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Seamus Deane

The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland, by Breandán Mac Suibhne, Oxford University Press, 352 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0198738619

It is generally agreed that The End of Outrage is a remarkable book. It tells the story of a west Donegal community, Beagh, in the years after the Famine, when the Ribbon Society was making its feeble attempts to modify some of the worst excesses of the land and landlord system that had and would always have the exterminations of the Great Hunger as its most notable and characteristic achievement. We look here at the aftermath, at the shattered community, or the fragment of it, that tried and failed to survive or seriously to contest the brutalities of the colonial regime, its police, magistrates and courts, hangings, virtual burial alive in prisons and workhouses, continuous radical hunger, the death of the Irish language, the unceasing haemorrhages of exile or of its first cousin, mon semblable, criminal transportation. That community died of its injuries. What had been its vivid internal life withered and hardened into a rabid Catholicism (of a reactionary, baroque kitsch form imported from anti-revolutionary France) and, simultaneously, dissolved into the Anglophone capitalist modernity that continues its wild Atlantic ways to the present.

Two slimy figures dominate. One is an informer and the other is, to turn a phrase, one of the hard-faced men who did well out of the Famine. Together they help ruin the community and transform it into a world stripped of people and of communal ethics. The informer, Patrick McGlynn, turned on the Molly Maguires, aka the Ribbon Society, of which he was a member, in early April 1856, when he wrote his first letter to the local magistrate and thereafter sustained his calculated treachery with success until mid-August 1857 when he and his family embarked from Dublin to Liverpool en route for Australia, on a witness protection programme, passage and expenses paid by the government. The hard-faced man was James Gallagher, whom McGlynn claimed he was anxious to protect from the Ribbonmen. Gallagher allowed his father to enter the poorhouse, exploited the distress of his neighbours, swallowed their land, cleared his subtenants, became, in his iron coldness, the paradigm figure of the economic world in which possession was nine points of the law and dispossession the fate of those beyond it, the out-laws. Ribbonism fades, corrupts, Irish-America, itself a harsh environment, becomes part of Irish political reality, a refuge for some, lethal for others. At least, in the eyes of some contemporaries, like Cardinal Newman, busy with his Catholic University foundation in Dublin, these unfortunates had answered the question if the Irish were fit for modernity. Indeed they were, he averred, as their labours in contributing to it in the USA showed (he was less aware of the historic role of Irish Famine labour in Britain and knew nothing of the Pennsylvania coalfields and the Molly Maguires). Newman’s enemy Cardinal Cullen agreed, although with a different inflection. In Newman’s (and later, in the twentieth century, in Fernand Braudel’s view), the Catholic Irish in the USA showed by their contribution that the racial prejudice about Irish unfitness for modernity was unfounded; in Cardinal Cullen’s emergent version of later revisionist apologias for the Famine, the catastrophe was providential because it spread Catholicism throughout the Protestant empire and countered the heathenish and atheistic dimensions of  the modern world. His notion of providential design endorses the disaster, as do all the subsequent “historical” accounts which claim that, without the Famine, we would never in Ireland have reached the promised land of imperial modernity.

Was there ever an alternative? Either an alternative modernity or an alternative to modernity? In one answer, Mac Suibhne says no, there never was, in either case. In the inexorable processes of historical change, the need for survival decreed that, in this area and in this instance, greed and cruel deeds had to be allowed fade into oblivion. “It was hard to remember and best to forget.” For the first generation raised in English from the 1880s, that sinister modern nostrum “Move on” seems to have become internalised as a species of communal wisdom, enforced by the astonishing velocity of the changes that left sixty people remaining in Beagh by 1901, and about twenty-five in the 1960s, before a slow turn of the tide began. In west Donegal by the 60s, Mac Suibhne tells us, “the living had been walking away from their dead since the time of the Famine. They had been doing so literally through mass migration, and they had been doing so figuratively through cultural change.”

