A Purgatory of Misery: The Irish Potato Famine

Purgatory of Misery Irish Potato Famine Frank Parker

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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A Purgatory of Misery: How Victorian Liberalism Turned a Crisis into a Disaster by Frank Parker, Patrick Lillis
Genres: Great Britain, History, Ireland
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The facts of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 are shocking. Potato blight caused repeated failures of the staple potato crop and led to extreme hunger among the Irish farming population. Lacking produce to sell, they couldn’t pay their rent. They were evicted or sent for hard labour in workhouses. The British government dithered; their relief efforts were inadequate. Hunger led to mass starvation. Around one million people died; another two million emigrated. Ireland was never the same again.

But how was this possible?

Just this summary raises so many questions. Why was the potato virtually the sole crop grown in Ireland? Why were Irish farmers already at subsistence levels when the first blight appeared? Why were the landowners unable to act? Why were there so many British absentee landowners? Why was grain and meat EXPORTED from Ireland to Britain during the famine years?

And then there was the whispered opinion that the crisis was a natural and predictable corrective to high birth rates. Moreover, religion was intermingled with politics. English and Anglo-Irish Protestant families owned most of the land, and Irish Catholics were relegated to work as tenant farmers forced to pay rent to the landowners.

To be frank, the famine was a tangle. And Frank sorts it out!

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker is a deeply researched and well-written book. I was expecting it to focus almost entirely on the famine years. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it covers much broader topics which help to put the famine into historical, political, social, economic and religious perspective.

Indeed, a full eight chapters are devoted to “setting the scene”. There’s even a fascinating chapter on nutrition and mental development.

The actual famine is broken down into four chapters as the crisis begins, develops, peaks and then wanes. At the end is an interesting summary giving the author’s personal view on the disaster, and on the continuing presence of famine in the world today.

A valuable source of information

A Purgatory of Misery is worthy of attention for anyone interested in European history. I could also envisage it being recommended reading in schools and colleges. I say this for two main reasons:

  • It gives a broad sweep of history, from way before the famine up to and then beyond those famine years.
  • It presents what seems to me to be a well-balanced account that does not take sides or inappropriately point the finger of blame.

I’m always intrigued at how long a book like this takes to write, and what the process involves. Are you too? If so, let’s get some answers …

Interview with Frank Parker

Frank Parker author of A Purgatory of MiseryYou co-authored the book with Patrick Lillis. How did that partnership work in practice?

Patrick has Parkinson’s, which makes communication difficult for him. We had met some years ago through the Laois Writers’ Group. He came to me and asked me to help produce a book about the history of the bank he used to work for. After we had completed that he started researching his family history. He is originally from County Clare although he has lived in County Laois for more than 30 years. He became interested in the fate of family members during the famine and acquired several books about the famine which he brought to me, believing that he/we could put together our own book about the subject. At that stage I was only vaguely aware of the tragedy. Reading about it, and the historical background, enthused me and I began my own research online and by acquiring other books. I then started the process of distilling all this information one chapter at a time, handing each completed chapter to Patrick over a period of several months.

How long did it take from conception to birth?

A little over a year.

During this time, how much time did you devote to writing?

Probably only a couple of hours most days.

What were the most challenging aspects of the project?

Trying to achieve a balanced view. Many of the books I read present a partisan view that makes no allowance for the extent to which the British politicians genuinely believed the actions they were taking were ‘for the best’. Instead, many Irish commentators see the British government as an enemy deliberately setting out to destroy the Irish peasantry. At the same time, as an Englishman, I did not want to act as an apologist for the British government. Steering a middle path was challenging.

What were the main differences you experienced between writing your four novels and writing A Purgatory of Misery?

In many ways I prefer writing non-fiction. Once you have done the research all you have to do is present the facts in as interesting and informative a way as possible. At the same time, one cannot ignore the influence of individuals and their character traits, especially when dealing with history.

Thus my book Strongbow’s Wife about the events that created the hostility between Ireland and its neighbour – the 12th century invasion by Henry II’s forces – is a work of historical fiction that records the facts as they might have been observed by the woman who married Henry’s lieutenant, Strongbow.

Whilst studying the period of the famine I ‘met’ many characters whose decisions were influential in terms of their impact on those most affected by the food shortage. Before A Purgatory of Misery was finished I began work on a fictionalised account based around one such individual and his role as Poor Law Inspector for 30 months in County Clare. My other novels are similarly rooted in real events. Honest Hearts deals with the lives of Irish migrants to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Summer Day looks at a community very like the one I grew up in in post-war rural England. Transgression is an exploration of social change in Britain over the whole post-war period, especially in regard to sexual behaviour and sexual identity.

