Once again I dust down the blog, and blow away the virtual cobwebs. I feel I really should be using this blog more often than I do, even if it is just to air my views (to the very limited audience that would find them of interest) rather than keeping it for the research-based articles I inflict upon this corner of cyberspace. This time I’m taking to the keys in defence of something which hasn’t even been made yet, Channel 4’s proposed Famine ‘comedy’ Hungry.
As I type, I’m wondering if it is a bit absurd to be defending something which no one has yet seen, besides the writer, and then it is only within his own head. The answer is of course no. Not when there has been such outrage against it already. It bears repeating that this television series has yet to be made. The outrage is solely based upon what has been read, or read into, on social media, ambiguous press snippets, and Irish Central. If so much outrage has been voiced without even a camera being turned on, then it is only right that there should be someone to defend that which has yet to see the light of day.
The outrage is because someone dared to have an idea, an idea which tackles one of Ireland’s darkest chapters in it’s modern history. The Great Famine of the 1840’s. No doubt it is an emotive topic. However, in my admittedly limited experience (having studied it at undergraduate level under a world-renowned Famine historian) the people who tend to be outraged the most at it, are the people who have approached it from an unhistorical, or nationalist viewpoint. Viewed in simplistic ‘us and them’ terms, it can be highly emotive and presented in clear-cut terms. Speaking about the Highland Clearances in Scotland, Professor Ewen Cameron of Edinburgh University has described that episode as “one of the most evocative and symbolic but least understood episodes in Scottish History”. In many respects, the Highland Clearances are Scotland’s ‘Famine’, and as with Scotland, Ireland’s famine is emotive, yet in many instances misunderstood or misrepresented.
Predictably enough, the first shouts of anger came from several directions. The ever-reliable barometer of public opinion, the on-line petition, politicians eager to reaffirm their nationalist credentials (even if the national question at hand is over 150 years old), and historians who are perhaps still peddling a point of view they made in their most recent book. Tim Pat Coogan was one of the earliest and most recognisable voices to come out against this proposed sitcom. Having recently published The Famine Plot, ‘Ireland’s greatest historian‘ (an embarrassing title, given that I personally know quite a number of historians more deserving of that, not that they’d accept it) has called the project ‘unsavoury’, stating:
“my initial reaction is one of dismay. Would they make a comedy series about the holocaust? It really does defeat your powers of comprehension. You really would have to be talking about making jokes about Belsen and Auschwitz and the gas chambers to make it an equivocal thing in our lifetime.”
It is worth noting that among the vast majority of historians both inside and outside of the academy, Coogan’s appraisal of deliberate genocide has been dismissed. Yes, the British establishment of the period were inept and clueless about many aspects of the Ireland they ruled over. The laissez-faire economics of the time were derided as unsuitable to Ireland, and as we know had disastrous consequences. However, to lay the charge of deliberate genocide and compare to what was most definitely the deliberate genocide of millions of Jews in WWII is disingenuous to say the least.
In 1847 the Irish Confederation published a booklet entitled Irish Political Economy. Edited by John Mitchel, he starkly contrasted ‘Irish’ political economy with what he witheringly called ‘English’ or ‘Famine’ political economy. It was well received, with many authors in agreement with Mitchel’s views. In general, the objections were not to political economy as such but to a ‘political economy which preached laissez-faire, the absolute nature of property (especially in land), and the sanctity of contract. There was a general opinion that these principles were suitable to an advanced industrial society such as England but not to an economically and socially backward agricultural one like Ireland’. (T.A. Boyland & T.P. Foley: Political Economy and Colonial Ireland, pp 7-8.)
Boyland and Foley also point out that in the early part of the 20th century prominent Nationalist and Historian Alice Stopford Greene declared that ‘Englishmen could not understand Irish conditions. The political economy they advocated for their own
country had no relation to Ireland’. (A.S.Greene, Irish Nationality, p. 229.) It appears that the ‘genocide’ narrative is a relatively new one. If it had been a long-held notion, surely some of this would have surfaced in the work of a prominent nationalist such as Alice Stopford Greene. (It is worth noting that the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom subscribed to the ‘genocide’ narrative. Nevertheless, as Greene’s views show above, this was not necessarily a uniform view among advanced nationalists of the day. Certainly today it isn’t the prevailing view among historians.)
In the same article which Mr Coogan had voiced his concerns, one of the North’s MLA’s Phil Flanagan has derided the use of the famine as a “vehicle for comedy”. This is, of course Mr Flanagan’s right to object. However, to the best of my knowledge none of Northern Ireland’s prominent politicians of any side or description has spoken out against that region’s long running ‘comedy’ show Give My Head Peace which lampoons many aspects of the Northern conflict which claimed the lives of approximately 3,600 people over thirty recent turbulent years. If there has been no outcry against this, then why the outcry of people who died in a less non-violent (and no less tragic) way 160 years ago?
I am not here to make light of this dark period, or to underestimate the suffering caused to the people at that time. There are plenty of accounts to be had of undue suffering by malnutrition and hunger, as well as the actions of unscrupulous landlords, agents, and Gombeen men. However, it is people such as the uncaring landlords which are ripe for ridicule. A satirical take on uncaring landlords, laissez-faire economics, and the famed ‘1 percent‘ has almost as much resonance today as it would have in the mid-late 1840s.
One of the problems with certain views of the Famine is the absence of historical agency of the victims. The picture we have is of passive, pathetic victims. Indeed, the only time when we see the Irish achieve historical agency in relation to Britain is with the many instances of armed insurrection over the centuries. Outside of these instances of political violence, there is very little mention of historical agency. Surely the ability to direct their lives to some degree of normality, despite the horrendous conditions of the time did not desert ‘the Famine Irish’.
A similar fate once befell one of popular history’s most recognisable victims, the slaves and ex-slaves in American Slavery historiography. This concept changed with African-American historian W.E.B. Du Bois who popularised the notion that the slaves were historical agents, playing a pivotal role in their own destiny. (J.C. Rodrigue ‘Black Agency After Slavery, in T.J. Brown eds Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Post Bellum United States, p. 2) It would be, and is indeed a great disservice to continue to portray Famine victims as passive, pathetic and unable to attain any level of historical agency. If, as one suspects, that the focus of the proposed programme will be on the victims, it will be giving the subjects the agency which has deserted them in nationalist popular history. Although it isn’t historically accurate to put words in the mouths of historical characters, even un-named characters, there is little problem or outcry when it is packaged as a serious play, say by play-writes like Tom Murphy or Jaki McCarrick.
Of course there are sensitivity concerns, it would be churlish to dismiss them as out of hand. Many people feel that the spectre of the ‘stage Irishman’ stereotype has been (rightly) relegated to the dustbin of history, and are perhaps fearful of a return. I can understand this, having lived in England at a time when it was still a popular stereotype. Channel 4 of recent years has become somewhat of a P.T. Barnum of voyeuristic television, and the writer’s suggestion that it will be comparable to Shameless is concerning to many. Nevertheless, the outcry against an idea still in an embryonic stage has been fuelled by a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a tragic period of our history. In the end, whether the show is a success or not will come down to the skill involved in the writing. Only then should it be judged, not by premature on-line hysteria.