Ireland’s Citizen Chronicler: Christine Kinealy

Christine Kinealy. Photo by Peter Wolf.

By Daphne Wolf, Contributor
June / July 2012

Acclaimed scholar Christine Kinealy, whose work has shed new light on forgotten elements of Irish history, talks with Daphne Wolf about growing up Irish in Liverpool and her tireless research towards setting the record straight on the Great Famine.

In Juno and the Paycock, Sean O’Casey’s play of the Irish Civil War, two characters riff on the ways history can be censored and distorted (by clerics, in this case):

Boyle: (becoming enthusiastic): Didn’t they prevent the people in ’47 from seizin’ the corn, an’ they starvin’; didn’t they down Parnell; didn’t they say that hell wasn’t hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish the Fenians? We don’t forget, we don’t forget them things, Joxer.  If they’ve taken everything else from us, Joxer, they’ve left us our memory.

Joxer: For mem’ry’s the only friend that grief can call its own…

The conundrum of Irish memory and history has absorbed Christine Kinealy’s attention ever since she discovered O’Casey and his ne’er-do-wells as a young student in Liverpool, England.  Growing up there as part of an extended Irish Catholic family, she went to schools where Irish history was never taught.  She lived in a community in which being Irish was something to keep under your hat, and where memories of Ireland were discussed only within the four walls of home. Coming out of that vacuum, O’Casey’s subversive viewpoints caught her by the jugular.

Today, a professor since 2007 in the Casperson Graduate School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey (where she received the 2009 Will Herberg Award for Excellence in Teaching), she is a renowned scholar of the Great Famine and the author of numerous books and articles on topics ranging from the Orange Order to Daniel O’Connell. But it was that chance encounter with Irish history oozing from the mouths of O’Casey’s characters that first sparked her desire to decode its complicated layers.

Taking an extra class to work on O’Casey, she researched his three Dublin plays (which also include Shadow of a Gunman and The Plough and the Stars).  “And,” she recalls with triumphant emphasis, “that was it.”

“I never wanted to be a teacher,” she claims. “I always wanted to research.  But teaching and research are indivisible; they feed into each other.  I get feedback from my students about my research, and it is exciting for them to see their professor in the archives, to know that things don’t stand still. Primary research is very exciting; it keeps me fresh.  Because I’m always researching, I never teach a class the same way twice.”

She did not visit Ireland until she began her Ph.D. work at Trinity College Dublin, which she completed in 1984 with a dissertation on the Irish workhouse system from 1838-62. That work, fueled by a curiosity about how societies treat the poor, drove her to scour previously untapped sources in Dublin, Mayo, Belfast and elsewhere. She found one trove of workhouse records abandoned in a jailhouse where it was claimed some participants in the 1798 Rebellion had been imprisoned.

“A common theme in my writings is my interest in social injustice,” she explains. “It underpins my work on the Famine, but also my interests in women, abolition, ‘invisible Protestants’ (as opposed to hard-line ones), and the treatment of Jews. Poverty and, in its extreme form, starvation are not simply about politics or religion.  It is far more complicated, and I have tried to reflect that in my writings and teaching. Other people have imposed labels on me; they are not my labels.”

In the 1980s, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Kinealy taught evening classes in Irish history at a women’s center in the strongly loyalist Shankill district of Belfast. She never felt the need to adjust her lectures to suit the politics of her listeners, who lived in what was then one of the poorest parts of Europe. The students related viscerally to her discussions about poverty, disenfranchisement and women’s issues.

“Irish history doesn’t have to be a divided history,” she says. “I learned as much from them as they learned from me.”

The workhouse study for her doctorate led to an interest in the Famine. Even while working as an administrator for an American firm in Dublin and later for an organization based in the public records office in Belfast, she continued to dig into Famine records in her spare time. In the late 1980s when “tourists were not really going to Belfast, and there was high unemployment,” she says, “I consciously included the city and the North in my work.  I wanted an all-Ireland view of the Famine.”

Praised – and vilified – for her writing on the Famine, Kinealy says much of the criticism leveled at her was ideologically based and did not focus on the actual research. What she said about the Famine shook up some accepted interpretations. In her award-winning This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52 (1994), in A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland  (1997), and in many other publications, she offered concrete evidence that the British government was fully aware of the gravity of the tragedy unfolding in Ireland during the potato blight, but, for reasons of economic and social philosophy, deliberately chose to limit its response.

“My conclusions were not what I expected,” she says. “I never imagined I would find that the British knew what was going on. But my interpretation is what my sources have led me to.”

