Human Encumbrances

Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine

David P. Nally

The history of the Great Irish Famine has been mired in debate over the level of culpability of the British government. Most scholars reject the extreme nationalist charge of genocide, but beyond that there is little consensus. In Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine, David Nally argues for a nuanced understanding of “famineogenic behavior”—conduct that aids and abets famine—capable of drawing distinctions between the consequences of political indifference and policies that promote reckless conduct.

Human Encumbrances is the first major work to apply the critical perspectives of famine theory and postcolonial studies to the causes and history of the Great Famine. Combining an impressive range of archival sources, including contemporary critiques of British famine policy, Nally argues that land confiscations and plantation schemes paved the way for the reordering of Irish political, social, and economic space. According to Nally, these colonial policies undermined rural livelihoods and made Irish society more vulnerable to catastrophic food crises. He traces how colonial ideologies generated negative evaluations of Irish destitution and attenuated calls to implement traditional anti-famine programs. The government’s failure to take action, born out of an indifference to the suffering of the Irish poor, amounted to an avoidable policy of “letting die.”

Acts of official wrongdoing, Nally charges, can also be found in the British government’s attempt to use the Famine as a lever to accelerate socioeconomic change. Even before the Famine reached its deadly apogee, an array of social commentators believed that Ireland’s peasant culture was fundamentally incommensurable with Enlightenment values of human progress. To the economists and public officials who embraced this dehumanizing logic, the potato blight was an instrument of cure that would finally regenerate what was seen to be a diseased body politic. Nally shows how these views arose from a dogmatic insistence on the laws of political economy and an equally firm belief, fostered through centuries of colonial contact, that the Irish were slovenly, improvident, and uncivilized, and therefore in need of external disciplining. In this context, Nally recasts the Great Famine to look less like a natural disaster and more like the consequence of colonial oppression and social engineering.

David P. Nally is a University Lecturer and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge, England.

“A significant work both for Irish Studies and for the larger related field of colonial studies, David P. Nally’s Human Encumbrances has the potential to be the most important interpretive history of the Famine since Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger. One of the sustaining strengths of the book is Nally’s insistence on a comparative study of colonialism that sets the Irish experience in the context of colonial famines and governance. With an exhaustive range of citation from diverse contemporary writings, he shows the ways in which the mass deaths and clearances of the Famine years and their immediate aftermath were continuous with the ways in which the Irish poor were regarded and categorized as a redundant population and transformed into the objects of governmental forms of management and control.” — David Lloyd, University of Southern California

“A landmark and terrifying study of how the Poor Law administration became a bureaucracy of population control in the 1840s. Nally speaks of ‘political violence,’ but the inescapable conclusions of his research are more extreme: that many British reformers embraced policies designed to starve the poor off the land.” — Mike Davis, University of California, Riverside

“David Nally has done something quite remarkable. He has breathed life into a subject that is at once of enormous significance—’the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world’—and an object of considerable scholarly and journalistic attention. Human Encumbrances sees the Great Famine as an act of political violence and as a crisis of government. The Irish Famine, like most great subsistence crises, is complex and composite in a way that makes culpability and responsibility hard to identify and its operation opaque. It is to Nally’s great credit that he has shed new light on how the Irish Famine was the product of structural violence—a great forcing house constituted by politicians, legislators, landowners, utopian economists, and creditors. This is a real tour de force.” — Michael Watts, University of California, Berkeley


“Nally takes on the formidable subject of famine relief measures. These seemingly ‘benevolent’ operations, he argues cogently, in fact were part of a long-standing colonialist project—the clearing of Irish land and ‘the long-term modernisation of Irish society’ . . . [A] deeply important work.” — Nineteenth-Century Contexts

“Nally (Cambridge) examines the Great Irish Famine through the prism of postcolonial and modern famine theories. The result is a provocative book that compellingly argues that British relief strategies were shaped by classical liberalism, cultural chauvinism, and racial prejudice. . . . [T]his important study deserves a wide readership.” — Choice

“In this challenging contribution to the literature of the Great Famine, David Nally takes Irish historians to task for ignoring scholarship in the international field of ‘Famine Studies,’ as well as for their reluctance to put the Great Famine into a wider theoretical and comparative framework. These perceived failings certainly cannot be leveled at Nally, [whose book] covers the main social and economic developments in Ireland from the Tudor period onwards.” — Irish Studies Review

“Human Encumbrances is an intellectually significant and remarkably accessible contribution to the history of the Irish famine, its greatest draw Nally’s fresh recognition of contemporary humanitarian responses to the Famine.” — The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

