The Great Hunger is the story of one of the worst disasters in world history: the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. Within five years, one million people died of starvation. Emigrants by the hundreds of thousands sailed for America and Canada in small, ill-equipped, dangerously unsanitary ships. Some ships never arrived; those that did carried passengers already infected with and often dying of typhus.
The Irish who managed to reach the United States alive had little or no money and were often too weak to work. They crowded into dirty cellars, begged, and took whatever employment they could get. Epidemics, riots, and chaos followed in their wake.
The Great Hunger is a heartbreaking story of suffering, insensitivity, and blundering stupidity; yet it is also an epic tale of courage, dignity, and - despite all odds - a hardly supportable optimism.
Cecil Blanche Woodham-Smith (1896-1977) was a British historian and biographer. She wrote four popular history books, each dealing with a different aspect of the Victorian era.
©1962 Cecil Woodham-Smith (P)1998 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“Mrs. Woodham-Smith has made an individual contribution to Irish history. Her thoroughness in research, compassionate fair-mindedness, and gift of narrative are all again in evidence.” (The Times, London)
"The Great Hunger" is a masterpiece account of the Potato Blight and, in particular, of the British Government's response to it. Woodham-Smith uses a massive amount of primary sources to convey not only what actions the government took (and didn't take), but the author takes us into the inner thoughts of the key players - Robert Peel, John Russell, Charles Wood, Charles Trevelyan, Lord Clarendon - to understand why they made the decisions they made. The book concludes with a thoroughly damning appraisal of the performance of the British government, and particularly of the Russell Parliament's utter incompetence and inability to foresee the likely consequence of any one of its actions. Too, the landlord class in Ireland come off largely as callous barbarians who wrecked the country and themselves through shortsighted selfishness. For all the outrage, Woodham-Smith's tone is remarkably fair and restrained, and in almost all cases, the guilty are condemned by their own words.
My only gripe with this audiobook is the narrator, whose elegantly stuffy English accent and tone (straight out of the House of Lords) is hard to bear in a book that catalogues the sins of Britain against another people. His chronic mispronunciation of Irish names (ex. he pronounces Drogheda as "Dro-GEE-duh", and Thomas Francis Meagher's name is read "MEE-ger") is particularly annoying. Otherwise, the narration itself is competent.
My husband and I visited Ireland last year and I came back with a need to understand what happened during the potato famine in the 1830's and 40's. This book got pretty good reviews. I should have not more homework. First of all - it is written by a Brit - not the best source. The description says she gives a scathing account of the British - not true. In fact she ignores a good bit of history. The story at times turns into a medical treatise on various diseases - going into such technical detail as to boggle the mind. And is the desire of the British (just read their newspapers today) - they have a fascination with sordid details - seem the same was true back then. Woodham-Smith not only reports the ugly but seems to revel in it.
But here is the really worst of it - the narrator. While he would have been perfect for Masterpiece Theater he is so annoying as to make the story almost intolerable. The British of that ilk (the overly formal and pretentious) sound so sanctimonious, so cloying and so arrogant that it makes a mockery of such a tragedy.
So - the lesson is - listen to the narrator first before buying. And find a better history source for this heartrending story.
Literally ANYONE who does NOT have a British accent.
The story itself is fine, perhaps even better than that as it offers an interesting look back at a oft-forgotten episode that has gone on to play a major role in shaping the world we live in -- particularly those of us living in the United States (especially those of us with Irish ancestors). Also, let me preface my review by saying that I think Frederick Davidson (aka David Chase) is a fine reader, and think he has done great work with books such as "The Brothers Karamazov".
However, having to listen to this book read in English accent makes it **this close** to impossible to enjoy for anybody who goes in knowing a little bit about what went on. I don't mean to imply that England/Britain is solely, or even primarily, at fault for the Potato Famine. As the story rightly explains, blame can be shared on both sides of the Irish Sea, including plenty to be shared by the Irish themselves (some of them anyway). That being said, the English/British government clearly played an instrumental role in allowing the situation to spiral out of control and become the humanitarian disaster it turned out to be. Thus, the decision to have it read in Frederick Davidson's (aka David Chase) prim and proper English accent struck me as both perplexing and, to be perfectly honest, slightly distasteful. Granted, the only thing about me that is truly is Irish is my last name and, yes, my dad was born and raised in the US-of-A (as was his father and father's father). Yet I STILL felt slightly insulted having to listen to this by Davidson.
Conclusion: the story is interesting and, so long as you weren't indoctrinated by pro-Irish, anti-British propaganda as a youth, you may find Davidson's performance perfectly adequate. But don't say you weren't at least warned...
The book is somewhat old (1962) but was for years the standard book on the Great Irish Famine. There are probably more up-to-date books out there now but I'm not sure of their availability on audiobook. It is a solid introduction to one of the great tragedies of the 19th Century.
If I had previewed the audio before purchasing, I would not have bought this. The reader has such an insufferable, upper-crust British accent, that it is almost a comical parody of British accents. For someone in America or Canada especially, this is very hard to listen to for any extended period of time.
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