Facing the Famine: a testy topic that stood out among the fluff

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

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.

But while his righteous, nationalist-flavoured rhetoric lacked subtlety, Coogan’s insistent focus on the suffering of the Famine’s victims struck a more sympathetic chord than the scrupulously even-handed approach of Daly and Gray, who afforded more balance to the ruling establishment than seemed necessary. Detachment may be vital for academic studies, but in the context of a popular history show, Coogan’s polemics resonated more.

Overall, Dungan’s series provided a comprehensive if slightly sprawling overview of a still-raw topic. It may not always have hit the mark – singer Declan O’Rourke’s specially written songs seemed superfluous, while Mary Robinson’s contributions were delivered like public speeches – but Blighted Nation was a slice of serious, substantive radio.

Its presence was all the more welcome in a week when the airwaves were conspicuously short of solid content. Those big-name presenters who bothered to return at all sounded as though they were still shaking off the festive slumber, with Ray D’Arcy admitting as much. Amid the banter and extended quizzes that made up Wednesday’s edition of The Ray D’Arcy Show (Today FM, weekdays), the host chuckled that he and his team were taking it easy, but “we’ll be back to normal on Monday”.

Kudos then to Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays), whose first show of the year was delivered to his usual arresting standard, at least if you skipped the interview with celebrity self-publicist Amanda Brunker. Among the most striking items was the discussion with Mark Maguire of NUI Maynooth about the integration of African immigrants into Irish society.

Maguire exploded some insidious myths about the supposedly cushy asylum system while talking revealingly about the largely unnoticed Pentecostal network that knits together African communities here.

But while the item had a cautiously optimistic air – there was no organised anti-immigration movement here, Maguire noted – it ended on a muted note, as Moncrieff posed the crucial question: “Do they feel they have been accepted?”

“In general terms, probably no,” Maguire replied.

Moment of the Week ‘Live’ from the archive

Opening his show on New Year’s Eve, Tom Dunne (Newstalk, weekdays) was disarmingly candid about its pre-recorded nature. He said that the programme, consisting of archive interviews with celebrity guests discussing their favourite songs, was “a little bit special”.

Then, with admirable honesty, he added: “Let’s face it, all shows over Christmas are often very special in a presenter-friendly kind of way. And this show is no different.”

And he was right.