The Great Famine and the way we remember it
A new study contributes to our understanding but overlooks some key memorials
Commemorating the Irish Famine
Liverpool University Press
Historians disagree about whether a silence surrounded the Great Famine before 1995, the 150th anniversary of the first appearance of P hytophthora infestans , or potato blight, in Ireland.
What is irrefutable is that after 1995 there was a resurgence of both popular and academic interest in the tragedy, expressed both in an outpouring of new scholarship and, for example, in the construction of more than 100 monuments around the world to commemorate the Famine, from Sydney to Arizona. And, as the recent publication of the excellent Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (Cork University Press, 2012) shows, scholarship and public interest have not abated.
Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument , by Emily Mark-Fitzgerald, is a wide-ranging, if not comprehensive, look at this phenomenon, and a contribution to our understanding both of the way the Famine has been remembered and of the process of commemoration more generally, both in Ireland and among the diaspora.
A large portion of the book is, perhaps inevitably, devoted to memorials in North America. Since 1995 almost 30 monuments have been installed in the US alone, which speaks of the perception of the Famine as a crucial part of the Irish-American origin story. Within this narrative, however, Famine immigration and Irish immigration in general are often conflated.
In contrast to Ireland, Famine memorials in the US are generally in busy, affluent areas. They often celebrate triumph over disaster, an approach that would be out of place in Ireland, and gives little idea of the struggles that immigrants who made it to North America faced. A number of the monuments have been criticised, including the Irish Memorial in Philadelphia, which depicts more than 30 life-sized figures, for its Hallmark-card sentimentality and for the simplistic message of its interpretative panels.
Possibly the most controversial monument is in downtown Boston. The committee that organised it was led by a multimillionaire Irish immigrant who raised $2 million at a gala in 1998. Criticisms have come from both sides of the Atlantic: one Irish commentator criticised its “pious cliches and dead conventions”, and a 2002 poll in the Boston Globe named it as the worst public monument in the city.
Avoidance of cliche
In contrast, despite some initial problems and criticisms, the Irish Hunger Memorial near the site of the former World Trade Center in New York city, which depicts a stark landscape that includes a reconstructed cottage from Co Mayo, has been generally praised for its avoidance of cliche.
Overall, the memorials in the United States speak as much to the wealth of today’s Irish-Americans as to the poverty and struggles of their ancestors.
The location of Famine memorials raises questions about memorials in Northern Ireland and Britain. These are not fully addressed in Mark-Fitzgerald’s book. The 1998 Famine memorial in Liverpool is not, as the author claims, the first in the city and in Britain. There were earlier memorials in Liverpool, including one dedicated to 10 priests who died from typhus in 1847, caught while tending to Irish immigrants.
The short section on Northern Ireland is also problematic. Regardless of varieties of experience, the Great Famine was a national disaster, and, as recent scholarship has shown, districts and towns in eastern Ulster, many of them predominantly Protestant, suffered greatly. Quakers compared Newtownards, in Co Down, with Skibbereen, while Protestant ministers in Belfast complained that the Shankill cemetery was overflowing with unburied Famine dead and was a disgrace to a civilised nation.
Mark-Fitzgerald has chosen to divide her study along the lines of the Partition. The chapter “Famine Spaces in Ireland” is solely concerned with the Republic; the section on monuments in Northern Ireland is contained in a chapter entitled “Community Famine Commemoration in Northern Ireland and the Irish Diaspora”, which seems an odd coupling. And the first example of a “Northern” monument in the chapter relates to Doagh, Co Donegal. The only Northern Irish monument examined (briefly) is that in the Cornagrade graveyard in Enniskillen, near the site of the local workhouse. For reasons we all understand, there are fewer monuments to the Famine in northeast Ulster, but not to discuss them perpetuates the idea of the Famine as a Southern and Catholic tragedy.
There are also two glaring omissions, yet these memorials speak of the complexity of Famine memory and memorialisation in Ireland. The stained-glass window in Belfast City Hall (which is mentioned only in a one-sentence footnote) was unveiled in 1999 (not 1996, as the footnote states). Apart from its location and its timing, this project received the support of the Progressive Unionist Party, in a conscious effort by the party’s leaders to recapture a shared and complex history, of which the Famine was viewed as a significant part.
The other omission is of what is possibly one of the oldest Famine memorials on the island of Ireland, at Garron Point, on the Co Antrim coast. It is dedicated to Francis Anne Vane, the third marchioness of Londonderry; its inscription declares that, wanting to “hand down to posterity an imperishable memorial to Ireland’s affliction and England’s generosity in the year 1846-7, unparalleled in the annals of human suffering”, she “hath engraved this stone”. The reference to England’s generosity has been long scratched out. Nonetheless, this early monument speaks of aspects of the Famine (not least the role of landowners and the contribution of women) that deserve some mention in a book of this size and scope.
As Niall Ó Ciosáin pointed out during the sesquicentennial commemorations, “there is no unitary memory of the Famine”, and Mark-Fitzgerald’s book reinforces this point. In Ireland the network of monuments is mostly local, organic to the community, and achieved with little outside funding. Some of the more elaborate ones were created with an eye to cultural tourism, but the Famine theme parks that Roy Foster wrote disparagingly of have not emerged.
Inevitably, many of the monuments constructed overseas have immigration as a central theme. Some reference hunger in the world today and its parallels with Ireland in the 1840s, yet they fail to relate Famine immigration to contemporary immigration and the challenges that new immigrants face.
A strength of this book is that it reveals the diversity of origins, motives and outcomes in the creation of these monuments. Clearly, it is challenging – perhaps impossible – to create in a public monument a cohesive narrative of an event of such longevity, geographic spread and localised impact. The Irish sculptors John Behan and Rowan Gillespie have been widely praised for the creative compassion they have brought to this task, but, as this book demonstrates, every monument has its detractors.
As we move farther from the sesquicentenary, and as the funders, sculptors and committees that created these memorials pass away, these criticisms might acquire a sharper focus.
Overall, Mark-Fitzgerald’s book is a timely and engaging look at the memory and public memorialisation of the Famine. As we progress through the decade of commemorations, many of the issues discussed in relation to the Famine will take on a fresh significance, and the issues and questions that Mark-Fitzgerald raises will provide some solid insights and lessons.
Prof Christine Kinealy is founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute, at Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut. Her last book, Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland , came out in 2013.