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.”
David P. Nally is a University Lecturer and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge, England.
“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 liberalfism, cultural chauvinism, and racial prejudice. . . . [T]his important study deserves a wide readership.” —Choice
"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
"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
“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 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
"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
“[S]ophisticated and theoretically informed . . . 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
“Nally . . . is concerned with the ways that the famine was produced through the British attempts to civilize the Irish on British terms, and then how the famine itself was used to deepen and further these projects of civility.” —Dialogues in Human Geography
“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
"In his excellent book, David P. Nally approaches the Great Famine through the lens of colonial studies . . . By situating Ireland as a colonized land, Nally explores more deeply the historiography of the Great Famine with respect to its political implications, rather than simply as a natural phenomenon or an 'act of God'. The theory, then, which is a compelling argument, addresses the ill-conceived and in many cases targeted policies of the colonial government, effectively the 'political violence' that contributed to the tragic death and intense reshaping of the Irish landscape." —Interventions