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Representing Disaster

Patrick J Murray

Apparitions of Death and Disease: The Great Hunger in Ireland, by Christine Kinealy, Cork University Press, 40 pp, €11.95, ISBN 978-0990468615
Limits of the Visible: Representing the Great Hunger, by Luke Gibbons, Cork University Press, 40 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-0990468622
The Tombs of a Departed Race: Illustrations of Ireland’s Great Hunger, by Niamh O’Sullivan, Cork University Press, 68 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-0990468639
Monuments and Memorials of the Great Famine, by Catherine Marshall, Cork University Press, 36 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-0990468608

¡Canto qué mal me sales cuando tengo que cantar espanto!
(How hard it is to sing / When I must sing of horror)
Victor Jara, “Estadio Chile”

The words of the Chilean poet and political activist Victor Jara powerfully express how responding to traumatic events remains one of art’s most problematic undertakings. Written during his incarceration, torture and death at the hands of the Pinochet regime in 1973, Jara’s poem juxtaposes the potential beauty of the aesthetic with the direness of the real to evoke the complexities at the heart of artistic engagement with any human tragedy. Horrific events are, in the words of Shakespeare’s Macduff, beyond articulation: “O horror, horror, horror! / Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!” This sense of inadequacy is enhanced when the creative work, with its overtones of pleasure and even whimsy, enters the fray: canto (singing) contrasts in an almost visceral way with the seemingly ineffable espanto (horror).

Alongside insufficiency of articulation, art also struggles against the almost insurmountable obstacle of justification, of treating appropriately victims of the most egregious forms of suffering. Of note in this regard is Theodor Adorno’s famous observation that “After Auschwitz, poetry is barbaric”, a maxim which transposes the brutality of the Nazi death chambers onto any attempt to respond artistically, as though the dead will have been doubly transgressed by any subsequent invocation. If we engage with events in the past through artistic mediums, we also tread on delicate ground. To do so without due sensitivity can engender accusations of a lack of sensitivity, or even, in Adorno’s forthright term, barbarism. Poetry, after all, makes nothing happen. To do justice to an occurrence as tragic as the Jewish Holocaust of mid-twentieth century Europe via the medium of poetry may appear impossible, even callously cruel. To engage with the underlying causes of it, and enact – in the tradition of Aristotle – a collective catharsis seems almost inconceivable.

A further complicating factor for any artistic engagement with horrific historical events is that it also necessitates interacting with often fraught socio-political and historical discourses. As the blurb to Catherine Marshall’s Monuments and Memorials of the Great Famine observes of creative commemorations in particular, and artistic representations more generally, they are “born out of conflicting memories, [and as such] can be problematic”. This is intensified when the tragedy is attended by a long history of controversial debate, as it is in the case of the Great Irish Famine of the mid-nineteenth-century, which devastated the country and its populace. Such controversy is symbolised by the very issue of categorising the event. Of the four volumes recently published by Cork University Press and reviewed here, three describe it “the Great Famine” (Catherine Marshall, Niamh O’Sullivan and Luke Gibbons) while the other employs the more emotive term “the Great Hunger” (Christine Kinealy). These discrepancies bring to the forefront the debate regarding how historians and writers have wrestled with the correct or appropriate nomenclature, and the underlying issues embedded in the seemingly straightforward act of naming. In the context of an occurrence such as the Great Hunger, words and names carry portentous significance. Was it a catastrophe precipitated by natural misfortune? Or, in its most provocative description, a genocidal holocaust engineered by a colonial government? As Christine Kinealy observes, the deprivation of 1845-52 is almost as vexatious as it was catastrophic: “how did a famine of such magnitude and severity occur in a country that was still exporting vast quantities of foodstuffs, and which, moreover, lay at the center of the resource-rich British Empire[?]”

