Friday, January 9, 2015

Outcry at plans to make a comedy about Irish Famine

Irish Famine Memorial in Dublin
On 30 December, the Irish Times set off waves of outrage and disbelief when it reported that British TV station Channel 4 was commissioning a comedy set to the backdrop of the Irish Famine.

The Famine (or An Gorta Mór, as it is known in Irish), lasted from 1845 until 1852, and saw well over one million people in Ireland die from starvation and disease.

Many of them were buried without coffins, in mass pauper graves; others were left where they dropped for fear of contagion, their mouths green from the grass they ate in desperation to stay alive.

For many that died, their names and deaths were not recorded; their memory lost forever. A further one and a half million emigrated during the Famine to places like Boston, New York, Liverpool and Australia.

The Irish population dropped by 30 percent in six short years, and the political and cultural impact of the Famine can still be felt to this day. So too can the demographic impact – the Irish population has never properly recovered from the impact of the Famine, and is still lower than pre-Famine levels.

A petition calling on Channel 4 to not make the show has already reached close to 40,000 signatures.


Hugh Travers, the unlikely 31 year-old Irish screen-writer hired by Channel 4 to write the show – provisionally titled Hungry – tried to deflect the outpouring of criticism that the news has attracted, claiming the project is in good faith.

“I don’t want to do anything that denies the suffering that people went through, but Ireland has always been good at black humour. We’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless in famine Ireland”, he told the Irish Times.

Shameless, an award-winning comedy centred on British working class life, presents something of a complicated balancing act between caricature and sympathy. It revolves around the Gallagher family, six siblings who live on set on a fictional council estate in Manchester, with an unemployed alcoholic father and whose mother has done a runner.

Where Shameless sometimes succeeds is when it doesn’t appear to pass moral judgment on its subject, allowing viewers to find familiar scenarios and human foibles in the gritty reality of a council estate. We find ourselves laughing with the Gallaghers as much as at them – but it’s often a fine line, and doesn't always work.

The insensitivity of naming a show set during a famine "Hungry" aside, looking at the difficult and dark context Travers has chosen to set his comedy, it is difficult to see how a Shameless set in famine Ireland could achieve this and maintain it through a series.

Not just a "famine"

Despite the name, the Famine was never simply “just” a famine, nor was the poverty of the millions of Irish who died or fled anything comparable to the poverty of a council estate in Northern England over 150 years later.

During the 1840s, a severe potato blight affected vast areas of Europe, including Scotland, more heavily than it did Ireland, yet there were relatively fewer casualties in Scotland, where landowners and the government ensured that sufficient food remained available to avoid a catastrophe.

In Ireland it was an entirely different matter. On the eve of the Famine, Ireland had a population of some nine million people – nearly half the combined population of England, Scotland and Wales. Within a couple of decades, this was nearly halved by deaths from the Famine and a process of emigration that continued well past the Famine’s official end.

Despite having been formally annexed into the United Kingdom by the Act of Union in 1800, the Irish persisted in being largely Catholic, agrarian, a little too independent-thinking, and, well, Irish. The Irish kept following their own traditions and – for the most part – using their own language. They simply weren’t “fitting in” to Britain at all.

With Union, too, the government of Ireland, as well as the pendulum of culture, innovation and investment, moved to London. Ireland came to be regarded by Westminster as little more than England’s granary. In fact, throughout the “famine” period, Ireland produced a regular food surplus, more than enough to feed the entire population of the island nation.

Two million acres of land – one third of all tilled land in Ireland – was set aside for potato cultivation, upon which six million people depended for nutrition. While these peasants survived on potatoes and what else they could scrape together, they paid rent for their small holdings to their landlords in the form of grain.

While people across Ireland – from Dublin to the countryside – suffered the Famine’s grip, the most vulnerable were the poor, densely populated and almost entirely Irish-speaking areas in the south and west of Ireland. Many peasant farmers worked and lived on less than 2.3 hectares each, however across Ireland 130,000 families were trying to survive on less than half a hectare.

First-hand accounts express the horror that these and other communities suffered during the Famine. In the words of 27-year-old Quaker, James Hack Tuke, who visited Mayo and Donegal in 1846 and then again in 1847, the people were "living skeletons… scarcely able to crawl".

