Oct 16th, 1998: Turning the Famine into a corporate celebration
Those in positions of power and authority in Ireland seldom take responsibility for the state of its political institutions and corporate culture. One of the reasons for this failure is that, in Ireland, the Establishment is always someone else. All the insiders like to think of themselves as outsiders.
Famine Memorial by Eric Luke
This is an excerpt from a special supplement marking 25 years of life through the columns of Fintan O'Toole
[To read more in this series see our digital edition here]
“An intrinsic aspect of the memory of the Famine dead will be the graciousness of wealthy 1990s Ireland.”
Irish Famine Commemoration Fund fundraiser Norma Smurfit
On Custom House Quay in Dublin, between the International Financial Services Centre and the Liffey, there now stands a group of seven statues. Designed by Rowan Gillespie, they are gaunt, emaciated cyphers of the Famine, unveiled last year as a memorial to those victims who embarked as refugees from these docks.
A bent man with a head like a skull has the dead body of a child draped around his neck. Four wraith-like, hollow-eyed figures clutch sagging bundles, all their worldly goods, to their sunken breasts. A woman without even such a pitiful vestige of ownership stands with her empty hands by her sides, a chilling image of hopelessness.
Last week a select group of rich and famous Irish people received a letter from the Irish Famine Commemoration Fund, which erected this moving and important memorial. It began: “Mrs Norma Smurfit and The Irish Famine Commemoration Fund would like to honour you by featuring the (name of the recipient appears here) Family Name as one of the first 100 names to be cast in bronze on Ireland’s Famine Memorial.”
The letter went on to inform the person so honoured that the gaunt, haunting figures in the group of sculptures “will soon be crossing an ocean of names cast in bronze – Family Names of those who wish to remember the past and contribute to Ireland’s Future. These names will be forever immortalised around the memorial itself, which is located on the very spot where so many last stood on Irish soil”.
The first thought is that this is a risky but daring satire on the culture of celebrity in contemporary Ireland, an act of savage indignation along the lines of Swift’s Modest Proposal that the rich should eat the children of the poor. This impression is strengthened by the inclusion of photocopies of articles about Norma Smurfit from the features pages of various newspapers and glossy magazines, with headlines and captions that read, “Stormin’ Norma”, “Cause celebs, the perfect pairing of cash and cachet”, “Norma Smurfit . . . a woman of substance and boundless energy.”
But this is not an exercise in savage indignation. There really is a plan to take up the plain cobblestones on which the statues now stand and replace them with bronze plaques on which will be engraved the names of the chosen celebrities and of anyone else who contributes £1,000 to a charitable fund established by Ms Smurfit “to assist the homeless, unemployed and disadvantaged youth of Ireland”.