Outcry over planned Irish Famine comedy

A memorial for victims of the Famine in Dublin.
January 18, 2015

Outrage and disbelief met a report in the December 30 Irish Times that British TV station Channel 4 was commissioning a comedy set to the backdrop of the Irish Famine.

The Famine lasted from 1845 until 1852, with more than one million people dying from starvation and disease.

Many of them were buried without coffins in mass pauper graves. Others were left where they dropped for fear of contagion, their mouths green from the grass they ate in desperation.

A further 1.5 million people emigrated to flee the hunger. The Irish population dropped by 30% in six years, and the political and cultural impact of the Famine can still be felt to this day. So too can the demographic impact — the Irish population is still lower than pre-Famine levels.

It is widely accepted that British policy during the Famine, at the very least, greatly worsened its impact. Some historians accuse Britain of a deliberate policy of genocide.

Given this, it is not surprising that by January 15, a Change.org petition calling on Channel 4 to not make the show — provisionally titled Hungry — had already reached close to 40,000 signatures.

Hugh Travers, the 31-year-old Irish screenwriter hired by Channel 4 to write the show, tried to deflect criticism by claiming the project is in good faith.

“I don’t want to do anything that denies the suffering that people went through, but Ireland has always been good at black humour,” he told the Irish Times. “We’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless in famine Ireland”

Shameless, an award-winning comedy centred on British working-class life, presents something of a complicated balancing act between caricature and sympathy. It revolves around the Gallagher family, six siblings who live in a fictional council estate in Manchester, with an unemployed alcoholic father and whose mother has done a runner.

Shameless succeeds when it doesn’t appear to pass moral judgment on its subject, allowing viewers to find familiar scenarios and human foibles in the gritty reality of a council estate. We find ourselves laughing with the Gallaghers as much as at them. But it is often a fine line, and does not always work.

Looking at the difficult and dark context Travers has chosen to set his comedy, it is difficult to see how a Shameless set in famine Ireland could work.

Despite its name, the Famine was never simply a famine. During the 1840s, a severe potato blight affected vast areas of Europe, including Scotland, more heavily than it did Ireland. Yet there were relatively fewer casualties in Scotland, where landowners and the government ensured that sufficient food remained available to avoid catastrophe.

In Ireland, it was a different matter. On the eve of the Famine, Ireland had a population of about 9 million people — nearly half the combined population of England, Scotland and Wales. Within a couple of decades, this was nearly halved.

Despite having been formally annexed into the “United Kingdom” by the 1800 Act of Union, the Irish remained largely Catholic, agrarian and, well, Irish. The Irish kept following their own traditions and — for the most part — using their own language.

With Union, the government of Ireland, as well as the pendulum of culture, innovation and investment, shifted to London. Ireland came to be regarded by Westminster as little more than England’s granary.

In fact, despite the failure of potato crops, throughout the Famine, Ireland produced more than enough to feed the entire population of the island nation. Much of it was shipped to England.

Two million acres — one third of all tilled land in Ireland — was set aside for potato cultivation, upon which six million people depended for nutrition. Largely surviving on potatoes, Irish peasants paid rent for their small holdings to their landlords in the form of grain, a practice continued during the potato blight.

First-hand accounts express the horror that the rural poor suffered during the Famine. In the words of 27-year-old James Hack Tuke, who visited Mayo and Donegal in 1846 and 1847, the people were “living skeletons … scarcely able to crawl”.

In his 2012 book The Famine Plot, Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan accused the British government of carrying out a conscious policy of genocide against the Irish during the Famine years. Coogan is not alone in this view — renowned British historian A.J.P. Taylor declared that during the Famine, “all Ireland was a Belsen” — a reference to the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

Documents from the period back accusations the mass starvation was deliberate and calculated — informed by ideas of social engineering. The Victorian attitude was that “poverty was a self-inflicted wound incurred through bad habits” — and the Irish brought suffering on themselves.

Visiting Ireland before the Famine, British official Charles Trevelyan foreshadowed the deadly policy in a letter to the Morning Post. He said there were at least one or two million too many people in Ireland, and that they could not all possibly survive.

“The land will be for the survivors”, he wrote.

According to Coogan, the ideological foundations of the famine were a “straightforward anti-Catholic prejudice, and the view that the laws of commerce were the laws of God”. Blaming divine retribution for the Famine, Trevelyan and the British government also placed firm a faith in the benefits of the free market to offer relief.

Trevelyan put his position bluntly in 1845, stating that “permanent advantages will accrue to Ireland from the scarcity” as it would “teach the people to depend upon themselves for developing the resources of the country, instead of having recourse to the assistance of the government”.

Trevelyan issued a public rebuke against the feeding of the hungry, stating: “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

Viewing starvation as an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”, Trevelyan claimed that “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated”.

But British policy was driven more by the the laws of profit than the wrath of God. The size of the Irish population was seen as a threat to the incomes of Ireland’s absentee landlords — many of whom lived in London.

No exact figures exist, but it is believed at least 500,000 small farmers were evicted during the Famine. Most were evicted by landlords unwilling to continue paying rates for poor tenants.

Ireland’s landlords actively encouraged emigration. Some even paid their tenants' emigration fares as this freed up land for other — more profitable —economic activities, such as cattle farming.

As well as a deliberate policy of starvation, there was a cultural genocide too. The scale of the deaths and emigration also gutted the Irish language.

In 1800, Irish was still the island's main language, although English was increasingly used, especially in the eastern and more urbanised areas. The stronghold of the Irish language was in the south and west — areas hardest hit by the Famine.

In 1841, more than 4 million people used Irish as their first language, while many others spoke it in day-to-day life. By 1861, the Irish language was a minority tongue, spoken primarily in a few strongholds on the western fringe.

The scale of the tragedy, and the Famine's symbolic place in Irish history, means that it remains a sensitive subject for portrayal in film and television.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Hungry could be a success. As supporters of the initiative have argued, successful comedies have been set in times of great tragedy.

Notable among these are British TV's Blackadder Goes Forth (set in the trenches of World War One), as well as US TV's M*A*S*H (set in the Korean War).

It is often said that the best comedy and satire “punches up” — that it lampoons the oppressor, the privileged, the bully, and the institutions and trappings of power, rather than laughing at their victims.

Blackadder, for instance, places us with the soldiers in the trenches, the unthinkable horror unfolding only metres away, dealing with the stupidity of the aristocratic officer caste sending them to their deaths.

Similarly, the subtle, dark comedy of M*A*S*H lays a thin veil of sardonic humour over the meaningless horror of war.

If Hungry can manage these heights of tragicomedy and drama, delicately presenting the suffering of the Famine, while ridiculing the likes of Trevelyan, it might work.

But the reference to Shameless does not bode well, and may have helped provoke the outrage. And there are many who believe that a comedy about the Famine is simply inappropriate, full stop, until Ireland and Britain have more fully come to terms with the trauma of the past — and the present.

As Dr Christine Kinealy, director of the Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, put it: “A danger of using the comedy format to tell the story of the Famine is that the characters can very easily become stage ‘Oirish,’ and that the real heartbreak of the Famine be absent or marginalised.

“Instead, disease, death, eviction and emigration will be viewed as funny, rather than tragic – and we might forget that they were preventable.”

Tim Pat Coogan agrees, stating: “Murder, genocide, people dying, retching with their faces green from eating weeds, their bowels hanging out of them — no passage of time will make that funny.”

The island it is silent now
But the ghosts still haunt the waves
And the torch lights up a famished man
Who fortune could not save

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters Mary when you're free,
Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity.

[Abridged from Duroyan Fertl's Hintadupfing blog.]

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