How Art can enter the grey zone of the Irish Famine…

Great, if rather lengthy review of five books on the Irish Famine from Breandán Mac Suibhne on the importance of recovering memory from past events. In framing his long and detailed work, he borrows directly from Primo Levi’s insights from his time as a prison in German death camps:

“The questions naturally arise, What is man? And, What is life? What can be the cause of all this? Is it a punishment for our crimes? Or those of our forefathers, or is it to purify souls here by suffering to prepare them for a happy eternity hereafter?”

Mac Suibhne’s old Fanad companion, Hugh Dorian who was a teenager in these terrible times, nods to the fact that even in these preliteracy days which much of the Irish peasantry were living beyond the grasp of the English language (and for that matter, living just at the liminal edges of the money system), he knew well enough what was happening:

“The Donegal peasant has got all the historical learning he requires,” he writes; “he has his ancestors’ history open before him everyday he rises: it is exhibited in the large characters ‑ the ocean, the mountain, and his own state of poverty ‑ and if he reads anything he must read how it is that he is there and why.”

On the question of genocide, Mac Suibhne is distinctly underwhelmed by advocates on either side. But there are some clues to some of the more almost banal triggers if not to the crisis then to how the crisis was scaled up into full blown tragic drama which perhaps ought to be exercising policy makers in the European Commission and the ECB as we ‘speak’:

Clinton, a great policy wonk, grasps that “policy decisions made it worse”, and hails The Graves are Walking as “a cautionary tale for all who would risk calamity – human, economic, or ecological – in the name of scoring an ideological victory”. Likewise Kennedy Townsend, herself no mean political operator, sees the Famine as “a lesson for our times”, while being particularly appreciative of how Kelly “captures, in devastating detail, British leaders, who, imbued with religious fervor and ideological blinders, decided to teach the Irish good work habits, responsibility, and to rid them of their dependence on government [emphasis added]”

The Greek ‘peasant’ like those 19th Century natives no more need a Harvard economist to tell them what’s happening to them and how…

The broad thrust of Mac Suibhne’s argument lies in the fact that historical discourse has been over-reliant upon official accounts, and too little weight given to the haphazard accounts and memories of the people themselves. There is precious little in the way of literature, and witness statements in comparison to more recent human catastrophes:

Unfortunately, the registers of both poorhouses for 1847 have been lost or destroyed, and with one of them those traces of that life.63 The surname – not a common one in south Donegal – suggests Read probably came from near Pettigo, in which case he would have been in the Donegal poorhouse; and, if he was from Pettigo, then it is probable that he was Protestant, for the Reads/Reids of Pettigo were then, it seems, a mix of Churchmen, Presbyterians and Methodists. But Read’s age and medical condition, when he arrived in the poorhouse and when and how he left it now lie beyond conjecture.

Still, this much may be said for certain: in November 1847, when Read’s bow scraped packthread, both the Donegal and Ballyshannon poorhouses were nearly full, and some of their “inmates” were dying from fever; and whether Read himself perished or prevailed in the poorhouse – and whether or not the customs man ever came back with the strings – the futures which he and his “companions in misfortune” had once imagined for themselves were at that moment being denied them by a blight that had first come on the potatoes in 1845 and 1846 and by the response to that blight of the government of the United Kingdom.

Artists of all types – our present day equivalents of Allingham and Read, and also visual artists – should be as centrally involved as academics in the public marking of events, grand and grotesque, in Irish history. The best of them, as Joe Lee remarks in the Atlas, in a fine appreciation of Brian Tolle’s Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, New York, “blend cumulative emotional and intellectual responses that move heart and mind”.

Certainly, for Donegal people at home and in Glasgow and London, in Philadelphia and New York, and in Chicago and beyond, the fiddler Tommy Peoples’s The Quiet Glen/An Gleann Ciúin (1998) – a collection of old tunes and new, some like The Coffin Ships evoking Famine issues – has kept time from laying the ghosts of the 1840s in a way that only that historian with “the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past” can do.

Peoples comes out of the same musical tradition as the man who played the jig Páidín Ó Raifeartaigh as the poorhouse filled around him. His art, then, is no issueless tribute. It keeps Mary Gallagher, and Hugh and Sarah Gallagher who took the reaping hook to her ears, safe from those who would lay them to rest, and move on.

Interesting how to this to this day the private life of rural Ireland remains something of a closed book to the political and media elites of Dublin.

Well worth a full reading

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