In one of the very few explicit references to the troubled history of his native country contained in his work, Shaw includes in his 1903 play Man and Superman the following exchange between the American-Irish immigrant Hector Malone and his wife Violet:

Malone: Me father died of starvation in Ireland in the Black ’47.
Maybe you’ve heard of it?
Violet: The Famine?
Malone: No, the starvation. When a country is full o’ food and exporting it, there can be no Famine.

In Malone’s designation “the starvation”, there is a searing accusation – that of deliberate and wilful mass murder by famine. Malone’s words echo a longstanding Irish nationalist sentiment regarding the Great Hunger. The spread of the potato-rotting disease Phytophthora infestans from North America to Western Europe in the early 1840s covered a diverse range of climates, countries and peoples, reaching as far as the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south, Slovakia in the east and Norway in the north. Yet the consequences for Ireland were especially devastating, resulting in one million dead and another million displaced, a quarter of the population. The charismatic Young Irelander John Mitchel, again drawing attention to the importance of responsibility, laid the blame firmly at the door of the English government for the disaster. Noting the difference between the experience of Ireland and other neighbouring countries such as Scotland who also suffered from the blight, Mitchel observes:

The English indeed, call that famine a dispensation of Providence and ascribe it entirely to the blight of the potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe, yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is, first a fraud; second a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.

Indictments of fraud and blasphemy show the potency of chronicling the Hunger, even in the way we designate it. In calling the Hunger a “starvation” and a man-made “famine”, Malone and Mitchel forcefully argue against agricultural mischance and inculpate the baleful agency of English colonialism.

The Hunger remains at once a tragic and a controversial episode. Because of the sensitivity surrounding it – both in terms of how we evaluate history of the English governance of Ireland, and also the very nature of Ireland as a geographical entity in itself – the years 1845-52 are weighted with symbolic, political and emotional significance. Scholarship concerning it has been marked for many generations by a degree of equanimity and even silence. The recrudescent nationalism that emerged during the Troubles in the northern part of the island added a further layer of complexity to how the country looked at its past. From the late 1960s onwards arguments over the historic legitimacy and actions of the British government in the country were imbued with a contemporary and deadly relevance. As if to emphasise the potency of historiography of the Famine, one of the first political interventions by the British government occurred on the 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger and was enacted by the then prime minister Tony Blair, who acknowledged the catastrophic actions of the Peel and Russell administrations of the 1840s. “Those who governed in London at the time,” he said in 1997, “failed their people.” Tellingly, Blair was also one of the most important actors in the creation of the Northern Ireland peace process. These dual roles – apologiser for past events and reconciler of current animosity – exemplify how the past and the present are subtly but inextricably interlinked.

Political as well as aesthetic difficulties then intrude upon any attempts to record the Hunger. Because of the central role played by the London government in the events of the 1840s any chronicle unavoidably implicates the fraught narrative of Anglo-Irish relations. And this narrative has a contemporary as well as historical piquancy: from the medieval period onwards, a range of dynamics has shaped the country’s past, and continues to influence its present. Indeed, the consequences are still palpable in the geographical makeup of the country today, with the Anglo-Scottish plantations of Ulster in the early 1600s developing into the partitioned enclave of the North today.

With contemporary politics and attitudes being so bound up in historical events, scholarship concerning the Anglo-Irish relationship has often reverted to mitigation, obfuscation and cerebralising, especially when faced with the actions and legacy of colonialism. For example, issues such as the attempted conquest of the country in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the English crown have been subject to what one writer has described as “the amnesia of empire”. Brendan Bradshaw is one of a number of historians who have shown how historians detailing Ireland’s history have in the past sought to ameliorate some its more controversial issues. Writing in his important essay “Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland”, Bradshaw writes damningly of historiography’s treatment of the Great Hunger:

... the trauma of the nineteenth-century famine reveals, perhaps more tellingly than any other episode of Irish history, the inability of practitioners of value-free history to cope with the catastrophic dimensions of the Irish past. Here, confronted by an episode which does not easily lend itself to treatment by ‘evasion’ or by ‘normalisation’ as in the case of conquest and colonisation ‑ because disaster forms the substance of the event ‑ the response of the value-free school has been, in the main, as in the case of the violence of the conquest, one of sheer neglect.

