In the contemporary Western public imaginary, famine is often coded as a condition afflicting children in particular. The primary visual referent is the starving African child, belly swollen with hunger oedema, listlessly staring into space as flies crawl over their body. Aiming to elicit empathy and boost charitable donations, such imagery capitalises on the symbolism of the figure of the child.
Poor and young and third world, and as such framed as triply helpless, it is suggested that these piteous bairns can only be saved through Western charity. Though seemingly individualised, they remain voiceless and are objectified as symbols of pity and divested of any agency they might have. This modern visual rhetoric of famine, while commendable in its intent, essentially rehashes the patronising language of colonialism. It promotes white saviourism as a panacea for issues that are systemic and often strongly embedded in colonial and capitalist histories.
As its ultimate victims, how can children be given their due in representations of famine? In Children and the Great Hunger, edited by Christine Kinealy, Jason King and Gerard Moran, 12 scholars and two novelists explore this issue in connection to the Great Irish Famine of 1845-51. As the most vulnerable members of a class marginalised economically, politically and socially, children often remain slightly out of focus in Famine memory and scholarship – even if fiction about the famine often includes children as important characters.
Published under the aegis of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, these essays cover a wide range of topics, from the experiences of children in workhouses and as emigrants to contemporary children’s books about the Famine. Moreover, the book spans a wide range of disciplines, including history, literary studies, bioarchaeology and anthropology. As such, it is a multifaceted examination of a hugely important topic.
It demonstrates the enduring appeal of the tragedy as a literary theme that often generates excellent sales
The most successful contributions provide new takes on the Famine. Bioarchaeologist Jonny Geber, for instance, analyses the skeletal remains of 522 children who died in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse and were buried in an unmarked mass grave. Part of a larger project that has been gaining a lot of visibility in the field over the past years, Geber’s essay uses medical archaeology to provide empirical insight into the lived experience of famine victims.
Many of these skeletons show the effects of excruciatingly painful famine diseases such as scurvy. Geber’s work thus demonstrates the devastating impact starvation has on the human body and provides insight into the tremendous physical suffering these children must have endured.
Mark McGowan’s essay on Irish orphans in Quebec province qualifies, and in some cases disproves, many of the widely accepted myths surrounding the adoption of Famine orphans in Canada in 1847-8. Both official and popular accounts of this episode in Canadian history maintain that many of these children were lovingly adopted into French-Canadian families. McGowan and his research assistants, however, prove that this narrative has been heavily romanticised. The vast majority of these orphans became “semi-indentured servants” and adoption is therefore not the correct term to use.
Robert A Young provides a useful overview of recent fiction about the Famine written for children and young adults. Among other things, it demonstrates the enduring appeal of the tragedy as a literary theme that often generates excellent sales.
Other chapters are similarly enriching. Yet while the collection’s focus on a demographic group that is rarely studied in isolation in histories of the Famine is timely, the quality of the essays is uneven. Particularly in the first section, which explores the experience of children in workhouses, there is overlap between the essays.
Another problem is that a number of contributions are reworkings of earlier work by these authors. Thus Maureen Murphy's chapter on the New York Famine Curriculum largely recycles work she has published elsewhere, including an essay in Holodomor and Gorta Mór (2012), edited by Vincent Comerford, Lindsay Janssen, and Christian Noack.
Similarly, the first paragraphs of well-known novelist Michael Collins' contribution are a verbatim reproduction of part of an essay he published earlier this year in a special issue of the online journal Breac, which was co-edited by Jason King, one of the editors of the present volume.
The essay by E Moore Quinn has an interesting (if inherently problematic) premise, namely that a community’s language might function as a transgenerational index of trauma. However, the essay does not really develop this point. Rather, it mainly consists of a list of expressions used by Irish-American speakers of English which betray the lasting influence of Irish. The relation with the Famine past seems largely tangential.
Another, more major problem with this collection is that multiple authors trot out the tired cliché that the primary modality of Famine memory has been silence. Decades of work by scholars such as Niall Ó Ciosáin, Cormac Ó Gráda, Chris Morash, Margaret Kelleher, Melissa Fegan, and more recently, Marguérite Corporaal, Lindsay Janssen, and myself has problematised this notion.
The book begins with a somewhat dated foreword by famous children's author Marita Conlon-McKenna titled The Great Silence and this idea resurfaces, not least in Michael Collins' concluding essay. Some of Collins' main contentions about the representation of dispossession are disproved by other essays in the volume, such as Young's essay and Stephen Butler's contribution on the popular 19th century author Mary Anne Sadlier.
A volume like this, which seeks to reclaim the voices of the most marginalised victims of the crisis, does not need to rely on outdated conceptualisations of the Famine as repressed trauma to legitimise its own premise. Rather than simply reiterating it, new scholarship should seek to analyse the rhetorical uses of this view and ask why this particular misconception continues to proliferate.
While this volume does an excellent job in demonstrating why it is so important that children are given a more central place in the scholarship of the Famine, it is certainly not the definitive statement on the topic, nor are all the essays as novel as is suggested. All the same, it defines parameters for possible new research and forces us to reconsider how we think and talk about victimhood. As such, it provides a powerful case for a more differentiated historiography of the Famine that is more fully attuned to the experiences of the most powerless victims of the greatest crisis in modern Irish history.
Christopher Cusack was awarded his PhD last February. His thesis focused on Famine fiction published between 1892 and 1921. He lectures at HAN University of Applied Sciences and Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.