A conscious policy of genocide?

Leading Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan, in his 2012 book The Famine Plot, squarely accuses the British government of carrying out a conscious policy of genocide against the Irish during the Famine years. Coogan is not alone in this view – renowned British historian AJP Taylor declared that during the Famine "all Ireland was a Belsen", a reference to the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

Documents from the period support the assertion that the starvation was deliberate and calculated, and informed by ideas of social engineering. The Victorian attitude was that “poverty was a self-inflicted wound incurred through bad habits”, and the Irish were to be no exception.

The British establishment magazine, Punch, described the poor Irish as "the blight of their own land, and the curse of the Saxon”. This same magazine regularly publishing dehumanising cartoons that depicted the Irish as apes.

After a visit to Ireland before the Famine, Charles Trevelyan, permanent undersecretary to the British Treasury, foreshadowed the deadly policy in a letter to the Morning Post, where he indicated his belief that there were at least one or two million too many people in Ireland, and that they could not all possibly survive there.

“Protestant and Catholic will freely fall and the land will be for the survivors”, he wrote.

According to Coogan, the ideological foundations of the famine were a “straightforward anti-Catholic prejudice, and the view that the laws of commerce were the laws of God.” While blaming divine retribution for the Famine, Trevelyan and the British government placed just as firm a faith in the benefits of the free market, and in the theories of Smith, Bentham and Malthus.

Trevelyan put his position bluntly as early as 1845, stating that “permanent advantages will accrue to Ireland from the scarcity,” and that famine would “teach the people to depend upon themselves for developing the resources of the country, instead of having recourse to the assistance of the government.”

Starvation and profit

Once the potato blight struck, soup kitchens were set up, at one point feeding approximately 3 million people, but efforts by local organisations to feed the starving were consistently thwarted and frustrated by the British government.

Trevelyan issued a public rebuke against the feeding of the hungry, stating that “the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

Viewing the starvation as an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”, Trevelyan claimed that "the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated".

The British response to the Famine had as much to do with the laws of profit as it did with the wrath of God, however. The size of the Irish population was seen as a threat to the economic viability of Britain, in particular to the incomes of Ireland’s absentee landlords – many of whom lived in London, and included the like of Lord Palmerston.

While no exact figures exist, it is also believed that at least 500,000 small farmers were evicted during the Famine. Some of these were undoubtedly for non-payment of rent, but most were evicted by landlords unwilling to continue paying rates for poor tenants.

Emigration and coffin ships

Far from seeking to prevent the emigration of those not at death’s door, Ireland’s landlords actively encouraged it. Some landlords even paid their tenants' emigration fares, freeing up the land for other – more profitable – economic activities, such as cattle farming.

The horror followed those who emigrated too, however. The ships that émigrés took to cross the Atlantic were crowded and disease-ridden, and were dubbed “coffin ships”. These ships frequently had mortality rates of 30 percent, and claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 would-be migrants.

The ship owners provided as little water, food and living space as possible, and it was said that sharks could be seen following the ships, because so many bodies were thrown overboard.

On December 29, the Globe and Mail reported that bones found washed up on a Canadian beach were believed to belong to children on board the Carricks, a coffin ship that sunk en route to Quebec City in 1847.


While millions starved, their grain, along with the majority of Irish agricultural output, was exported to England to feed the growing industrial population and bring profit to the absentee landlords. There was some organised resistance to this forced starvation, but it was sporadic and disorganised at best.

The Young Ireland movement – although largely made up of the landlord and urban professional classes – turned briefly to violence in response to Famine, instigating a failed uprising in 1848. Young Irelander, James Fintan Lalor – elder brother to Peter Lalor, leader of the Eureka Stockade – declared, "I acknowledge no right of property which takes the food of millions and gives them a famine".

Another Young Irelander John Mitchel, who was transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1848, described the famine "artificial”.

“The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight but the English created the famine,” he wrote, “a 
million and half men, women and children were carefully, prudently and peacefully
slain by the English government. They died of hunger in the midst of abundance
which their own hands created."