After This Great Calamity was published, Kinealy found herself in the middle of a firestorm, with some claiming that the 1990s (the period leading up to the Peace Process) was no time to rekindle past animosities. She was castigated for questioning the work of historians who had championed the “revisionist” interpretation of the Famine. Revisionists argued that demographic and social forces – like overpopulation and the dependence on the potato – had made the catastrophe inevitable. Some of these writers also minimized the importance of the Famine as a strategic turning point in Irish history. They suggested that other events, like the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 that deflated a boom in Irish agricultural exports, had a greater impact on the development of modern Ireland.

When Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers attacked This Great Calamity for its “scatter-gun approach to historians one dislikes,” particularly citing her remarks on the work of the eminent scholar Roy Foster, Kinealy fired back in the letters column.

“What Mr. Myers is seeking to do is to reduce the debate on the Famine to the traditional  ‘revisionist vs. non-revisionist,’ ‘British vs. Irish’ and now, ‘Foster vs. Kinealy,” she wrote. “This polarization is both dishonest and meaningless.  Historians are continually challenging and extending the work of other historians.”

While Kinealy characterized the British relief effort as inadequate, and insisted that the Famine was of deep importance to Irish history, she also emphasized that there is no easy explanation for what occurred, and that all the evidence reveals that the Famine was much more complicated than polemics and finger-pointing would suggest.

“People in the British civil service were speaking out against the government policies all the time,” she emphasizes. Referring to the Irish radical nationalist who wrote about ships carrying grain out of Ireland while people starved, she explains, “Everything John Mitchel said in 1847, the then Irish Lord Lieutenant, Lord Bessborough, said more clearly, calling the lack of a grain embargo a politically-motivated nod towards the Irish merchant class in an election year.” It was the Earl of Clarendon, his successor, who described his government’s actions as leading to “a policy of extermination.”

Assessing Mitchel’s storied accusation of deliberate genocide by Britain as “an easy way out of the complexity,” she did what no one else had bothered to do before: she painstakingly examined the shipping manifests. She found that exports of grain, and many other products, had indeed continued throughout the Famine from ports all over Ireland to Britain, and that “disease and starvation existed side-by-side with a substantial commercial sector.” Furthermore, the government admitted that its own statistics, which show that by 1847 more food was coming into Ireland than going out, were flawed and incomplete. Adding to the complexity, the intricacies of British navigation and free trade regulations wreaked havoc with the flow of goods in both directions.

“In looking at the issue of food exports,” she wrote, “the role of ideology has been emphasized whilst the financial motivations…have been underestimated….The role of Irish farmers and merchants, both individually and collectively, has been neglected.”

A soft-spoken woman with a ready smile, Kinealy’s face hardens and her hands slice the air when she describes the frustration of responding to critics who jump to ideological and politically-motivated conclusions about her research.

“People want to pigeon-hole me as anti-British or as a nationalist. How do they know what my politics or motivations are? This Great Calamity was very positively received; at that time, no one else had done so much primary research.  But I was criticized for things like implying that Belfast suffered during the Famine, because statistics show the population actually increased.  Well, the population grew because people were coming into the city from the country where they were starving. This was the pattern in all Irish cities. My work on the Famine in Belfast showed how poor Protestants also belonged to an underclass, and died in large numbers.”

Dr. John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, which is home to the world’s largest collection of art works relating to the Great Hunger, credits Kinealy with sparking his deep interest in the Famine, and in re-evaluating how it is remembered. “[She] really blew the lid off all of the inaccuracies and the dramatically downplayed scale of the tragedy,” he said in a 2011 interview with Irish America. “She documented all kinds of food exports and found that the shipment of food out of Ireland actually increased during the years of the Famine. She argued that much of the guilt and self-blame felt by the Irish was misplaced. For the greater part of 150 years, the world and the Irish believed that the Irish themselves [were principally to blame] in bringing about the famine. But the conditions of poverty and the disproportionate dependence on a single potato crop were also imposed, over time, by the British. We now know that this was the greatest tragedy in 19th century Europe, and probably the greatest catastrophe in Ireland’s history, and it is all the more tragic because it was largely preventable.”

Much more research on the Famine remains to be done, Kinealy says, and rather than curtail the discussion for political reasons, it needs to flourish because of what it reveals about how societies work and how power is distributed. Kinealy says continued research needs to be done on food exports, on the impact of the Famine on Protestants, and on the actions of farmers, merchants and landlords, especially at an individual or local level.  She is now investigating private charitable donations during the Famine, which were the first examples in world history of a major international relief effort.

