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

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”.

Around the stark symbols of suffering and degradation, then, will be inscribed the names of “Irish Descendants”. The first hundred will be celebs such as (I take these names merely for illustrative purposes) “Charles Haughey and Family” or “Michael Flatley and Family” or “Boy George and Family”.

The rest will be those “from every corner of the World” who respond to Ms Smurfit’s invitation to buy a time-share apartment in the edifice of historical memory: “By purchasing a place for your Family Name to be acknowledged, you make it part of this timeless tribute and historical record.”

For a minimum contribution of £5,000, moreover, “Companies from all over the World” can “pay tribute to the Great Irish Famine by having their company name cast in bronze on one of the many flagstones along the Docks of Dublin City. Your Company Name will be forever remembered and immortalised on the Docks of Dublin City, a place where many left during the famine era”.

Wealthy Ireland
It seems, then, that the approach to the statues will literally be marked with advertisements for corporate Ireland. Among the contributing companies listed by the Fund so far are Larry Goodman’s Irish Food Processors, Allied Irish Banks, Bank of Ireland, HJ Heinz, Independent Newspapers, Esat Digifone, the Smurfit group, Bank of Ireland, Gilbey’s, Pony Express, Mamselle, Tilestyle and 98FM. Presumably, these and any other company that comes up with the loot, will be “immortalised” around the statues.

An intrinsic aspect of the memory of the Famine dead will be the graciousness of wealthy 1990s Ireland. The six human figures in the statues represent “despair, suffering, pain, apprehension and hope”.

The road to this hell will be paved with the tributes to the good intentions of Larry Goodman, Peter Sutherland, Tony O’Reilly, Michael Smurfit, Denis O’Brien and the rest of Ireland’s corporate elite.

And all of this has the official sanction of the nation. The President, Mrs McAleese, features heavily in the brochure that has been sent to potential buyers of these places in history, wishing the Fund “all the success they deserve”. She is also due to unveil the first plaques, carrying the names of the chosen celebrities who are to be the first hundred honorees of the scheme, on Tuesday, October 27th next.

The indissoluble link between yesterday’s victims of mass starvation, official neglect and the rapaciousness of the rising middle class and today’s rich and famous is to be forged with the active participation of the Head of State.

Many years ago, Hugh Leonard wrote a play called The Patrick Pearse Motel, a satire on the emerging Irish bourgeoisie and its crass attitude to national history. In the motel of the title, the restaurant was called The Famine Room. Even by the standards of satirical exaggeration, this may have seemed a little overstated. Now, it seems utterly inadequate.

Satire is now impossible, its wildest hyperbole dwarfed by the reality that is unfolding before our eyes. So too is moralising. If people don’t know what is wrong with using images of human disaster as billboards for the exaltation of personal and corporate egos, nothing anyone can say will impart that knowledge.

All we can do is take note of where we are. We exist now in a society where everything, even the sacred memory of the dead, is for sale. Where there is nothing, even the horrible extinction of a million destitute people, that cannot be claimed by the powers that be. Where the power of art to evoke and bring to mind the sufferings of the nameless millions is ultimately at the service of those who are deemed, by virtue of their money and their success, to be important. Where the wretched of the Earth are not entitled even to their wretchedness, but must surrender it in return for a few pounds donated to charity.

How fine it must be, in these times when the petty people are murmuring about taxes and scandals, to know that, rich as you are, you are really one of history’s victims. You may live in exile for tax purposes, but you are at one with these starved, hunted people, about to embark on a coffin ship from Dublin docks. You may be tired of pommes de terres dauphinoise, but you share the dread of these poor peasants as they pulled up the roots and found them blackened and slimy. For there you are, immortalised in bronze, your name stitched forever into a proud nation’s tribute to the anonymous dead.

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]