A review written by John.
John’s quick take: The Great Famine in Ireland is one of the most shameful episodes in the last 200 years of Western history. All Standing is an accurate retelling of the story of the legendary Jeanie Johnston famine ship, interwoven with a vivid history of the famine and the tale of one family who emigrated to America aboard the Jeanie Johnston to avoid the catastrophe.
John’s description: On the surface, the Great Famine was caused by potato blight that destroyed the crop that a huge proportion of the Irish relied upon – but the underlying causes went much deeper. With an impoverished economy, a booming population, predatory landlords, an enormous number of subsistence farmers with virtually no rights, and an over reliance on a single crop, the famine was a disaster waiting to happen. But the sheer scale and callousness of the disaster are hard to take in.
Before the famine Ireland had a population of around eight million people. Over the seven year years that the famine lasted it is estimated that a million died from starvation or related diseases and another million emigrated, mostly in a desperate bid to escape the horrors at home. Ireland’s population plummeted by some 25%. Unfortunately for the emigrants, conditions aboard the famine ships were often a lot worse than what they were escaping from. Emigrants were treated like cargo and crammed into ships’ holds with hardly any food and no sanitation, and diseases ran rampant. Over a hundred thousand emigrants died on the so-called coffin ships; on many voyages mortality rates were much worse than on slave ships. When the starved and sickly Irish arrived at their destination, they usually had to once again fight abject poverty, not to mention uncaring authorities and rampant racism.
But amidst the horrors one ship became legendary for not losing a single passenger during 16 cross-Atlantic voyages from Ireland to Canada or America. The Jeanie Johnston, based out of Tralee in Ireland, was built by a Scottish craftsman working in Canada, and captained by a professional sailor who carefully picked his crew and cared for his passengers. Unusually this ship had a ship’s doctor – and a very good one at that. Still the voyages were dangerous and the Jeanie Johnson had to rely on its fair share of luck.
On its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, a farmer’s wife by the name of Margaret Reilly gave birth to a baby boy, who the parents named after the ship’s owner, doctor and crew – resulting in the boy having no less than seventeen middle names! Nicholas Johnston Reilly (that’s his short name) and his parents survived the voyage, arrived in Quebec, crossed into America and eventually moved via Indiana and Michigan before settling down in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
John’s thoughts: Through painstaking research Miles has created a vivid picture of mid-nineteenth century Ireland, the famine, national politics and politicians, local characters involved with the Jeanie Johnston, the ship’s voyages, an emigrant’s life in Canada or America, and the Reilly family story.
While the bare facts are fascinating (not to mention truly horrific), this could so easily have become a dry, documentary history tome, but Miles has avoided that fate and created a really interesting book that is easy to read. In large part she has achieved that by focusing a lot on real people and their stories, which brings the history to life. Cleary that required an awful lot of research and hard work on her part.
Personally I’m still incredulous that the famine was allowed to become as catastrophic as it was – so much could have been prevented or alleviated if it wasn’t for greed, bigotry, inhumanity and neglect. I learnt an awful lot reading this book. Can you believe that in the middle of the famine when a huge portion of the Irish population was starving to death, large amounts of food were still being exported out of the country? Stunning.
It was also interesting to hear about the plight of immigrants arriving in North America, and in particular the racial discrimination that they faced. That’s the second book I’ve read this year which has touched on this theme – the first one being The Spy Lover which told the story of a Chinese immigrant.
I did like the way that Miles weaved in the story of the Reilly family, which served to personalize the big historic picture - though I would say resulted in the narrative jumping around a bit. Regardless, I’d rate this book four stars and recommend it to anyone with an interest in Irish history, immigration into North America, or nineteenth century history generally. For anyone with even a drop of Irish blood in them, this is thoroughly recommended.
Simon and Schuster -Free Press, January 2013 Hardcover, 256 pages.