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The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People Hardcover – August 21, 2012

4.2 out of 5 stars 107 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“A readable and nuanced history of the famine.” ―Times Literary Supplement

The Graves are Walking is a history of the famine vividly narrated by a master story teller. ” ―Dublin Review of Books

“[Kelly] leaves us with an exceptionally vivid sense of the famine's enormity and the epic cruelty it inflicted on the Irish poor.” ―Ciaran O'Murchadha, History Today

“A vivid and intimate account of the suffering and injustice . . .[Kelly] offers acute and tempered but still damning judgments of the governing elite.” ―Cormac O'Grada, BBC History Magazine

“An engrossing narrative of the famine, vividly detailing Victorian society and the historical phenomena (natural and man-made) that converged to form the disaster.” ―The Economist

“A moving account of the famine . . . Kelly has produced a powerful indictment of the British mind-set in the 19th century, and of the British policy that resulted from it.” ―The New York Times Book Review

“This fine book is sourced largely from contemporaneous accounts and is thoroughly documented. It is a witheringly bleak portrayal, extraordinarily detailed and gracefully written. Everyone who holds a policy-making position in government today or tomorrow should study this book.” ―The Washington Independent Review of Books

“Magisterial . . . Kelly brings the horror vividly and importantly back to life with his meticulous research and muscular writing. The result is terrifying, edifying and empathetic.” ―USA Today

“Though the story of the potato famine has been told before, it's never been as thoroughly reported or as hauntingly told.” ―New York Post

“Kelly intersperses the nitty gritty of the shifting Irish economic situation with horrific glimpses of its human toll.” ―Laura Miller, Salon

“In humanising the complexities of the Great Famine, John Kelly's emotional history of the time makes for a compelling and heartbreaking read . . . Kelly doesn't shy away from the kind of vivid descriptions and heightened language more often associated with poetry than historical writing.” ―The Irish Times

“An incredibly well-researched analysis of the Great Famine . . . The book reads like a novel, making the reality of this particular bit of history all the more haunting.” ―Shelf Awareness

“Mr. Kelly's moving, powerfully narrated account of the tragedy and its aftermath brings it alive in all its horror.” ―The Washington Times

“An upsetting, enlightening, necessary book that deserves multiple, durable audiences [and] stands as a testament to the resilience of a people under some of the greatest duress the world has ever seen.” ―History News Network

“John Kelly gives heartbreaking detail to the Great Famine that seared itself into the memory of the Irish people, and sheds fascinating new light on the policy decisions that made it even worse. The Graves are Walking is a cautionary tale for all who would risk calamity--human, economic, or ecological--in the name of scoring an ideological victory.” ―President Bill Clinton

“This is a wonderful book about a terrible event. It's also a rare combination of compelling writing, excellent scholarship, and insightful analysis that ranges over the full scope of--and goes beyond--the potato famine itself, from agricultural science, through the English politics that contributed so much to the death toll, to the impact of Irish immigration in America. A truly outstanding book.” ―John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty

“Kelly (The Great Mortality) traces a path of misery and devastation as he documents one of the 19th century's worst disasters, a nightmarish six years that left twice as many dead as the American Civil War...[Kelly's] exhaustive research covers every aspect, threading the gruesome events into a huge panoramic tapestry that reveals political greed lurking behind the pestilence.” ―Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

The Graves Are Walking is compelling reading. Once again John Kelly illuminates a dark time, removing it from the shadows of legend and hearsay into the bright light of history. Even among the graves of Irish famine, he finds vivid life.” ―Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and John James Audubon: The Making of an American

“John Kelly is one of America's great historians and storytellers. He has a new one out now: the essential The Graves Are Walking. It's a brilliantly rendered account of the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. The prose sizzles with deep intelligence, hard research, and an inspiring compassion for the millions who died of hunger. It was an honor to read such first-rate nonfiction. Highly recommended!” ―Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America and The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

“I wish more people wrote history like this: fast-paced but carefully documented, lively as a novel but tackling, head on, one of the great human catastrophes of nineteenth-century Europe. Kelly's portrait of a tragedy rooted in a superpower's imperial arrogance has echoes for the world we are still living in today.” ―Adam Hochschild, author of the New York Times bestseller To End All Wars

The Graves Are Walking is an engrossing chronicle of an historic tragedy that forever changed Ireland, Britain, and America. Kelly conveys the rawness of Irish suffering with a powerful intimacy--an entire nation reduced to a single wish: survival.” ―Amanda Foreman, author of the acclaimed A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided and the international bestseller Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

“John Kelly vividly writes the compelling story of the horror of Ireland's potato famine, with intimate portraits of those who died and those who fled. Most illuminating is how he captures, in devastating detail, British leaders, who, imbued with religious fervor and ideological blinders, decided to use the plague as an occasion to teach the Irish good work habits, responsibility, and to rid them of their dependence on government. An extraordinary book, and a lesson for our times.” ―Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, and author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God with Politics and Lost Their Way

“Kelly deftly conveys the enormity of what was at stake. The Graves Are Walking seeks accountability for those responsible for the human toll from a shortage of everything--even coffins.” ―Booklist

“Kelly's work is written with the verve of a good novel... his powerfully argued conclusion is that the British were guilty of neglect rather than malice, allowing religion and ideology to overrule their common humanity. ... At the height of the famine, a British official received a report of the latest casualties and scribbled a single word underneath: why? This book provides as good an answer as we are likely to get.” ―Daily Business Post (Dublin, Ireland)