So is this a story of betrayal after all? Betrayal implies an alternative. Can it be fingered? The impersonal forces that had been governing the lives of the people of the region since the last half of the eighteenth century are listed. Potatoes replaced oatmeal as the staple diet and a longstanding grain and cattle-based economy gave way to the new one that was itself less than a century old when the Great Hunger came and then lasted no more than a century after. All the changes, like the “squaring” of farms that preceded the demographic collapse, the subsequent cultural derangement, the pitching of a desolated people into a globalising economy, the extinction of the remembrance of former things, are deeply absorbed into the story. Yet if these processes were implacable, is there still room for blame? Can we speak of people who might have been ethically damnable at that time and who now seem either less so or even, in one of our retrospects, admirable? Worse than condemnation is to have to say that people have by now lost interest in making such distinctions. For it is only the impetus of our loss, that surrender to passivity, that can carry the region’s, or the island’s, cultural payload to the point of separation, beyond the gravitational pull of the past. Yet there still abides a sense of betrayal in this account of how a complex and bitter taste ultimately dissolved, especially on the English-speaking tongue.

The two villains of the piece, McGlynn and James Gallagher, become not merely contingent indicators of these impersonal forces, they become central types of a wholesale sell-out to them. Neither Gallagher nor his descendants had much luck, but there’s little sense of nemesis, no more than there is any active awareness generally of how well the present beneficiaries of ancestral criminal behaviour have fared. Amnesia is a great friend of atrocity. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, it seems, the great betrayal was all but complete, and the sense of outrage had long since expired. Yet, the question hangs icily in the air. Is that itself a good thing, a relief, a sign of what the standard Irish commentariat calls ‘maturity’? Or is it a symptom of the depths of betrayal, still unfathomed, even by this book, of what will always make us foreign, especially to ourselves and to a past that is ours but to which we only weakly belong, since it asks more questions of us than we do of it.

French mountaineers, when they reach a certain height, when a close group effort is needed to avert danger, switch from calling each other by the more formal vous to the more intimate tu. Even the French revolutionaries who successfully replaced some of the standard usages of vous and tu, which implied unwanted hierarchies, left this old practice intact. Mac Suibhne’s story shows that the inverse of this happened in his Donegal and, by extension, in Ireland. The more vertiginous the danger, the weaker the community became. Finally, even the idea of community became threadbare. Yet a continuity (of which this book itself is an element) persists, a weak pulse that still resonates and echoes wanly in this stethoscopic account. We hear of the links between the coalfields of Pennsylvania, the original Molly Maguires, the alternative world that resistance might have created, of another betrayal that led to executions, family links across the sea and time with the Beagh community, the habit of silence, so honed in a community aware of the bestial practices of the forever snuffling authorities and then, the story of a love song, Connlach Glas an Fhómhair, of the eighteenth century. In 1937, an elderly woman told of hearing the song sung by a woman on her deathbed, and the lament in that reminiscence is for all the songs that would be lost, all that would not be remembered.

The reader of this book is from the outset captured and captivated by its bivalve nature as both a local and personal memoir, as an historical record and a meditation on generational change. Mac Suibhne’s earlier work, his editions of Hugh Dorian:The Outer Edge of Ulster, (2000) and of John Gamble (2011), gave fair warning of what we might expect. We once again meet with the empirical, saturating detail of a lived world that has yet to be captured as “history” but, just by virtue of being written and of being read, already is history; the recovery of lost time that has lostness as the enabling condition of its existence. This is where the novel, the memoir, the history meet as familiar strangers and where the most tragic features of their crossroad encounters emerge ‑ that first, the extinction of so much and so many is what has made modernity possible and then, second, as its necessary companion, the eventual extinction of outrage at that fact and then, third, the extinction of even that extinction. It is also typical of the cynicism of official discourse that any act of violence against the prevailing system of government is dubbed an “outrage”, the word that is itself most appropriate for the system. But Mac Suibhne’s title beats its own triple tattoo on that key term; it reverberates throughout the text, minatory, here a solitary drum strike, there a steel brush on its skin.

