Victoria, Famine Queen, and the silence of survivors

Paul Lynch, author of Famine novel ‘Grace’, on awkward truths and a void in our traumatic history that writers can fill

Jenna Coleman as Victoria in the ITV drama of that name

Jenna Coleman as Victoria in the ITV drama of that name

 

“I think I should like to visit Ireland,” says the young Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) in the ITV period drama Victoria. “I feel I need to see the situation for myself”. She is speaking, of course, about the Irish Famine from the point of view of 1845. Her prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, stares at her with incredulity. “Such a visit would be inadvisable, Ma’am,” he says. The young queen stares back at him. “Why not, surely my presence would bring them some comfort?”

Victoria is keen to show the young queen as eager and sympathetic. But history shows that the queen did not visit Ireland until 1849. During this time, an estimated one million people had perished from disease and starvation – estimated at between one-third and one-quarter of the Irish population. More than a million had fled to America on board perilous coffin ships in scenes that recall the mass emigration of Syrian refugees across the Mediterranean today.

An Irish Famine illustration from The life and Times of Queen Victoria by Robert Wilson (1900). Photograph: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
An Irish Famine illustration from The life and Times of Queen Victoria by Robert Wilson (1900). Photograph: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Terry Eagleton has called the Irish Famine “the greatest social disaster of 19th-century Europe – an event with something of the characteristics of a low-level nuclear attack”. And yet, it is one of the inconvenient ironies of the Famine period that the queen’s 11-day visit to Cork, Dublin and Belfast in 1849 was met with enthusiasm and cheering. It would seem the queen brought them comfort indeed.

The citizens of Cork and Cobh – renamed “Queenstown” by the queen during her visit – gave the royal party a rapturous welcome. “We drove through the principal streets; twice through some of them; that they were densely crowded, decorated… with flowers and triumphal arches…. that our reception was most enthusiastic and that everything went off to perfection, and was very well arranged,” wrote the young queen in her diary.

“Cork is not all like an English town… the crowd is a noisy, excitable but a very good-natured one, running and pushing about, and laughing, talking and shrieking. The beauty of the women is very remarkable… such beautiful dark eyes and hair, and such fine teeth…”

Though the Whigs had declared “the Irish crisis” over, this was still an Ireland where the workhouses were full and Asiatic cholera was cutting a swathe through the population. Yet, the queen’s diary shows the blinkers were firmly on.

In Dublin, “an immense multitude had assembled, who cheered most enthusiastically, the ships saluting and the bands playing and it was really very striking. It was a wonderful and striking scene, such masses of human beings, so enthusiastic, so excited, yet such perfect order maintained…. a never-to-be-forgotten scene; when one reflected how lately the country had been in open revolt and under martial law.” The queen noted: “the Mayor presented me with the keys with some appropriate words. At the last triumphal arch, a poor little dove was let down into my lap, with an olive branch round its neck, alive and very tame.” Meanwhile, the Freeman’s Journal referred to Dublin during the visit as “like a city rose from the dead”.

The statue of Queen Victoria in front of the QVB in Sydney, which was removed from public display in Dublin after independence
The statue of Queen Victoria in front of the QVB in Sydney, which was removed from public display in Dublin after independence

It is usually the case that popular history is dramatised and enjoyed from the view of pomp and power. After all, it was the elite who had the time and the means to record history. It has left historians of the period with a wealth of economic and socio-political history, allowing the Famine to be examined from almost every conceivable angle. But amidst all this, there is a profound silence that can never be fully addressed.

The voices of the ordinary people who experienced those traumatic years went unheard. Those who survived did not speak of it. There is a rich folklore record of hand-me-down story that reveals broad truths. But there is little in the way of first-hand testimony from the ordinary man or woman. Why were they silent?

What did it mean to survive the Famine? It is a question that I sought to ask in my own novel Grace
What did it mean to survive the Famine? It is a question that I sought to ask in my own novel Grace

To answer that question, we have to ask, what did it mean to survive? It is a question that I sought to ask in my own novel Grace, the story of a 14-year-old girl’s coming-of-age during the Famine. It is a question that has been addressed with candour by many who survived the Holocaust. But in Ireland, it has remained out of reach.

The truth is that to survive an event of this magnitude, you might have had to connive, to lie and to steal. You might have had to turn a blind eye to your neighbour. You might have taken food from your children. You might have had to kill. Cannibalism – documented in every famine on human record – is something the Irish still do not want to address. Primo Levi in his memoir of Auschwitz said that “survivors are rarely heroes – in a world dominated by the law of survival, morality changes”.

To seek to understand the silence in the aftermath of the Famine is to enter a deep level of trauma. It is a place where the history books struggle to enter. Such is a place where the novelist steps in.

  • Paul Lynch’s novel Grace is published by Oneworld at €14.99
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