom had died and half of whom had fled, mostly to the U.S. and other former British colonies. The raw numbers do not do justice to the magnitude of the catastrophe that had befallen Ireland. In large parts of the south and west, traditional culture had been uprooted and destroyed.
Focusing on a family of County Galway tenant farmers, the Kilmartins, "Famine" inserts us into the horror of the "great hunger." A study of the uses of power -- by the old English ascendancy, by the rising middle class of usurious merchants, by the embattled (and mostly defeated peasants), it records the final days of an ancient, ritualistic society, unhinged by the destruction of the customs and traditions that had given shape and meaning to life. It is also about survival, especially that of Mary Gleeson Kilmartin, who fights for her family with fierce determination.
["Famine" was first published in 1937 but was never available in soft cover until a handsome edition was offered by David R. Godine's line of quality paperbacks, Nopareil, which also published works by Benedetto Croce, Edmund Wilson, Paula Fox, William Gass and Stanley Elkin. It was thought at the time that the publisher might be moved to reprint O'Flaherty's excellent short story collections, "Spring Sowing" and "The Tent." If you can find the Nonpareil edition, buy it; it is avaialble now in a version from Interlink.]
on August 10, 2005
I first read Famine while in secondary school in Drogheda Co. Louth in 1985. Sadly I didn't have the willpower to finish the book and appreciate its brilliance. Twenty years later, I found the book and finally read it through. It truly is a masterful work. Deep behind the story lies a web of emotion that is sure to bring a tear to your eye as you watch the characters fight against hunger and the enthrenched establishment. There is a sense of forboding and pity for what we know awaits the simple people portrayed in the book, yet they are also complex in their outlook on life and their belief in the Almighty. The book will not give you an historical account of what happened during the mid 1800s but it will give you an appreciation for its impact on the people and their way of life. The book is a classic in every sense of the word. It is unfortunately little known outside Ireland but if you can get your hands on a copy, I encourage you to give it the time and effort that it deserves.
on May 21, 1999
I loved this book and read it twice. It is at once sweeping and intimate. Without sounding trite it reminded me of Gone With the Wind, and one day I'm sure someone will make a movie of it, especially since Ireland has become popular in the media again. Based on the truth, a classic.
on June 19, 2014
I read this wonderful book while sitting in a comfy, peat- (turf-) heated parlor overlooking Cahersiveen, Kerry, Ireland. And the history was right there--the people, the events stepped right off the page into that lovely place. I would recommend FAMINE to anyone who descends from the Irish or who simply wants to understand the suffering and the eventual triumph of this gentle people.
on January 8, 2008
I read the book because one of my great-great-grandfathers immigrated to the USA about the time of the famine, and I wanted to learn more about his life in Ireland. This book delivered. From the first page to the last, the author describes everything interestingly and in detail. I don't have any way of knowing how accurate the details are, and I'd like to know the author's source for them, but they all ring true to me. I find it interesting that many of the characters' expressions are what I've heard in my own family! I don't doubt some of them were passed down through the generations.
The other thing I appreciated was the author's commentary on the conflict between working people and the elite. It made me see similarities between the present and the Irish famine of the 1840s.
on January 25, 2006
For someone like myself, who actually lost family members as a result of the "Great Famine," I was awe-struck by how the author so dramatically portrays the insensitivity and cruelty exhibited by the English during Ireland's greatest moment of need.
on January 30, 2008
I read this book 15 years ago or so, captivated by the story and its telling. When I set it down, a thought just popped up: now I know why I am here. "Here" is Washington, DC, USA. My great grandfather arrived here as a boy from Kerry in 1848, and we still don't know with whom he might have come. We know he had a much younger brother who stayed in Ireland, probably with parents (if they were still alive; it was easy to wonder after reading O'Flaherty's tale). I turned the book over to my then-13 year old daughter; an untimely fatherly recommendation if there ever was one. I did not know then that O'Flaherty was a rebel. I recall only thinking that the writer was a great storyteller. You could almost taste the putrid and blackened potatoes as they fell apart in the characters' hands. A powerful story of roots, intimately felt by at least one family.