Cormac Ó Gráda’s new collection of essays on famine—which range in focus from from the economic history to the psychological toll—begins with a taboo topic. Ó Gráda argues that cannibalism, while by no means a universal feature of these calamities, has probably occurred more frequently than previously recognized. Recently he answered some questions on his book, Eating People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future, its somber title, and his early interest in The Great Irish Famine.
Why did you write this book?
CÓG: When Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009) came out, I wanted it to be my last book on the subject. So Eating People is Wrong was not a question of ‘what will I do next?’ I just realized a few years later that I had still had ideas to contribute on topics that would make for a new, different kind of book on famine. These topics ranged from famine cannibalism to the Great Leap Forward, and from market failure to famine in the 21st century; the challenge was to merge the different perspectives that they offered into what would become this new book. The idyllic résidence I spent in the south of France courtesy of the Fondation des Treilles in the autumn of 2013 was when the different parts came together. By the end of that stay, I had a book draft ready.
What inspired you to get into your field?
CÓG: It is so long ago that I am bound to invent the answer… But I have always had an amateur interest in history—as lots of Irish people tend to have—whereas my academic training was in economics. Economic history seemed a good way of marrying the two, and that has been my chosen field since my time as a graduate student in the 1970s. I began as a kind of jack-of-all-trades economic historian of Ireland, focusing on topics as different as inheritance patterns and famine, or migration and banking. This work culminated in a big economic history of Ireland in 1994. My interest in the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s goes back to my teens, but that interest was sharpened after getting to know Joel Mokyr (also a PUP author) in the late 1970s. Economics taught me to think of the Irish in comparative terms, and that led eventually to the study of famines elsewhere. My books have all been solo efforts, but I have very lucky and privileged to write papers with some great co-authors, and some of these papers influenced the books.
How did you come up with the title or jacket?
CÓG: The title is an ironic nod to Malcolm Bradbury’s eponymous novel (which most people seem ignorant of). A friend suggested it to me over a pint in a Dublin bar. One of the themes of the chapter on famine cannibalism, to which the title refers, is the need to realize that famines not only do terrible things to people, but that people do terrible things to one other in times of famine. Peter Dougherty and his team at PUP came up with jacket. The image is graphic and somber without being sensationalist, which is what I had hoped for.
What is your next project?
CÓG: There is no single all-consuming project. A lot of my research in recent years has been collaborative work on British economic history with UCD colleague Morgan Kelly. So far the results of that work have appeared—when we are lucky—in academic journals rather than in books. We have plans to continue on this basis, but we are also involved in an interesting piece of research with Joel Mokyr on the origins of the Industrial Revolution, and that may eventually yield a monograph by the three of us. I also want to revise several unpublished papers in Irish economic history and to get them published singly or, perhaps, as a monograph. Finally, Guido Alfani of Bocconi University in Milan and I are editing a book on the history of famine in Europe. This is coming along well. The end product will consist of nine specialist country chapters, a cross-country analysis of the famines of World War II, and an overview by Alfani and me.
What are you currently reading?
CÓG: I am at page 630 (so another hundred or so pages to go) of Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, vol. 1 (Penguin, 2014), which brings the story of Iosif Vissarionovich only as far as 1928. I have been interested in Soviet economic history since the late Alexander Erlich introduced me to the topic in Columbia in the 1970s, and this is what attracted me to Kotkin’s riveting tome—which, however, turns out to rather uninterested in the economic issues! I am also reading Maureen Murphy’s Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine (Syracuse, 2015), an account of an eccentric but appealing American evangelist who toured Ireland, mostly on foot, in the years leading up to and during the Great Hunger. I was familiar with Nicholson’s own published accounts of her travels, but knew very little about her otherwise, so Murphy’s book is a revelation. My current bedtime reading is Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing (2010).
Cormac Ó Gráda is professor emeritus of economics at University College Dublin. His books include Famine: A Short History and Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (both Princeton).