By Frank O’Shea
The word ‘amnesia’ was heard several times at the Famine round table in the Williamstown Town Hall on October 28. It was used to describe the way that Ireland seemed to have forgotten about the Great Famine of 1845-51 until it was brought to public discourse following the publication of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s book The Great Hunger.
That book was released in 1962 and almost seemed to catch the Irish public by surprise. The grandparents – perhaps even the parents – of adults living in 1962 would have lived through Black ’47, yet the subject was never, or very rarely, mentioned. Psychologists would no doubt explain this amnesia as a survival mechanism, using phrases like ‘looking forward’, ‘reclaiming their lives’, ‘resilience’, because in those times we did not know about depression or PTSD. Commentators with a more jaundiced view of the Irish might describe it as communal shame, a need to forget the helpless indignity of slow death by hunger within walking distance of abundant food from sea and farm.
The fact was that mid-century Ireland had forgotten about the Famine; it was surpassed in importance by 1916 and the War of Independence and earlier elements of Irish history like the Fenians and the Land War. Yet here was something that happened over an extended period of more than five years and resulted in a loss of population of between 20 and 25 per cent. More than a million people died and there was an equal number lost through emigration, forced in almost all cases. How could a nation forget such a traumatic series of events?
It is to the great credit of Australia that there are a number of memorials around the country, notably at the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney and at Williamstown in Melbourne: people involved in those two memorials were present at the round table in October.
The first book that gave an account of the Famine was written in 1867 by Stueart Trench*, an agent for Lord Lansdowne in Kerry and later for the Earl of Bath in Monaghan
They died in their mountain glens, they died along the sea-coast, they died on the roads, and they died in the fields; they wandered into the towns, and they died in the streets; they closed their cabin doors, and lay down upon their beds, and died of actual starvation in their houses.
Apart from that book, titled Realities of Irish Life, there must have been writing by historians also, though one wonders why those academics would not have made an issue of it.
So we ask whether the Famine appears in works of literature. There was a novel by William Carleton titled The Black Prophet: A Tale of Irish Famine, but that was written in 1845 and was based on an earlier 1817 famine, the same famine that is the background to the Wild Goose Lodge film. It is worth noting also that in his long poem The Great Hunger, Patrick Kavanagh was not talking about famine, but used the phrase to represent the isolation of a young man required to run a small farm where he is not able to marry because his mother who is still alive and owns the property, is living there and depending on her son.
From that, there appears to be silence until relatively recent times. Nothing by way of a major work from Pearse, MacDonagh or Griffith, for example; some references in Shaw’s writings but nothing in Synge, Yeats or O’Casey; scholars who know Beckett’s writing say that there are oblique references in his work.
However, in more recent times, there are novels which have elements in which the Famine plays a significant part. Nuala O’Faolain sets My Dream of You at that time as does Joseph O’Connor in Star of the Sea and Walter Macken in The Silent People.
Dublin writer Paul Lynch’s 2018 novel Grace describes the struggle for survival of a young girl who has her hair shorn by her mother so that she looks like a boy and would have a better chance of survival. The story chronicles her long walk from Donegal to Limerick and back, through the public works and roadside deaths that marked Black ’47. The book was reviewed in the Fairfax mastheads** in May where it was described as
… a work of staggering beauty and deep insight. A look at soul, at what is and what is not, set against the awfulness of a country that allowed its people to die in ditches and on roadsides or in freezing botháns amid the bleakness of non-things.
*A review can be found at https://tintean.org.au/2018/09/06/meeting-an-old-classic/.