Famine essays resonate with contemporary events

‘Famine Folios’ aims to see national calamity afresh through 21st-century eyes

‘Famine Folios’ authors Robert Smart (‘Black Roads’), L Perry Curtis jnr (‘Notice to Quit’), Michael Foley (‘Death in Every Paragraph’) and Gearoid Ó Tuathaigh (‘I mBeal an Bhais’). Photograph: Dave Meehan

A young mother faces the viewer, her hair untidy on her shoulders, her bony body wrapped in what looks like a man’s oversized dressing-gown. Her thin arms do what they can to shelter her two children, one of whom turns shyly – or despairingly – away from our gaze.

To a contemporary reader the description might suggest an image from a news report on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, or the plight of a homeless family in Dublin.

But this is neither a photograph nor a still from a video. It’s an image from the Famine, a black-and-white engraving that has been reproduced so many times most of us would scarcely give it a second glance.

A Famine-era illustration of Bridget O’Donnel from Co Clare, who , the mother in the illustration, Bridget O’Donnel, who lost her 13-year-old son to fever in the Famine.

Is it important we see this historical tragedy afresh, through 21st-century eyes? The publishers of four new essays, Famine Folios, believe it is, which is why they commissioned a number of international scholars to present the most up-to-date research in Famine studies in a series of 14 separate but connected illustrated essays, designed for a general readership.


Opening pages

The engraving of the mother and children appears on the opening pages of Michael Foley's Death in Every Paragraph: Journalism and the Great Irish Famine.

A little over 150 years ago, in a townland near Kilrush, Co Clare, the mother in the illustration, Bridget O'Donnel, lost her home and her few possessions. She also lost her 13-year-old son, who died from fever.

Three weeks after being turned out of her house, which was demolished, she gave birth to a stillborn baby.

When her story was published in a double-page spread in the Illustrated London News on December 22nd, 1849, it represented, Foley argues, a new kind of journalism.

At that time, someone as poor as Bridget O’Donnel would be named in a newspaper only “if she had appeared in court, was before a public hearing or tribunal, was a witness, or was the subject of an inquest”.

The report also quoted Bridget O’Donnel’s own words at some length. “I lived on the lands of Gurranenatuoba,” she begins. “My husband held four acres and a half of land, and three acres of bog land . . .”

Human interest

Was this, Foley asks, the first “human interest” interview, 20 years before the word “interview” was even coined?

The extraordinary nature of the ILN report – which is beautifully reproduced in Death in Every Paragraph – is further underlined in L Perry Curtis jnr's essay, Notice to Quit: the Great Irish Famine Evictions.

Illustrators, he writes, “tended to avoid sketching half-naked, emaciated or dying beggars, thereby ‘sanitising’ the human fallout from the Famine”.

The man who quoted Bridget O'Donnel was different. James Mahony was a member of the Cork School of Art who had been hired by the magazine to cover conditions in the west of Ireland between 1847 and 1850.

Unlike many Irish artists of the period, whose work was often most concerned with “not offending the sensibilities of English audiences”, Mahony’s sketches featured “mothers desperately seeking food and shelter for their dying children, thereby making women the iconic victims of the Famine”.

While Foley examines the press coverage of the Famine, Curtis’s essay focuses on an area of research that, he says, has been neglected until recently – the ideological context in which evictions occurred.

It was an unsavoury alliance of economic dogmatism and racial prejudice. “The first ideological factor was capitalism . . . the free trade lobby justified the huge divisions in social class and wealth by insisting that what was good for the rich was good for the entire nation, because industrious workers or labourers would profit, in the long run, from the concentration of capital in the hands of the few.”

As for the relentless racial stereotyping directed against “witless and feckless Paddy” – often “scientifically” backed by references to the developing theory of evolution – sooner or later it was, Curtis notes, “bound to affect British attitudes towards the use of public funds to relieve the victims of famine across the Irish Sea”.

There are further shocks in store for the reader in Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh's study of cultural transformation, I mBéal an Bháis: the Great Famine & the Language Shift in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.

In his introduction, he paints the big picture with exemplary lucidity: “The Great Irish Famine of 1845-51 was a subsistence crisis and a social calamity without parallel in 19th-century Europe. The failure in successive seasons of a single root crop – the potato – resulted in excess mortality of over one million (from starvation and a range of hunger-related diseases), and precipitated a virtual tidal wave of emigration that would see up to four million flee the country in the 20 years after 1845.”

But the most fundamental change in modern Irish history, Ó Tuathaigh insists, was the shift from Irish to English as the dominant vernacular.

Language shift

His essay traces the complex twists and turns of that shift, from the under-reporting of the numbers of Irish speakers in the census figures before 1851 – when a separate question about Irish was not even asked, and people were likely to exaggerate their knowledge of English – to the influence of the Gaelic League language revival at the end of the 19th century, which may have led people to exaggerate in the opposite direction.

Ó Tuathaigh reckons Irish speakers pre-Famine to have numbered 2.13 million, “with perhaps as many as half a million of those being monoglots”. The 1891 census records figures of 680,174 and 38,121 respectively – a disastrous collapse by any linguistic standards.

His wide-ranging survey touches on the role of the Catholic Church, of hedge schools and national schools, of post- Famine scholarship.

“What remains a puzzling question,” he asks, “is why the acquisition of English led – within a few generations – to the abandonment of Irish: why more sustained, fluid forms of bilingualism did not take hold.”

We can, he speculates, scarcely imagine the emotional impact on a household of “suppressing or expelling a language and replacing it with another”.


Perhaps, Ó Tuathaigh suggests, we must trust the dramatist or the novelist to do that for us – precisely the topic addressed by Robert Smart in Black Roads: the Famine in Irish Literature.

Smart draws on a range of work, from the Gothic novels of Bram Stoker and Sheridan le Fanu through Yeats's play Countess Cathleen and Joyce's story The Dead to the poetry of Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney, as well as the theatrical works of Conor McPherson and Marina Carr, to explore representations of the Famine in Irish literature. "So often during the Famine," he writes, "the expected signification of scenes of human suffering and duress conflicted with the enormity of what reporters saw."

It’s a remark that will surely strike a chord with anyone who finds it difficult to watch the evening news these days.

The four newly-published Famine Folios follow four essays in the series by Luke Gibbons, Niamh O'Sullivan, Christine Kinealy and Catherine Marshall that were published earlier this year. Six further folios – by, among others, Richard Kearney, Vincent Woods and Fintan O'Toole – are still to come. The books are published by Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, and are available from Cork University Press at €11.95 each.