Perhaps we care too much about profanities that don’t really matter, and care too little about the ones that really do. Prompted by the controversary over a sitcom that hasn’t even been written yet, Diarmuid Ferriter has this confession to make:
I did not feel any great shame, over 15 years ago, in laughing at a satirical song about the Irish Famine of the mid-19th century, and I was not alone. Under the title The Potatoes aren’t looking the best, it was sung, or more accurately spat out, late at night at a concert in Dublin city centre being performed by Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly and the Hairy Bowsies, or to strip Ding Dong of his stage name, Paul Woodfull. The repertoire featured other delights, including Spit on the Brits and The craic we had the day we died for Ireland.
What one person finds amusing in any satire of Irish history, another might find egregiously offensive. The rush to condemn a proposed comedy by the writer Hugh Travers – what he suggests will be “black humour” set in 19th century Ireland – has unleashed an avalanche of outrage and an accompanying petition to Channel 4 demanding the station abandon the idea. Of course, the words “famine” and “sitcom” appear at first glance to belong as far apart as possible, but there have been too many premature denunciations in the absence of concrete detail, the bare story providing an opportunity for indulgence in a new manifestation of the MOPE syndrome: the Irish as the Most Oppressed People Ever.
In 1998, the year after the 150th anniversary of the height of the famine in 1847, a glossy brochure sought to solicit donations from corporate firms to support charities; in return, the company’s name would be “cast in bronze on one of the many flagstones along the docks of Dublin city”.
The companies were told they could “pay tribute to the Great Irish Famine . . . your company name will be forever remembered and immortalised on the docks . . . a place where many left during the famine era”. In reality, this was about corporate advertising to accompany the emaciated human frames depicted in the sculptures on Customs House Key, crafted by Rowan Gillespie and unveiled the previous year.
Remembering the famine at that time was about drumming up business; a best-selling “famine diary” turned out to have been fabricated by a novelist half a century after the event, but it was still marketed as history. There was also a party and concert in Cork in June 1997, known as The Great Irish Famine Event, partly funded by the government, which was billed as “a celebration of triumph over disaster”.
It included an “apology” from British prime minister Tony Blair for the failures of British government in the 1840s; Blair’s short statement was not delivered personally, but read out by actor Gabriel Byrne. Crassness and commodification abounded as remembrance of the Famine was overtaken by the supposed triumphs of a resilient, changing and economically prosperous Ireland.
Farce has already been apparent in relation to depicting the Irish Famine, and not of the Channel 4 fictional variety.