Over the past twenty years, however, this failure to engage with sensitive periods in Ireland’s history such as the Hunger has slowly been addressed by artists and scholars alike. “Normalisation” and “evasion” have been replaced by attempts to understand the event, its causes and consequences. This has perhaps been the result of something as simple as the passing of a century and a half since the height of the disaster. Furthermore, the vociferous passions of the historical blame game have largely been mollified as relations between Ireland and the government of Britain have been calmed since the peace process, even to the extent of former nationalist leaders dining with the House of Windsor. Consequently, shorn of its temporal immediacy and political potency, the Hunger stands in 2015 as an epoch of significance subject to careful and conscientious consideration.

These folio volumes, distributed by Cork University Press, emblematise this approach. Part of the broader cultural project of “Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum” at Quinnipiac University, they represent the start of a series of intended studies of various aspects of 1845-52 which has done much to advance the cause of Famine studies in the past couple of decades. Having published Margaret Kelleher’s significant feminist reading entitled Feminization of Famine: Expressions of the Inexpressible? (1997) as well as countless articles in its journal The Irish Review, it has provided a platform for scholars and authors to consider the Hunger and its manifold issues. In addition, CUP’s The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, first published in 2012, is as substantial as it is important, drawing together an international array of literary scholars, geographers, historians, scientists and writers to explore the nature, causes and effects of the disaster.

In keeping with this tradition of in-depth, informed and multidisciplinary scholarship, essays by Christine Kinealy, Catherine Marshall, Luke Gibbons and Niamh O’Sullivan explore different facets of the Hunger. While each has its own particular topic, the four volumes take as their general subject the issue of artistic reactions to the Hunger, both contemporaneous and subsequent. Kinealy’s essay sets the scene, providing a concise chronology of the Great Hunger from the onset in late August 1845 to Black ’47, when the blight affected the crop for a second devastating year in a row, through to the mass levels of emigration and eviction in the early 1850s. In doing so, she touches upon some of the artistic representations of the event both from contemporary sources (James Mahony’s famous drawings for the Illustrated London News) and also more modern artistic reactions (John Behan’s spectral-populated sculptures). Several attempts to react to the horror of mass famine are analysed in Kinealy’s book, and the author draws attention to works of cultural importance in both the visual and plastic arts. These are often inflected by abstraction, reminding us that realist representation can often impoverish both art and historical events – Charlotte Kelly’s stark “A Quiet Place Now” depicts an Impressionist-inflected landscape, its depopulated, trench-scarred vista powerfully suggesting the depopulation and abandoned agriculture triggered by the potato blight. In art, evocation is often more powerful than description. Among the images contained in Kinealy’s book, most striking is perhaps its front cover, a hard black oak carving of an emaciated female figure seemingly garbed, though still alive, in her funeral shroud. Kevin Tuohy’s “Lonely Widow” calls to mind Edmund Spenser’s famous description of another Irish starvation, that of the Munster famine during the Desmond Rebellion of the 1580s:

Out of every corner of the woods and glynnes they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not bear them, they looked like anatomies of death, they spake like Ghosts crying out of their graves, they did eate the dead Carrions, happy were they could find them, yea, and one another soon after.

Tuohy’s work conveys the spectral quality of a severely malnourished human so powerfully and disturbingly delineated in Spenser’s work. Separated by centuries but united by subject and geographical setting, the respective delineations of Tuohy and Spenser foreground the shocking life/death coalescence of starvation. If art’s engagement with human tragedy is fraught with complications, those examples discussed by Kinealy show how it can nevertheless represent a powerful and profoundly human evocation of horror’s visage.

