Tom Murphy confronted the Famine’s legacy of silence

Diarmaid Ferriter: He went early and courageously to uncomfortable places

A farming family during the Famine. Illustration: Hulton/Getty

Who fears to speak of the Great Irish Famine? According to Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín, it is still strangely and unforgivably taboo. Earlier this month in the Dáil, Tóibín spoke about his Famine Memorial Day Bill which calls for the Famine to be commemorated on a particular Sunday every May. He maintained that not setting a fixed day to commemorate it was a “reflection of how uncomfortable we are dealing with the Famine. This has to change.” He also elaborated on other aspects of its legacy and the “guilt” felt by those who survived.

The third Sunday in May has been formally designated by the State as the National Famine Commemoration day (the inaugural commemoration was held in 2009) but it can also be held on the preceding Saturday. I’m not sure the lack of a specific calendar date represents any great avoidance, but rather is a reflection of a crowded May that includes 1916 and Daniel O’Connell commemorations.

But are "we" really that uncomfortable with the Famine? Hardly, if the great numbers attending Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, the current Famine exhibition in Dublin Castle, are anything to go by. Well over 30,000 attended in the first eight weeks. It has come home from Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Visiting it prompts all sorts of reflections on the visualisation of such a traumatic event. As curator of the exhibition Niamh O'Sullivan points out, it is complicated by the fact that "cataclysmic events do not lend themselves easily to visual representation" and "there was no style or genre at the time capable of capturing the horrors".


Much of the artwork, spanning 170 years, is retrospective and some of it includes "well-fed and happy" Irish girls, as in Tom Alfred Jones's Connemara Girls in 1880, a reminder of the scale of the transformations in post-Famine Ireland, but also an indication that mediating or representing the "Great Hunger" can be done in a very wide – some would say too broad – way. Part of the complication, as O'Sullivan notes, is that "artists tended to fall back on the sublimity of Irish scenery or notions of a glorious past to elevate sentiments". Pictorial journalism, some of which is included, such as that by Cork artist James Mahony, did attempt to do justice to some of the horrors but there was also a desire not to be injurious to the humanity of the victims. Others revelled in caustic, racist comment and images of the indolent Irish deserving their lash of natural justice.


Tóibín is correct that, historically, silence has been a part of the Famine legacy, but that was inevitable given its enormity. Historians for a long time seemed to exercise some form of self-censorship about the subject, but that was confronted in all sorts of ways during the 150th anniversary in 1997 and since; indeed, some complained of “Famine fatigue” in 1997. President Michael D Higgins has made a point of speaking on the subject at the annual commemorations; before him, Mary Robinson was also vocal about it.

Humane, provocative

In introducing the exhibition, historian Cormac Ó Gráda suggests, "part of us does not want to go there". One of the reasons why Tom Murphy, who died this week, was such a brilliant, volcanic Irish playwright and indeed one of our most humane and provocative historians, was precisely because he went early and courageously to the uncomfortable places, including in his 1968 play Famine. He sought to confront the reality of both the physical and emotional breakdown of a community because, as he wrote in the introduction to the play "a hungry and demoralised people become silent".

The drama critic Christopher Murray watched the play in February 1984 at the Druid Theatre in Galway; it was, he maintained, "an experience as well as a play" as to attend was to participate in collective breakdown. This play, and many others by Murphy, were a reminder of the need for the long view; Famine was not just about the Great Famine but also about contemporary spiritual and emotional famine.

‘Mean and broken’

What had a decolonised Ireland in practice become more than a century after the Famine? In Murphy's view it was a State that retained brutal class exclusions, exacerbated by "mentalities that have become mean and broken". In his play Bailegangaire in 1985, Mommo describes the children in Bailegangaire as the "poor banished children of Eve". As Nicholas Grene characterised it in his book The Politics of Irish Drama, Murphy was addressing fundamental legacies: "poverty and its consequences". The murky past kept intruding on the grubby present, with women often the main victims. Modernity was gathering pace, but the past could not be elided or put to rest. Nor can, or should, the history and legacies of the Famine. No single narrative can do such an event justice, but different art forms and brilliant writers have confronted it in profound ways.