Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Famine, What Of It?

Having recently written a script, a sort-of coming of age story set in rural Ireland sixty years ago, I ended it with a scene from the famine. Without spoiling things too much, a father tells his son a story about his grandfather's experience of the Great Hunger. His story is laced with idealisms and mythology. The horror of the truth can be seen on the screen (or will be), as the father waxes lyrically above images of bodies being piled into pits, or the living dead wandering the barren fields of those forgotten years.

I say forgotten, because I had this hunch that that is how the famine comes down to us. Forgotten.

Before I wrote the scene fully I went to my friend whose girlfriend is involved in the recording of old folk songs and poetry to see if she had anything of interest relating to those desperate years. Seen as my friend didn't get back to me, I went ahead and wrote it.


I remember being in a history tutorial with that same friend in my half-remembered college days (or the famine years, as I call them, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek). We were discussing the famine and its impact on Irish society. There was a mature student there who used to always say things that I always disagreed with. He said that he didn't understand why the Irish hadn't rebelled after the famine, as it was was "the perfect time", as he put it. 

I countered his surface level argument with a genuine piece of Freudian insight - "Everyone was too depressed." And everyone in the class laughed. But I kind of meant it. There was no will left in the country to stage anything like a revolution. The people were exhausted. Worst than that, they were scarred for life. To say that this was a time ripe for revolution was to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Great Irish Famine, Great in the sense that it was terrible, Irish in the sense that it happened here, and a Famine in the sense that it was just that. 

Jesus man, I felt like saying to him, it was all there in the name. Nobody could muster up much of anything after those few years.


Next time I saw my friend, I asked him if his girlfriend had found anything. He apologized for his forgetfulness, and told me she had an article about how the famine was remembered in some communities in Ireland. The stories that people would tell would begin something like this, "Well, the famine never happened in this town, but there is this story I heard from the town just over the way ..." History though works as the psychoanalyst of mythology when it is at its most brilliant, and in fact the famine did happen in these places. 

It happened pretty much everywhere, and it truly must have seemed like the world was caving in on top of those poor wretches, our ancestors. By the end of it all, they mightn't have been sure if Ireland even existed anymore. Truly, perhaps, there was an Ireland before the famine and an Ireland after it, in the same way there was a Russia before the October revolution and a Russia after it, Jewish people before the holocaust and Jewish people after it ...

I know here I am veering into dodgy territory, making the allusion between the holocaust and the famine. The English weren't the Nazis. But neither was the government of Westminster at the time, the government of the UNION of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, entirely blameless. 

Not. By. A. Long. Shot.

Wanting to know even more on the subject, I borrowed a book on it from my housemate called "The Graves Are Walking." I am more than half the way through, and have recently had to put the book down a few times, because I couldn't read anymore. Currently in the depths of the famine, there are horrors on every page.

Imagine, if you will, death and disease EVERYWHERE, people dying in of hunger or disease whilst lying in there own blood, vomit and feces; people walking aimlessly along a road, nothing but skin and bones, because there was no such place as could be given the name "home" anymore; clambering aboard coffin ships in the hope that the apocalypse hadn't happened in any other part of the world.

This happened, in this country.

Like I said, there was an Ireland before the famine and one after it. And it was only after that some uneducated peasant, uncomfortable with politics and books and revolution, seen that something wasn't quite right here. For something like this to happen. It happened. Here.

I am going to end this rambling with a few points that I garnered from the book, some which resonate today.

1. Underlying the racist attitude towards the Irish by the British was a general ignorance as to what Ireland actually was. The racism masked the fact that they knew nothing about us. All measures enacted in the early days of the famine were based on English models. If you say that England and Ireland are in a UNION together, then you should act in accordance.

2. Experiments in free-market ideology, dubious at the best of times (except for if you're rich), have absolutely no place during a time of famine. That's right. The famine is an example of the clear failure of free-market ideology to address the problem at hand. Take note any Irish-American Republicans!

3. It happened, I mean actually happened, here.

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