How important was the Laois Writers’ Group to you and Patrick?

Patrick joined the group when he was attempting to put down on paper a number of anecdotes from his life together with a few folk tales from his native County Clare. The group was able to help him present these tales in a small book which was published locally as Spinning Tales. For myself it has proved to be a valuable source of inspiration and support ever since I joined in the summer of 2010.

How are you marketing the book?

I am always reluctant to spend money on marketing. As a pensioner I am quite risk averse when it comes to spending money when the outcome is in doubt. I have a website/blog through which I hope to increase my visibility. I have contacted a publisher specialising in history books; I am still awaiting the outcome of a meeting at which they were due to discuss my pitch. Other than that, opportunities such as TheBookOwl are invaluable as a marketing tool and I am truly grateful for your interest.

Thanks for joining us here Frank. I hope you sell many copies

Denzil TheBookOwl is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.


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32 responses to “A Purgatory of Misery: The Irish Potato Famine

    • Denzil

      Thanks Laurie. It will be interesting to see the comments on this book. I am suspecting many of my North American readers can trace their ancestors back to County Donegal, Cork etc.

  1. I have read about this famine in the history books but yet to actually understand the reasons. May be the nobility thought they are not bothered or let poor suffer.

    • Denzil

      I think that was an element of it Arv. Through the ages this has been a recurring issue, hasn’t it.

      • Of late, famines have become lesser because of mankind’s tinkering with nature. But then nature has its own way of striking back.

  2. paulandruss

    This is a brilliant and sensitive review of a book I will certainly read. The Potato Famine was such an unmitigated bungle it would be fascinating to have someone painstakingly unravel it for the reader who cannot do it for them-self. Most of my favourite books are by historians and I think they never get the deserved credit (in the sense of sales and recognition) for all the painstaking research they undertake. Nice to see it recognised here. Cheers Paul

    • Denzil

      Yes Paul I was amazed at the wide coverage that Frank gave the topic. Something he can hold in his hands with pride.

  3. It must have been difficult to keep it middle of the road and not blame one side vs the other. The versions that I have heard have always assigned blame.(But then learning history in America is always skewed). I look forward to reading this book….I will again add another book on my must read list….

    • Denzil

      I think history is often skewed. And of course there is the element that history changes through the years. What were once incontrovertible facts, can later be seen as not so factual after all, when research throws up new light on matters.
      I’m going to check up on all these books on your TBR list Cherie! 🙂

  4. If only history was ‘objective,’ right? It must be difficult to distill the many perspectives on a historical event. It sounds like Frank and Patrick delved into it and wrote a well rounded review of the events during the famine. I had ancestors who came to Canada during that time and they carried on the tradition of potato farming in northern Maine.

  5. Thank you, Denzil, for introducing me, mine and Patrick’s book, and my blog to your many followers. And my thanks to all who have commented here. As I probably say somewhere in the book, there is always disagreement about the most effective way to deal with poverty, and even today politicians – and many tax payers – believe that there are ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Too much ‘welfare’ is derided as ‘socialism’, too little as ‘state meanness’. Migrants are seen as unwelcome by many, and foreign aid is castigated by those who believe ‘charity begins at home’. And underlying it all is the stark reality of a rapidly increasing population. How do you feed, clothe and house them all to an acceptable standard without destroying the planet?

    • There are very few, if any, Irish people who don’t have some family connection with these events. One thing I found interesting, talking to various acquaintances, was the extent to which many are reluctant to talk about it. I have heard people say that for same there is a sense of guilt among those who survived and their descendants. Those survivors who, in time, occupied land abandoned by emigrants, or larger holdings formed by the consolidation of small holdings from which the previous tenants had been evicted, benefited from the suffering of their fellow countrymen.

  6. Firstly, thank-you very much for visiting my blog and for the follow! I am now following you. I have also just bought Frank’s book as I have recently been considering the potato famine and it’s impact on my great-grandmother and her family who emigrated from Ireland to England and settled in Leeds.

  7. This was only a topic touched upon in our A-level history and I felt there was so much more to the horror of the famine. This seems a thoroughly well-researched book with a wide scope offering real answers. I can well imagine it was nigh impossible finding the middle ground. A fascinating interview and excellent review.

    • Thank you Annika. It was my own lack of knowledge about the topic that prompted me, once I had discovered it, to research and write the book. I hope it will fill a gap in people’s knowledge and understanding.

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