In defence of ‘Hungry’….

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.


2 thoughts on “In defence of ‘Hungry’….

  1. If this television show was anything but a comedy, perhaps I could see your point of view but it is not and if we all wait for the show to air, our protests would be too late to have any effect at all on said outcome. To say people that are protesting have political agendas or know nothing about history is unfair. There are many well-read self-taught historians who have educated themselves by reading books without a conventional education and to put simply, because they love Ireland. I don’t believe the writers of this sitcom would actually pokes fun at starving people in Ireland, but I do think it may it trivialize those events.

    • Hi Brighid,

      Thanks for your comment. Can I ask why you say if it was anything else other than a comedy? As it stands nobody knows what direction this proposed series is going to take. I think it would be crass if the victims were to be laughed at. I suspect the intention is to laugh with them. What is wrong with laughter in this way? Do you think that the famine victims would be happier to be pitied and cried about? If that is the case, how do you, or how does anybody else know this is what they would have wanted? Laughter is just as valid an emotion as sadness.

      Regarding my accusation of political agendas, the only people I mentioned this in relation to were politicians. They always have a political agenda, it is the nature of the beast. Once they make a proclamation in their capacity as a politician, it is political.

      Regarding self-taught people, I have absolutely nothing but respect for people who go down this path. I have never once in my piece (or any other written piece) denigrated them. I stated that people who tend to be outraged by the likes of this come at it from an unhistorical (or nationalist, which I will address in a minute) viewpoint. That doesn’t mean they are not educated, or are not well-read. I would never make that assumption. What I did say, that it was my experience, and it is. I have come across many outraged people who have not weighed up the historical evidence which exists in relation to the Irish Famine, and made an informed decision based upon the evidence, or the historiography which exists. That is, undoubtedly, coming at it from an unhistorical viewpoint. That doesn’t mean they are not educated, or not well-read. They just haven’t examined the peer-reviewed evidence at hand.

      As for nationalist viewpoints, the charge is similar. A lot of nationalist historians (not all) tend to discount the evidence which doesn’t fit well with a nationalist viewpoint. This is especially true when evidence is discounted which challenges the prevailing nationalist narrative. In this case, Ireland = Good, England = Bad. This too is political, and used as a stick to beat in present political debates. I have been critical of England/Britain in the piece for the ineptitude, which left approximately 1m dead, and which to the present has cast a shadow on the country I have lived the vast majority of my life in. But to state that it was deliberate genocide (which a lot of nationalist historians have described, including TP Coogan) doesn’t stand up to the rigorous scrutiny which professional historians, as well as those who have a respect for the discipline are expected to adhere to.

      I am not dismissing your right to object, far from it. My point in the piece was an anti-hysteria piece. Look at the online outrage, the petitions, the un-informed vitriol directed at the writer and the TV Channel, when the programme has yet to be made.

      Again, thanks for your comment.

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