While the Young Irelanders were unsuccessful, their rebellion, along with the aftermath of the Famine, were direct precursors to a revival of Irish republican struggle through the vehicle of the Fenian Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, the British also deployed tens of thousands of extra troops across Ireland, in part of quell dissent, but mostly to protect food destined for export.

A cultural genocide

The deliberate policy of starvation and the number of deaths alone qualify the Famine for genocide status, but there was a cultural genocide too. The enormity of the deaths and mass exodus of desperate emigrants gutted the population, especially in rural areas, and with it the Irish language.

In 1800, Irish was still the main language of Ireland, although bilingualism and English was taking hold, especially in the eastern and more urbanised areas. The stronghold of the Irish language was in the south and west – the same areas hardest hit by the Famine.

Deportations and migrations to America, Australia and elsewhere had already weakened the language, but the famine provided a killer blow, making Irish a minority language in its own country.

In 1841, over 4 million people used Irish as their first language, while many others spoke it fluently throughout their day-to-day life. By 1861, the Irish language had retreated from the status of majority language across the island to a minority tongue, spoken primarily in a few strongholds on the western fringe.

Despite the efforts of successive Irish governments since independence, the Irish language has failed to recover from this blow.

Overdue apology not enough

In 1997, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, finally apologised for the Famine, formally acknowledging Britain's role in the deaths, suffering and loss it entailed:

“That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people."

While Blair’s apology brought criticism from conservative elements in Britain, for many in Ireland – and for descendants of the Famine refugees around the world – such an acknowledgement of responsibility still falls short.

The scale of the tragedy, and the symbolic place of the An Gorta Mór in the modern history of Ireland, in the story of the Irish diaspora, and within the broader Irish republican movement, means that it remains a sensitive subject for portrayal in film and television.

Are we ready for a Famine comedy? 

It is, of course, entirely possible that Hungry could be a success – not a word beyond the title has been written yet, and as supporters of the initiative have argued, a number of successful comedies have been set in times of disaster and tragedy.

Notable among these are Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder Goes Forth (set in the trenches of World War One), as well as M*A*S*H (which follows an army medical team during the Korean War). Unfortunately, a plethora of poorly-written, insensitive flops also have taken tragedy and misfortune as their backdrop.

One particularly convincing theory of comedy is that best comedy and satire almost invariably “punches up” – that it lampoons the oppressor, the toff, the bully, and the institutions and trappings of power, rather than laughing at the expense of the victims and oppressed.

Satire that works is clever and engaging precisely because it deals with serious subject matter content, while making you think about it in new ways, rather than picking on easy targets for a laugh.

Blackadder places us side-by-side with the soldiers in the trenches, the unthinkable horror unfolding only metres away temporarily lost in our collective disdain and contempt for the stupidity of the stuck-up officers about to send them to their deaths.

Similarly, the subtle, dark comedy of M*A*S*H lays a thin veil of sardonic humour over the meaningless horror of war, and the immeasurable human cost it brings.

Both of these shows are built on world-class comedy and drama, and a delicate sense of the horror that surrounds the characters. If Hungry can manage these heights of tragicomedy and drama, delicately presenting the suffering of the Famine, while ridiculing the likes of Trevelyan, it might just work.

Perhaps if Travers had chosen a different "model" for his Famine comedy, the negative response would have been slightly less intense. Despite the mixed critical acclaim for Shameless, however, it lacks the depth and subtlety necessary in a suitable comedic vehicle for something of the scale and horror as the Famine.

Indeed, there are many who simply believe that a comedy about the Famine is simply inappropriate until Ireland and Britain have more fully come to terms with the trauma of the past – and the present – and that the subject matter would be better handled through another medium, such as drama.

As Doctor Christine Kinealy, Director of the Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, put it, “a danger of using the comedy format to tell the story of the Famine is that the characters can very easily become stage ‘Oirish,’ and that the real heartbreak of the Famine be absent or marginalised.

"Instead, disease, death, eviction and emigration will be viewed as funny, rather than tragic – and we might forget that they were preventable.”

Tim Pat Coogan agrees. “Murder, genocide, people dying, retching with their faces green from eating weeds, their bowels hanging out of them no passage of time will make that funny.”

No comments:

Post a Comment