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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .

The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America
Arthur Gribben (ed.)

Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press
268pp. Pb.: $16.95; ISBN 1 - 55849 -173 - 2

In recent years publishers have been reluctant to take on collections based on academic symposiums. Often they are multi- or interdisciplinary in nature and the quality of individual contributions can differ markedly. The editor of such collections is at the mercy of his most indolent author so that the publication comes long after the symposium. Some of these traits fit the present collection. The symposium occured in 1993 and the book appeared in 1999. Happily that might be an advantage on this occasion because in the meantime the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine was commemorated in Ireland and that allowed for some sort of national debate to take place. Part of that debate is reflected in these pages and the book is enhanced as a result of that. It is true too that this volume of essays is interdisciplinary and that may broaden its appeal. Many of the contributors here are rightly ceIebrated for their impeccable scholarship. It will be read chiefly by historians and those with a particular interest in this tragic episode in Irish history which set in motion a tradition of sustained emigration unparalleled in the modern world. In itself that fact gives the famine a universal appeal - not for nothing has it been described as the 'Irish holocaust'. And that is where its interest will lie for readers of this bulletin. In particular two aspects of research are worth noting. One concerns the whole role of diasporas in ethnic conflicts. Anyone with even a passing notion on the Northern Ireland conflict will know that a lot of the action centred on the sidewalks of south Boston and the Bronx as well as the influential portals on Capitol Hill. It is impossible to envisage the Good Friday Agreement without the sustained campaign conducted in Irish-America. The second aspect concerns the role of "memory" in conflict. It can be used to sustain a conflict - the decision in 1998 of the Irish Famine/Genocide Committee in New York to put the government of Lord John Russell - he had been in power 150 years earlier - on trial for genocide is a case in point. But it can also be used as a form of censorship: 'Silencing the Past' (the title of Michel-Rolph Trouillot's insightful book on the slave-led Haitian Revolution) has happened in Ireland too, as the novelist Colm Toibin has demonstrated recently. Gribben's collected volume begins to address these issues. For that alone we should be grateful.

Heather McPhail, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC

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