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Shop  >>  Books  >>  History

John Kelly

The Graves Are Walking

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Biographical note:

John Kelly is the author of the acclaimed bestseller The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time and Three on the Edge: The Stories of Ordinary American Families in Search of a Medical Miracle. He has written about medicine, history, and psychology for many years. He lives in New York City and Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

Excerpt from book:

CHAPTER ONE

The Savage Shore: Three Englishmen in Ireland

Late on a September afternoon in 1845, when the sky was low and the wind close, a horseman with a rooster’s plume of red hair and an indefinable air of Englishness about him stood on a road in Donegal, surveying the empty landscape. Near Lough Derg, the rider had passed two dirty peasant children selling “rudely carved wooden crucifixes” and a peeling window poster proclaiming “the Sacred beauty of Jesus,” and near Ballyshannon, a knot of half clad, shoeless peasant women lifting panniers of turf onto the back of an ancient ass. Then, the wind died, the ubiquitous castle ruins—palimpsests of conquest and loss—vanished from the landscape and the rider passed from human to geological time. Savage rock and cold mountain surrounded him now, and the only sound to be heard in the perfect stillness of the afternoon was the gravel crunching under the weight of his horse.

Out over the Atlantic, silos of angry black storm clouds were billowing skyward over a white-capped sea. By the time the rider arrived in Gweedore, it would be raining again. Even for Ireland, the weather had been unusually mutinous of late. “Heat, rain, cold and sunshine succeed each other at a confusing rate,” the Dublin Evening Post had complained the other day. “Monday last was extremely wet, Tuesday was beautifully dry; yesterday ... both wet and dry, and to-day again is equally variable.” During harvest season, the weather was always a major preoccupation in Ireland, but this season the news from Europe had made the preoccupation all-consuming. In June, a mysterious potato disease had appeared in Flanders; by the end of July, scarcely a sound potato was left between Silesia and Normandy; then, in early August, the Channel Islands and England were infected. Now there were rumors that the disease had appeared here.

In a country where two thirds of the population lived by the aphorism

Potatoes in the morning

Potatoes at night

And if I got up at midnight

It would still be potatoes.

the appearance of the new disease could be catastrophic. The rider was unworried, though. In Dungloe, he had passed fields “heavy” with healthy-looking potatoes, and last week, in County Fermanagh, the “luxuriant” potato fields had stretched all the way to the horizon. The Irish were an excitable people. The news from Europe, and the weather, had them on edge.

• • •

Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster’s journey to Ireland had begun with a summons. Earlier in the year, he had been called to Printing House Square, home of his former employer, The Times of London, and offered a challenging assignment. In the forty-four years since the formation of the Anglo-Irish Union, Britain had grown steadily wealthier and mightier, while her partner, Ireland, had grown steadily poorer and more disorderly. The editors of The Times wanted Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster to cross the Irish Sea and answer a question that had eluded the best efforts of one hundred and fourteen government commissions, sixty-one special committees, and fifty years of study by almost every leading political economist of the age:

Why was Ireland collapsing?

It was now several months later, and as Mr. Foster made his way northwest to Donegal, he found himself thinking what a sad, poor country Ireland

“Magisterial...Kelly brings the horror vividly and importantly back to life.”—USA Today

“A moving account of the famine...Kelly has produced a powerful indictment of the British mind-set in the nineteenth century, and of the British policy that resulted from it.”—The New York Times Book Review

“An accessible, engrossing history of horror...Cogent and forceful.”—The Washington Post

"An engrossing narrative of the famine, vividly detailing Victorian society and the historical phenomena (natural and man-made) that converged to form the disaster."—The Economist

"Though the story of the potato famine has been told before, it’s never been as thoroughly reported or as hauntingly told."—New York Post

“John Kelly gives heartbreaking detail to the Great Famine that seared itself into the memory of the Irish people, and sheds fascinating new light on the policy decisions that made it even worse. The Graves Are Walking is a cautionary tale for all who would risk calamity—human, economic, or ecological—in the name of scoring an ideological victory.”—President Bill Clinton

"This fine book is sourced largely from contemporaneous accounts and is thoroughly documented. It is a witheringly bleak portrayal, extraordinarily detailed and gracefully written. Everyone who holds a policy-making position in government today or tomorrow should study this book."—The Washington Independent Review of Books

"Kelly intersperses the nitty gritty of the shifting Irish economic situation with horrific glimpses of its human toll."—Laura Miller, Salon

"In humanising the complexities of the Great Famine, John Kelly’s emotional history of the time makes for a compelling and heartbreaking read...Kelly doesn’t shy away from the kind of vivid descriptions and heightened language more often associated with poetry than historical writing."—The Irish Times

"An incredibly well-researched analysis of the Great Famine...The book reads like a novel, making the reality of this particular bit of history all the more haunting."—Shelf Awareness

"Mr. Kelly’s moving, powerfully narrated account of the tragedy and its aftermath brings it alive in all its horror."—The Washington Times

"An upsetting, enlightening, necessary book that deserves multiple, durable audiences [and] stands as a testament to the resilience of a people under some of the greatest duress the world has ever seen."—History News Network

"This is a wonderful book about a terrible event. It's also a rare combination of compelling writing, excellent scholarship, and insightful analysis that ranges over the full scope of--and goes beyond--the potato famine itself, from agricultural science, through the English politics that contributed so much to the death toll, to the impact of Irish immigration in America. A truly outstanding book."—John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history and Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty

"Kelly (The Great Mortality) traces a path of misery and devastation as he documents one of the 19th century’s worst disasters, a nightmarish six years that left twice as many dead as the American Civil War...[Kelly's] exhaustive research covers every aspect, threading the gruesome events into a huge panoramic tapestry that reveals political greed lurking behind the pestilence."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"The Graves Are Walking is compelling reading. Once again John Kelly illuminates a dark time, removing it from the shadows of legend and he

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