Did the Famine produce modernity or did modernity produce the Famine? Modernity is a skeleton key that turns any lock, even the genocidal one, in any work on the terrible decade of the 1840s. In the Whig interpretation (sometimes ironised but rarely challenged outright) the Famine is inevitable, unstoppable, a good thing. From the Catholic clergy to the Protestant politicians and landlords, from Oxbridge historians to Glasgow Rangers supporters, from Engels and Marx trailing their Hegelian clouds of glory rather close to the gory ground of capitalism, to the Leninist assaults on the dangers of traditional “habit” among the peasantry – “Cannon to left of us / Cannon to right of us” ‑ the chorus of approval for modernity’s demolition of the peasantry and its culture is deafening. Works of art such as Brian Friel’s Translations, to which Mac Suibhne has attached a GPS tracking device, are more interrogatory. Since modernity’s marriage to hereditary custom became a theme in proto-nationalist cultures such as Ireland’s (in its novels) or Italy’s (in its operas), the promise of future bliss has not always been assured. In that early precursor of Friel’s play, Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma (1846) a Celts v Romans game, in which even a great “Celtic” moment, as in the aria “Casta Diva” (especially if sung by Maria Callas), with its invocation of the ancient moon goddess of the community, is ominous. Affirmation becomes lament, as the consolidated communal voice of the chorus competes in vain with the individualised voice of the heroine. Norma has already betrayed her community in her secret love for a Roman ‑ code for the marriage to modernity that always involves a betrayal. Mazzini advocated a shift in Italian opera from the aria to the chorus the better to exemplify the voice of the community; the famous (if repetitive) chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Verdi’s Nabucco (“Va pensiero”), forbidden by the Austrians, was sung as the national anthem repeatedly at La Scala and ultimately at Verdi’s funeral, with Toscanini conducting. In Ireland, the contest was between the Moorish Melody and the Young Ireland Ballad, enacted in cultural slow motion but ultimately summarised ‑ as usual ‑  in Joyce, the Irish tenor in whose work the aria-chorus dialectic was enacted between isolate subjective voice and choric soliloquy, from Dedalus to the Wake, Tommy Moore to Tim Finnegan. Of immediate interest here is his recognition that the Fenians were a new and formidable force in the transformation of the Irish for survival in modern conditions and his question ‑ could they do it themselves without the inevitable betrayal? Stephen, in Portrait, tells Davin that when, at the next rebellion, he comes to “want the indispensable informer” that he, Stephen, “can find you a few in this college”. Is artistic autonomy, that cultural caliphate, the only form of authority that is betrayal-proof, perhaps the only alternative modernity then to be found in Irish conditions?

The Eiffel Tower, constructed in 1889, was quickly taken to be the archetypal “modern” building, proudly astride the Parisian skyline, without rival until the church of Sacré Coeur, (surely the ugliest of  Paris’s beautiful buildings) its gleaming traditionalist  opponent, built on Montparnasse, above the site of the Paris Commune, was completed in 1914. Several French authors disliked the Eiffel, among them Guy de Maupassant, who found it so impossible to look at Paris with the Eiffel Tower dominant that he chose to dine under it; that way, he would not have to look at it, or be able to see it. The Maupassant “solution” to the Eiffel Tower is like the Irish “solution” to the Famine. Gaze out from it but never look at it, deny its horror by dwelling in its shade, let a barbarous history be replaced, over lunch, by an anodyne heredity.

Mac Suibhne’s book brilliantly exploits the paradox that consistently threatens to undermine it. It may be that, in his own words in the last section of the book,

Making a history of the homeplace was never an exercise in casting up the doings of the long dead to the living, and, indeed, the history that has been made only underscores the absurdity of calling anybody to account for their ancestors.

True enough, especially when we study the examples of the “trivial little story nobody in the parish remembers”, as Owen puts it in Brian Friel’s Translations. But, conceding all, a couple of pages earlier, we had read: “But it is betrayal that transfixes. And by the middle decades of the twentieth century, the great betrayal was near complete, and outrage had long since ended.” Is this a resolution, a general overview? Or do the trivial little stories come back to haunt the conclusion? Is this a history or a memoir, or is it possible to inhabit a space in which both are true? Insofar as this study is exemplary of a general condition that is the product of the irreversible progress of long-term structural change, it is compellingly persuasive; insofar as it is, simultaneously, a local, familial history of the loss of the capacity for outrage at the result, it lies athwart that history. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, when he was addressing those who, like himself, wondered how fascism could be possible in the twentieth century: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”


Photograph: Con Kennedy in Beagh c1980, from the epilogue to The End of Outrage.

Seamus Deane, formerly of UCD and now emeritus professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, USA, has published widely on Irish and French themes of the post-Enlightenment era.