I did not feel any great shame, over 15 years ago, in laughing at a satirical song about the Irish Famine of the mid-19th century, and I was not alone. Under the title The Potatoes aren't looking the best, it was sung, or more accurately spat out, late at night at a concert in Dublin city centre being performed by Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly and the Hairy Bowsies, or to strip Ding Dong of his stage name, Paul Woodfull. The repertoire featured other delights, including Spit on the Brits and The craic we had the day we died for Ireland.
What one person finds amusing in any satire of Irish history, another might find egregiously offensive. The rush to condemn a proposed comedy by the writer Hugh Travers – what he suggests will be “black humour” set in 19th century Ireland – has unleashed an avalanche of outrage and an accompanying petition to Channel 4 demanding the station abandon the idea. Of course, the words “famine” and “sitcom” appear at first glance to belong as far apart as possible, but there have been too many premature denunciations in the absence of concrete detail, the bare story providing an opportunity for indulgence in a new manifestation of the MOPE syndrome: the Irish as the Most Oppressed People Ever.
Is even the idea of a comedy set in 19th-century Ireland such a travesty? Who is to know what could be done with such a notion in the hands of a skilled comedy writer or satirist? I certainly wouldn’t be averse to, for example, David McSavage’s take on 19th-century Irish history given his admirable track record to date in satirising Irish historic pieties and peculiarities; equally, there would be many who would find that prospect abhorrent.
The Irish experience of famine has generated satire and comedy in the past. One of Ireland’s most celebrated satirists, Jonathan Swift, travelled extensively throughout this island in the famine-afflicted decade of the 1720s where he witnessed starvation and desperate poverty.
This was what informed the outrageous tone of his notorious Irish pamphlet A Modest Proposal, first published in 1729. The suggestion that the impoverished Irish might ease their burdens by selling their children as food for the rich was Swift's cutting indictment of administrative and moral failure to reform the country.
Over 200 years later, Flann O’Brien worked on a satirical novel, never finished, about an American millionaire who sought to prevent more Irish famines and destitute Irish emigrants coming to the US by replacing Irish potato cultivation with a tropical plant called sago.
In 1971, playwright Hugh Leonard, in the Patrick Pearse Motel was keen to mock 1960s middle-class pretensions about Irish history and its marketing, with the motel's restaurant called The Famine Room. Poet Paul Durcan was also on hand in 1987 with the poem What Shall I Wear, Darling, to The Great Hunger, his satire on a middle-class couple preparing to attend Tom MacIntyre's adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh's poem at the Peacock Theatre.
More recently, Arthur Matthews took a swipe at contemporary crassness in his comedy Wide Open Spaces, which includes a theme park celebrating the Famine, containing a restaurant on a bright pink famine ship.
In truth, some of the supposedly serious initiatives regarding memory of the famine have been more farcical than any comedy or satire.
In 1998, the year after the 150th anniversary of the height of the famine in 1847, a glossy brochure sought to solicit donations from corporate firms to support charities; in return, the company’s name would be “cast in bronze on one of the many flagstones along the docks of Dublin city”. The companies were told they could “pay tribute to the Great Irish Famine . . . your company name will be forever remembered and immortalised on the docks . . . a place where many left during the famine era”. In reality, this was about corporate advertising to accompany the emaciated human frames depicted in the sculptures on Customs House Key, crafted by Rowan Gillespie and unveiled the previous year.
Drumming up business
Remembering the famine at that time was about drumming up business; a best-selling “famine diary” turned out to have been fabricated by a novelist half a century after the event, but it was still marketed as history. There was also a party and concert in Cork in June 1997, known as The Great Irish Famine Event, partly funded by the government, which was billed as “a celebration of triumph over disaster”.
It included an “apology” from British prime minister Tony Blair for the failures of British government in the 1840s; Blair’s short statement was not delivered personally, but read out by actor Gabriel Byrne. Crassness and commodification abounded as remembrance of the Famine was overtaken by the supposed triumphs of a resilient, changing and economically prosperous Ireland.
Farce has already been apparent in relation to depicting the Irish Famine, and not of the Channel 4 fictional variety.