Culture Shock: We’re big enough to handle the truth about our history

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut is facing up to challenge of commemorating the Famine in a manner that is empowering and liberating

Remembrance of things past is still not easy. The Government’s struggles to come up with a coherent plan for marking the centenary of 1916 were exemplified by the release of the infamous upbeat corporate video whose hidden motto seemed to be Lest We Remember.

Some of these struggles are rooted in the genuine difficulties of honouring the ideals of the State’s founders without “celebrating” traumatic events. Fearing to speak of Easter Week is not entirely ignoble, but historical truths must not be drowned in blandness. Must public engagement with the past be forever doomed to hesitate between engagement and anxiety?

Of course not. No event in Irish history is more emotive than the Great Hunger. And nowhere is it more emotive than in the United States. The Famine has been shaped in Irish-American popular consciousness into Brit-bashing and competitive victimhood. (African-Americans have slavery. Jewish-Americans have the Holocaust. Irish-Americans have the Famine.)

Yet interesting things are happening, not least at Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, part of Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Connecticut. The museum, which opened last year, might well have ended up as a monument to mere self-pity. Instead it is facing up to the challenge defined by Catherine Marshall in Monuments and Memorials of the Great Famine, one of four rather beautiful folios it has just published: "The question is not whether the Irish people suffer from amnesia but how, now that we are finally able to examine this history, can we commemorate it in a manner that is empowering and liberating rather than a perpetual plea for sympathy."


It is a question that applies just as much to the decade of centenaries as to the Famine.

The work the museum has been doing suggests at least three parts of an answer. The overall answer may be that it is necessary to engage people not just in remembering but also in reflecting on how we remember. Academics and theorists are comfortable with the idea that there is no such thing as innocent remembrance, that we have to continually examine and re-examine the process of representation. But governments tend to be less convinced that this works for the masses, too; they both desire and fear a simplified narrative.

The museum initiatives, on the other hand, suggest that even in the emotional terrain of the Famine it is possible to involve the public in thinking about how the past comes down to us, what we see and what we don’t see.

The first striking aspect of the museum is that its primary focus is artistic. It is more a gallery than a museum, dominated by 19th-century and contemporary works of visual art, from periodical drawings of the Famine in progress to Michael Farrell's monumental painting Black '47 to Alanna O'Kelly's video installations.

These pieces are inevitably reflective: they bear the marks of deep thought about how to represent a horror that defies, as Luke Gibbons puts it in the title of his searing folio, “the limits of the visible”. There is a lesson here: artists should be as central to commemoration as historians.

The second contribution is that series of folios, launched with four excellent titles. As well as Marhsall and Gibbons, there are Christine Kinealy's superb short overview of the Famine, Apparitions of Death and Disease, and Niamh O'Sullivan's dissection of the politics and aesthetics of the periodical illustrations that define our imagery of the Great Hunger.

Each of these lavishly illustrated essays highlights the complex ways in which we, as well-fed westerners, relate to representations of absolute human collapse; as Gibbons puts it, “faced with atrocity, the image, no less than the word, implicates the viewer, demands a response”. But the response within these writings is complex, self-questioning. There is a tone of discourse here that seems exemplary for other engagements.

Thirdly, there is an opening to the public, an invitation to take part in the process of trying to deal with contemporary materials. On December 16th the museum will launch a fully searchable online database of its holdings of contemporary reportage on the Great Hunger. This is the largest repository of such material anywhere, and it will be free for anyone to access, at Making it so accessible makes an important general point: the way to get people to engage in a complex way with the past is to trust them with the materials out of which history is written and represented.

These are useful pointers for the 1916 commemorations. Commission good artists. Publish good and provocative scholarship in forms that are widely accessible. And build on the already very strong legacy of work done by the National Archives of Ireland and the Bureau of Military History in making first-hand documents freely available to all by creating a long-term public digital resource.

In these ways we may find that, after all, most people can in fact handle the truth.