Book Review: The End of Hidden Ireland, by Robert Scally

In The End of Hidden Ireland, author Robert Scally examines the social, cultural and economic climate in the years before the Great Hunger and mass emigration reduced the Irish population by half. He views the experience of the Irish peasants during this era as a condensed and accelerated version of the modernization process peasants across Europe experienced in the mid 19th century. By focusing on the people and experiences of one townland, he illustrates the struggles of the Irish peasant population as the famine devastated the nation.

As professor of history and Irish studies and director of the Glucksman Ireland house at New York University, Robert Scally has published several books and journal articles about the emigrant experience. He holds a PhD in European history from Princeton University and is affiliated with both the American Historical Society and the American Conference on Irish Studies. In 1998, he was featured in the PBS documentary “The Irish In America”.

Although he traces the first steps of the process back to the British conquest of Ireland centuries earlier, when the complex system of landlords and rents began to separate the Irish peasantry from the land and encroach on their isolated way of life, Scally illustrates how deeply attached to their traditional way of life the people of the Irish townlands remained until the disastrous famine forced them to enter the rapidly changing world beyond their small communities. To study the experience of these peasants and their communities, many of whom left no record at all, Scally focuses on the townland of Ballykilcline, which is remarkable only for a conflict with the Crown that began in 1838, 14 years before emigration and hunger caused the town to disappear from survey maps entirely. Because of this conflict, a clearer record of Ballykilcline remains in the documents and correspondence of landlords, magistrates, and the townspeople, and it is this evidence that Scally presents to exemplify the experience of the famine emigrants. Drawing upon tax records, letters and petitions archived by the British government, he puts quotes from the townspeople and the many layers of intermediaries that separated them from the landowner and the Crown in context by explaining the social hierarchy of pre-famine Ireland. The first several chapters are devoted to an exploration of this exceedingly complex system of tenants, subtenants, and sub-subtenants, familial obligations, graduated levels of poverty and accumulated debt that characterized the more than 60 thousand townlands that contained the bulk of Ireland’s population. After providing this overview of the complicated and fluid nature of townland society, Scally moves on to a detailed examination of the events that set Ballykilcline apart from the numerous townlands that left little or no historical record of their decline. Petitions and memorials sent to representatives in Dublin and London illuminate the desperation of the people of Ballykilcline as they considered the prospect of leaving the townlands that had encompassed their entire existence, and their eventual resignation to forced emigration as the only way to escape the starvation and disease of the famine years. Scally follows the journey of the peasants as they were evicted from their homes in Ballykilcline and traveled to Liverpool, bound for America, discussing the first experiences of poor famine immigrants with the massive city and the conditions the Irish encountered during the years of large scale emigration. For this, he relies largely on more general sources and the writings of authors of the era, including Friedrich Engels and Herman Melville, because other than entries in ship’s passenger logs and quarantine records, the Ballykilcline emigrants left little further record behind.

The critical response to The End Of Hidden Ireland was decidedly positive. The only criticism of the book was o the lack of good historical information, not of Scally’s treatment of the subject. The December 1994 issue of Kirkus Reviews called it “Well written and well researched, a distinct contribution to the subject, even if land and legal records do not do justice to the agony of the times.” Reviews were consistently complimentary to the author’s reconstruction of the peasants’ experiences from this limited documentation. In The English Historical Review (Sept 1997), reviewer Donald A. Kerr wrote “This study is a remarkable reconstruction of an Irish hamlet and of the fate of its inhabitants as they journeyed from Roscommon to Dublin, Liverpool and New York.” The End Of Hidden Ireland was particularly well-received by the academic community, and is required or recommended reading in Irish history courses at colleges and universities across the United States and abroad.
Although I found the beginning chapters a bit confusing, once I grasped the rather difficult introductory information and got into the narrative of the Ballykilcline rebellion, I greatly enjoyed The End Of Hidden Ireland. The author does a remarkable job of separating and describing the remarkably complex layers of Irish peasant society, the intricate system of obligations and loyalties that characterized the unofficial method of subdividing lands among the people of the townlands, and the seemingly countless layers of middlemen that stood between the tenants and their ultimate landlords in Dublin and London. With this background clarified, the story of Ballykilcline unfolds against the backdrop of one of the most infamous periods of Irish history and provides fascinating insight into the lives and experiences of the tenant farmers of the time. Scally cites multiple sources from sources as varied as travelers’ journals, religious records and newspaper reports to put the records of the experiences of the townspeople into a more complete picture that brings the narrative into meaningful context. More importantly, the focus on the 500 or so residents of this particular townland crafts an engaging story from the historical facts, creating sympathy and sentiment in the reader for the upheaval these emigrants endured.

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