The Graves Are Walking

The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

John Kelly


Deeply researched, compelling in its details, and startling in its conclusions about the appalling decisions behind a tragedy of epic proportions, John Kelly’s retelling of the awful story of Ireland’s great hunger will resonate today as history that speaks to our own times.

It started in 1845 and before it was over more than one million men, women, and children would die and another two million would flee the country. Measured in terms of mortality, the Great Irish Potato Famine was the worst disasters in the nineteenth century—it claimed twice as many lives as the American Civil War. A perfect storm of bacterial infection, political greed, and religious intolerance sparked this catastrophe. But even more extraordinary than its scope were its political underpinnings, and The Graves Are Walking provides fresh material and analysis on the role that Britain’s nation-building policies played in exacerbating the devastation by attempting to use the famine to reshape Irish society and character. Religious dogma, anti-relief sentiment, and racial and political ideology combined to result in an almost inconceivable disaster of human suffering.

This is ultimately a story of triumph over perceived destiny: for fifty million Americans of Irish heritage, the saga of a broken people fleeing crushing starvation and remaking themselves in a new land is an inspiring story of revival.

Based on extensive research and written with novelistic flair, The Graves Are Walking draws a portrait that is both intimate and panoramic, that captures the drama of individual lives caught up in an unimaginable tragedy, while imparting a new understanding of the famine's causes and consequences.


Read an Excerpt


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



Praise for The Graves Are Walking

“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 hearsay into the bright light of history. Even among the graves of Irish famine, he finds vivid life."—Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and John James Audubon: The Making of an American

"John Kelly is one of America’s great historians and storytellers. He has a new one out now: the essential The Graves Are Walking. It’s a brilliantly rendered account of the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. The prose sizzles with deep intelligence, hard research, and an inspiring compassion for the millions who died of hunger. It was an honor to read such first-rate nonfiction. Highly recommended!"—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America and The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast

"I wish more people wrote history like this: fast-paced but carefully documented, lively as a novel but tackling, head on, one of the great human catastrophes of nineteenth-century Europe. Kelly’s portrait of a tragedy rooted in a superpower’s imperial arrogance has echoes for the world we are still living in today."—Adam Hochschild, author of the New York Times bestseller To End All Wars

"The Graves Are Walking is an engrossing chronicle of an historic tragedy that forever changed Ireland, Britain, and America. Kelly conveys the rawness of Irish suffering with a powerful intimacy—an entire nation reduced to a single wish: survival."—Amanda Foreman, author of the acclaimed A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided and the international bestseller Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

"John Kelly vividly writes the compelling story of the horror of Ireland’s potato famine, with intimate portraits of those who died and those who fled. Most illuminating is how he captures, in devastating detail, British leaders, who, imbued with religious fervor and ideological blinders, decided to use the plague as an occasion to teach the Irish good work habits, responsibility, and to rid them of their dependence on government. An extraordinary book, and a lesson for our times."—Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, and author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today’s Churches Mixed God with Politics and Lost Their Way

“Kelly deftly conveys the enormity of what was at stake.  The Graves Are Walking seeks accountability for those responsible for the human toll from a shortage of everything–even coffins.”—Booklist

"Kelly's work is written with the verve of a good novel... his powerfully argued conclusion is that the British were guilty of neglect rather than malice, allowing religion and ideology to overrule their common humanity. ...At the height of the famine, a British official received a report of the latest casualties and scribbled a single word underneath: why? This book provides as good an answer as we are likely to get."—Daily Business Post (Dublin, Ireland)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • John Kelly

  • 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.

  • John Kelly Laura Pedrick
    John Kelly





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    The Graves Are Walking

    The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

    John Kelly