“Drawing on copious primary sources to create a searing portrayal of Irish poverty, Nally’s work is a thorough account of the famine in a long-term perspective that places it in a contemporary theoretical and postcolonial framework. One great strength of this book is that Nally embeds the famine in comparative studies, drawing on the work of [Amartya] Sen and others, who demonstrate that famines are the result of both crop failures and the inability of the poor to pay for food.” — Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“[T]his thoughtful book brilliantly posits that the context in which the Great Irish Famine occurred is important to understand, not only for addressing specific causes and engaging in historiographical debate, but also on a broader scale, in order to think critically about governmental policies during times of famine and to better understand the contributing factors that shape famine susceptibility and mortality.” — Interventions

“Nally demonstrates how Ireland was used as a ‘laboratory of modernity’ by the moral conscience of early Victorian philanthropists and laissez-faire economists. . . . The strength of this book is in its in-depth use of a wide vaiety of primary sources, which provides a display of thorough scholarly work . . . [N]ot only a ‘must read’ for human geographers, but also for anyone with an interest in tracing inhumanity within a society.” — Irish Geography

“Nally’s work . . . is a model of what interdisciplinary work can accomplish and it challenges some of the core notions of what the Victorian society and state were about. It should be read by every student of Irish and British Victorian studies.” — Victorian Studies

“This book should be read by every human geographer, indeed it should be ready by anyone who cares at all about the reach of the colonial state, the cultivation of inhumanity or just about dedicated and painstaking scholarship. . . . [Nally’s] meticulous research, drawing upon a full spectrum of contemporary records, offers the most convincing account I have so far encountered of the interlocking processes whereby a population is drained of every last valuable resource in the name of Development and Modernisation. Near to the beginning of this excellent monograph Nally observes that, ‘Despite the fact that the Great Irish Famine is now a major field of scholarly enquiry, there has been little attempt to engage with . . . critical perspectives which are derived principally from famine experiences in colonial and postcolonial contexts.’ . . . This book admirably remedies this lack, referring to famine in India and Africa, drawing on the work of Sen to examine the development of ideas of entitlement. For Nally, history is not just isolated in the past, it flows into the present; he makes it impossible for a reader to miss the continuity between starving Irish people in the nineteenth century and food insecurity today. He is not afraid to go beyond the narrow confines of academia to use the media to draw attention to the politics of hunger in the contemporary world, most recently the Horn of African, articulating his central message that ‘[t]he widespread scarcity of food is mistakenly viewed as a crime without a culprit’ . . . and to name that culprit as international capital.” — Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

“Nally’s innovative and important study mobilises a wealth of reports and printed primary accounts—political treatises and travel writings—to understand the ways in which the regulations, interventions, and experiments of the British state on colonial Ireland coordinated a deliberate violence that transformed successive crop failures into famine . . . This is, in short, a sophisticated, powerful, and persuasive telling of one of the most disgraceful episodes in human history.” — Journal of Historical Geography

“Nally’s book should be hailed as a highly innovative new contribution to the study of the Famine . . . . The main strength of Nally’s book, however, lies in its theoretical underpinnings: Human Encumbrances is almost unique in its rigorous and systematic use of a sophisticated poststructuralist theoretical framework in its effort to make sense of the Famine and disentangle the web of political and social discourses that enabled it to happen.” — Irish University Review

“Nally deserves great credit for challenging historians’ assumptions about famine and the Irish famine in particular . . . . It is refreshing, and perhaps comforting, to read an account of the Great Irish Famine that tries to shed new light on the present rather than simply casting dark shadows on the past.” — Journal of British Studies

“Human Encumbrances should be read by anyone interested in nineteenth-century British and Irish history and the global relationship between imperialism and mass hunger. It is an engaging read and is rooted in an effective synthesis of the best post-revisionist work on the Famine and famine studies in general.” — New Hibernia Review

“In Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine, David Nally . . . presents a brilliant and sophisticated argument outlining how ultimately ‘the ‘rights of the poor’ and the ‘rights of property’ were not accorded the same value’. He lays bare what he calls the ‘transformative forces of colonialism, capitalism and biopolitics,’ and offers a compelling reading of how the ‘virtues of the market’ and a hegemonic scripting of the native Irish as ‘racially degenerate’ were used to initiate disciplinary, regulatory and corrective mechanisms to recast and regenerate contemporary Irish society and sustain a commitment to a colonial economy of improvement.” — Progress in Human Geography