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21 December 2015

Famine novel will only appeal to the grievance junkies

'The latest indignity perpetrated on us by the Gall," I said in an email to my good friend Professor Liam Kennedy last week, attaching an article from the Irish Times by Michael Nicholson, once ITN's senior foreign correspondent.

("Gall" is Irish for foreigner - a contemptuous word used of the English by extreme Irish nationalists).

I was expressing irritation at Nicholson, a fine war reporter in his time, who had revealed himself to be yet another in that long line of gullible, masochistic Englishmen who love to castigate themselves for the supposed crimes of their forefathers.

While intending to write a novel defending the British response to the Famine, he "had listened at length to Ireland's historical grievances in Dublin and Liverpool, in Cork and in Boston, Massachusetts, wherever Irishmen gathered over a pint of porter, or a Jamesons".

He had thought what they said of "a deliberate policy of imposed starvation, of land clearances, of ethnic cleansing" was "exaggerated blarney", but as he "ploughed even deeper" in his research, he had become a "convert".

This had resulted in a story called Dark Rosaleen about Kate, the initially uncaring Englishwoman in 1840s Ireland, who becomes the lover and accomplice of an Irish rebel.

Nicholson's summary of it was so historically illiterate and Mills and Boon-like in tone as to turn my stomach.

"Oh, dear," replied Liam, a distinguished historian, who in his recent marvellous book has two essays looking at allegations that the famine was genocide.

"I did wonder at times if it was even worth bothering to write a critique of this kind of stuff, but I'm really glad now I did in my book."

He added that he'd be discussing Dark Rosaleen on Talkback with Nicholson later that Tuesday morning.

I listened to the programme with increasing incredulity at Nicholson's ignorance and complacency.

He seemed unmoved - even when told that the frightful John Mitchel, on whom he based his freedom-fighting hero, had written in America enthusiastically in defence of keeping and flogging slaves.

Producing as if incontrovertible information that has been discredited for decades, he finally asked Prof Kennedy patronisingly if he'd read Tim Pat Coogan's The Famine Plot, which he clearly thought the definitive work.

Mr Coogan specialises in repackaging old nationalist grievances as history. His most recent book was described by Prof Diarmaid Ferriter as "a truly dreadful book" and "a travesty of 20th-century Irish history".

At a Famine conference in Newry in September, where Coogan responded to challenges from Liam Kennedy and me about his even more atrocious famine history by accusing us of colonial cringe and holocaust denial, I feared the international expert on the Irish Famine, Prof Christine Kenealy, would choke with fury as she denounced his sheer ignorance.

I was cheered by an email from my friend Barbara Finney, an English-born, long-time resident in Northern Ireland, fulminating that giving all this airtime to Michael Nicholson to advertise his book had resulted in nationalist listeners ringing in promising to buy it.

Nicholson, she spluttered, "used the fact that he had used actual quotes from the period to justify his theory: however, by using quotes out of their original context it can completely alter their import."

As, indeed, it did.

It was, she added grimly, unwise "to feed the grievances of certain Irish ... 'grievance junkies': I often feel that for such junkies Heaven will be sheer Hell as there will nothing to complain about".

Barbara is right. If you're an insatiable grievance junkie, you'll enjoy wallowing in the ignorant tosh that is Dark Rosaleen.

If you want to have your brain stretched and your assumptions challenged by a fine and witty writer who wears his considerable learning lightly, get hold of Liam Kennedy's Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, The Irish?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards