Facing the Famine: a testy topic that stood out among the fluff
RADIO:A series on the Famine was welcome in a week short of substance
The first day of 2013 hadn’t even passed when we heard how they had started to arrive in Ireland from all points of the globe. Be it in the US, Australia, South Africa, even India and Russia, the call had been heard and was being answered fully by those wishing to do their bit for the country in its hour of need. Unfortunately for the organisers of The Gathering, however, the arrivals under discussion in Blighted Nation (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Friday) were not members of the diaspora flocking back at the behest of a much-hyped tourism initiative, but the ships that carried food from around the world to Famine- ravaged Ireland in the 1840s.
The first episode of the four-part documentary on the famine contained stirring tales of how Ireland’s plight sparked donation drives among such unlikely communities as the Jewish congregation in New York and the displaced Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma. These accounts of effectively the first international aid effort in history provided the few moments of relief in a series that otherwise traded in unsurprisingly downbeat material.
The programmes, presented by Myles Dungan – fully back in the saddle as RTÉ’s resident radio historian after being briefly displaced by the ubiquitous Diarmaid Ferriter – spliced anecdote with analysis, with varying degrees of impact. The opening instalment looked at the onset of the blight and the horrific effects of the hunger that followed, told through items such as a mock bulletin by meteorologist Gerald Fleming on weather conditions lethal to the weakened population, a report on life in the wretched poorhouses, and a chilling account on the realities of death by starvation.
Throughout it all, a panel of academics provided illuminating insights on the grim subject matter, such as the Famine’s calamitous but often overlooked effects on the northern Protestant population, letting the facts speak for themselves rather than playing the emotive card. Tempers ran higher in the second episode, however, as Dungan’s guests on the night tackled the reliably febrile issue of whether the Brits were to blame for the whole disaster.
Journalist and historian Tim Pat Coogan felt the British government was guilty of genocide, claiming it was determined to clear the Irish countryside of small tenant farmers and landless labourers and replace them with a more efficient agricultural economy. Academics Mary Daly and Peter Gray rejected Coogan’s view, instead placing the Whig administration’s catastrophic laissez-faire policies in the context of the era, while playing down the limited ability of the Victorian state to effectively alleviate the suffering. The British had little sympathy for the Irish, said Daly, “but that’s not the same as genocide”.
As the guests traded arguments, the tone of the discussion became increasingly testy. American author John Kelly, who felt the British were guilty of “malignant indifference” rather than “genocidal intent”, eventually rounded on Coogan, asking why the government had set up soup kitchens if it meant to wipe the population out. It was a fair point, which left Coogan spluttering about the UN’s definition of genocide.