“'A cogent and forceful history [of the famine]' and 'an accessible, engrossing history of horror'.” ―The Washington Post

“John Kelly does an excellent job of sketching the background [of the famine] in The Graves are Walking... [He] tells his dismal story in vivid prose, with crisp pen portraits of leading figures and a mix of anecdote and analysis.” ―The Spectator (UK)

“John Kelly's extraordinary history of the Famine, The Graves Are Walking, [is] a vivid and moving illustration of what Ireland was like when its apocalypse arrived. It is heavy on stats, yet never loses sight of the individual lives who comprised them.” ―The Irish Times, "Cultural Highlights of 2012"

About the Author

John Kelly is the author of the acclaimed bestseller The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time and Three on the Edge: The Stories of Ordinary American Families in Search of a Medical Miracle. He has written about medicine, history, and psychology for many years. He lives in New York City and Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (August 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080509184X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805091847
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #365,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"By the summer of 1847, newspaper readers in North America and Europe could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Irish knew how to do any more was die."

That sums up the horrific story of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1848ish, a dreadful event that was sadly in need of a new and readable history. That is what John Kelly has delivered -- in spades. He does the world a service by not arguing that the collapsed of the potato crop was artificially manufactured and created by the British with the express purpose of triggering what ended up becoming the equivalent of a genocide of the Irish, nor does he romanticize life in pre-famine Ireland. What he does do is deliver a crisp, well-researched and authoritative history of the cataclysm and its consequences.

In Kelly's eyes, the English are clearly responsible for the astonishing fatality -- about a million died; another million emigrated -- but it's of a different kind than that assumed by those who say the intent was genocidal. As Kelly makes very clear, the intent of English policies of the era was not benign; certainly, a series of politicians and civil servants saw the crisis as an opportunity to exercise some "tough love" (for want of a better phrase) and force the Irish into what they viewed as a better way of life. That they were wrong in their prescriptive approach appears probable from Kelly's comments (within a few decades, land ownership once again was widely dispersed, with small plots being at the heart of the agricultural system). Were they wrong in their analysis?
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Format: Hardcover
i'm having trouble understanding why some reviewers are so outraged that the great famine is not branded "genocide" in this book and believe that Kelly goes too easy on the British. To my mind, Kelly puts the blame squarely where it belongs--on the British--but shows in chilling detail how abstract moralism/social philosophy can have devastating real-world consequences. It is horrifying to see so many lives sacrificed to social "principle" and to the British determination to shed responsibility for Irish serfs. As this book makes clear, in the British colonialist mind, the Irish were subhuman pawns, simply collateral damage. Who cared how many died if Britain's political/economic aims were fulfilled?
This attitude is just as frightening as if the British had targeted the Irish as "evil" and set about killing as many as possible, as perpetrators of genocide do. In fact, it's all the more heinous for being so cold-blooded. Self-justifying indifference to death and suffering is frankly scarier than outright malice.
More chilling still, as Kelly spelled out explicitly in a Daily Beast piece, the British mindset has striking parallels in American politics today.
This is a gripping, well-told, and painstakingly researched work of history, a parable that can't help but resonate with any thinking observer of our fragmented world.
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Format: Hardcover
Nicely written; but a rehash of the Big Lie version of 1845-1850 Ireland. In its very Introduction the author sets the tone by exculpating the perpetrators. He follows the O Grada/Donnelly/Kinealy/Kirby, etc. line by covering up the core fact that it took more than half of Britain's then-empire army to starve Ireland by removing its food to the ports for export. In this book one reads of "the lawless condition of Ireland." There is "a rising (Irish) crime rate," and the Irish perpetrate "violence" (by trying to hold onto a portion of the crops they produced); but according to this writer the at-gunpoint food removal is somehow not a violent act (perhaps because left unmentioned). May this be the last cover-up, the last bearer of false witness to that murder of millions.

Instead of this obscenity I recommend another Amazon-available book that tells the story from the point of view of those trying to survive the genocide; the engaging and light-years more honest "When Ireland Fell Silent"
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
On the last page of the text, page 338, Mr. Kelly refers to the 19th century British government policies towards the Irish and writes this penultimate sentence:
"The intent of those policies may not have been genocidal, but the effects were."

The trouble with that sentence is that it is contradicted by the previous 337 pages of Mr. Kelly's book.

It is simply impossible to read the first 337 pages of this book and conclude that the mass starvation of the Irish was unintentional . Even the author is conflicted. He first is very forceful defending the British. On page 173, he boldly writes: "British relief policy was NEVER deliberately genocidal." [emphasis added]. Note the word "never." By the time he gets to the penultimate sentence of the book, his tone has shifted and he is far less forceful:

" the intent of those policies MAY not have been genocidal . . . " [ emphasis added ]

It is telling that Mr. Kelly now uses the word "may." From "never" to "may." Yet one in three Irish were gone by 1850, the author tells us. On its face, it is hard to believe that this was mere happenstance. Indeed, the contrary evidence is on every page :
On page 3, Mr. Kelly disagrees with other scholars, such as Cecil Woodham-Smith, that British overlords of Ireland exported food from Ireland during the famine.
Yet, curiously, on the same page 3, Mr. Kelly writes, "With the EXCEPTION of one critical period in late 1846 and early 1847, famine Ireland imported more food than she exported."[emphasis added]
Assuming arguendo (assuming without admitting) that Mr. Kelly is right and Cecil Woodham-Smith is wrong, isn't this "critical period in late 1846 and early 1847" a huge exception?
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