Aside from her work on the Famine, Kinealy has a deep interest in other personalities and issues of the 1840s in Ireland, particularly those of the Young Ireland rebellion in 1848, which she wrote about in Repeal and Revolution: 1848 in Ireland (2009).

“I loved the inclusiveness of the Young Irelanders – men and women, Catholics and Protestants together – even when they came to America and were divided over the American Civil War. Before each battle, former Young Irelander Thomas Francis Meagher, who fought for the Union, toasted his fellow Irishmen fighting for the Confederacy. It’s a good lesson in how to be gracious even to those people with whom you disagree.”

Pulling another thread from this volatile period, Kinealy has written about Daniel O’Connell and his support for abolition in The Saddest People the Sun Sees: Daniel O’Connell and the Anti-Slavery Movement (2011). She says O’Connell’s involvement with abolition had “largely been written out of history” and that, while deeply involved in Irish affairs, he was writing “some of the finest statements on slavery” of any period. He was remembered in this light throughout many of the public remarks made during President Obama’s historic  trip to Ireland last May.

Kinealy’s affection for Belfast and Northern Ireland is palpable. In 2010, she published War and Peace: Ireland Since the 1960s “to put on record what happened in the North through the prism of social justice, to give the women’s point of view, and to bear testimony to the losses that people from all traditions endured.”

That affection also emerges from reminiscences about her work there in the late 1980s with unemployed teenage boys in a government initiative meant to foster mutual understanding between Catholics and Protestants.  The boys took “rubbings” and transcribed information from tombstones in Belfast cemeteries, and later plugged that information into computers, creating a historical and genealogical database. For many of them it was a hands-on initiation into their common history, and a first-time, face-to-face introduction to their neighbors from “the other side.”

At about the same time, she co-authored a textbook for 12-16-year-olds called Making Sense of History: Evidence in Ireland for the Young Historian, which approached a shared sense of history through primary sources like those she uses in her own research.  It won a national award. Given the opportunity, she would like to return to the North and work on similar projects for school children.

As a child in Liverpool, Kinealy said she always “felt Irish.” But as recently as the early 1990s, when her Dublin-born daughter Siobhán was in primary school in Liverpool, it was a very sectarian city.  Siobhán was bullied for her Irish accent, and when she asked her teacher if the class could celebrate Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day as part of the school’s multi-cultural program, she was told, “No, they kill people there.”  Arriving in the United States for the first time in 1995, Kinealy was amazed at how freely Irish Americans celebrated their heritage, an impossibility at the time in Britain.

“Where we grew up, you were Catholic or you were Protestant,” says Kinealy, who was raised Catholic (conservatively at school, liberally at home). “Irish people in Britain lived under the tremendous strain of trying to remain invisible.  This intensified after 1969, especially when there were reports of violence.  There was a high rate of suicide and mental illness in the Irish immigrant community.”

In the last 15 years, largely due to the Peace Process, Kinealy observes that much of that has changed.  “Now, even in Britain, it is cool to be Irish,” she says.

But her relationship with Great Britain is, like Ireland’s, complicated. To some extent, she admits, her writing and research provide an antidote for all those years when it was far from cool to proclaim her nationality.

“I spent a lot of my formative years in Britain and I don’t hate ‘the Brits.’ But I do abhor some of the things that the British government has done historically. At the same time, I am an admirer of the British radical tradition, which has a lot in common with the Irish radical tradition, and of the British charitable impulse – thousands of nameless people raised money for Ireland during the Famine, including prisoners in London. Oh, yes, also British soccer – and chocolate.  American chocolate just isn’t the same.”

In 1997, the same year Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the Famine, Kinealy was invited to speak about the Famine in the British Houses of Parliament, in the place, as she recalls, “where so many egregious relief policies had been made that resulted in so many tragic deaths.”

Besides her early years in England and life in Dublin and Belfast, she spent many years teaching in British universities. Now, Kinealy is hard-pressed to say where her “home” is, although she admits that Ireland has always been her “spiritual home.” Her children have moved to America – son Ciarán in New York State with his new wife, and Siobhán in law school at Rutgers University – so her orientation has shifted somewhat.  Guinness, Kinealy’s sheepdog so-named by Ciarán because “he’s black and white and comes from Ireland,” has an EU pet passport, but seems content to be living in New Jersey. His leash and bowl sit complacently near the desk in her office at Drew.

“I always thought I’d retire to Ireland, but I honestly don’t know where my real home is,” she admits with a puzzled frown. “It’s complicated.”

2 Responses to “Ireland’s Citizen Chronicler: Christine Kinealy”



  2. Please let me have email address for Christine Kinealy

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