If scholarship concerning the Hunger has burgeoned in the past two decades, this series of studies shows how artistic reactions to it in the form of sculpture, public exhibitions, monuments and memorials have also proliferated. As Catherine Marshall’s study shows, artists such as Rowan Gillespie, Lilian Lucy Davidson and John Behan have produced works commemorating and reflecting upon the Great Hunger. Importantly, these are available for general consumption, featuring in public parks and areas of communal use. Behan’s National Famine Memorial, for example, depicts a sail-less ship cast in bronze, conjuring the million who were forced to abandon their homeland in the face of the catastrophe. Located in Murrisk, Co Mayo, it stands as a commemoration of the waves of emigrants who departed Ireland in the wake of the Hunger.

Troublingly, however, very few of such artistic objects examined in Marshall’s essay are situated in Ireland, reminding us that while much has been done to commemorate it abroad, the momentousness of the Hunger is only starting to be fully acknowledged. Works such as Behan’s, and Edward Delaney’s Famine Memorial, a bronze sculptural group that forms part of a broader memorial to the eighteenth-century Irish Republican martyr Theobald Wolfe Tone located on the corner of Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin, are exceptions to the rule. As Behan himself recognises, generations of Irish artists neglected the Hunger as a topic of artistic representation and reflection:

The Great Irish Famine of 1845-52 is embedded in the folk memory of all Irish people as an unresolved phenomenon ‑ memories of history lessons at school are of unspeakable sadness and suffering to me personally. Like the generations before me, my peers and I have not faced up to the facts of the Famine. Perhaps its complexities have not been properly and fully laid out for us. We have tended to highlight issues such as Queen Victoria’s meagre contribution, something we can deal with rather than view in a detached way why the Famine occurred.

The similar, but subtly different phenomena of selective memory and forgetfulness outlined by Behan as part of Irish society in the late nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century are understandable when considered alongside the scale of the catastrophe. The Hunger was a humanitarian catastrophe almost unparalleled in modern European history. As Luke Gibbons’s essay reiterates, there are complexities attending attempts to represent catastrophe visually. While accepting that apart from certain landmark works such a Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1962) there has been a tendency to “avert one’s gaze”, Gibbons asks whether this was due more to the limitations of delineating such an event than a deliberate avoidance on the part of historiography. His essay traces the history of attempts to visually depict the Great Famine, both during the event and in the century and a half following.

Of the four titles reviewed here, Niamh O’Sullivan’s is perhaps the most impressive. The chapter titles of her book give an indication as to the central concerns of her study. Through eight sections entitled variously “Horrible Suffering, Utter Penury”, “Crawling Skeletons”, “Half-Clad Spectres”, “Mass of Human Putrefaction”, “The Triumph of Pestilence and the Feast of Death” and “Buried in the Deep”, The Tombs of a Departed Race lays out in unflinching detail many of the tragic consequences of the Hunger. Drawing on a wide array of philosophical thinking to bolster her argument, including Susan Sontag and Primo Levi, O’Sullivan shows how the putative “modernisation” of Ireland according to Victorian laissez-faire principles of government in the nineteenth century was in fact a time marked by suffering, disease, hardship and mass fatality. Rich with first-hand accounts, and taking a truly global viewpoint – it pays particular heed to the emigrant’s experience aboard overcrowded ships to North America as they escape the Hunger – O’Sullivan’s work is a substantial contribution to what is an important series.

The wider issues surrounding the Great Hunger, and its underlying socio-economic and political factors have meant that it remains one of the most emotive events in the history of Ireland. Similarly, the extent of suffering has meant that aesthetic reactions can seem painfully inadequate. While the Great Hunger of 1845-1852 has only recently received the attention it deserves, the likes of Kinealy, Marshall, Gibbons and O’Sullivan exemplify a growing band of scholars, writers and artists who are engaging with one of the most profound human tragedies of the nineteenth century in sensitive and illuminating ways.

1/09/2015

Patrick J. Murray is a researcher at the University of Glasgow. He has published on a range of topics including early modern Irish history and the poetry of Margaret Atwood.

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