Big debate: Is the Famine suitable material for comedy?

Dr Ciaran Reilly and Padraig Reidy go head to head and argue whether the Irish famine is a suitable subject for comedy.

VOTE: Would you watch a comedy series based on the famine?

NO: The Famine is present in our music, song, and drama. But it does not belong in comedy, writes Dr Ciaran Reilly

Big debate: Is the Famine suitable material for comedy?

At first, I thought it was just some strange scam or publicity stunt. But it isn’t and let’s be clear about this: The recent outcry over the proposed Channel 4 comedy series Hunger, based on the Great Irish Famine, has rightly stoked an outcry across Ireland and among her diaspora.

As someone who has come face-to-face with the heartbreaking stories in documents from the time, it would simply be an insult to all of those who suffered in the Famine if this ‘comedy’ went ahead.

On a daily basis, in teaching the story of the Famine to young people, I and others are presented with a number of challenges. In many ways it is almost impossible to quantify and relate to students the true reality of the situation, the pure horror of what people were faced with in Ireland during the 1840s.

How exactly do we make sense of, for example, the case of Kate Lawler, an Offaly woman whose “putrid remains were found in a ditch” in January 1847, the worst year of Famine, less than a half a mile from the local clergyman?

Or take, for example, the case of Strokestown in Roscommon. The Famine years of the 1840s totally decimated its population. Prior to the arrival of the blight in 1845, it was a teeming population of just under 12,000 people. Ten years later, fewer than half remained.

They were gone either through hunger, disease, eviction, or emigration. Some like John Lyons, whose decayed remains were “found in the walls of Brackens house”, where he had sought temporary shelter, had succumbed to hunger.

From the same town, more than 700 perished in their bid to cross the Atlantic to a new home in Canada, part of Major Denis Mahon’s ill-fated emigration scheme of 1847 to rid himself as a landlord of his starving tenants, and he was later shot by outraged locals.

Those that survived were described as “ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven and hollow cheeked”.

In teaching the Famine in Maynooth University over the last few years, I constantly remind students that the Famine is a living thing and that the scars of what occurred in Ireland 170 years ago remain all around us. It is a relevant landscape to us today.

The effects of the Famine can be seen across Ireland: In the lazybeds which once gave a plentiful crop; in ruined cottages levelled by landlords and their bailiffs; in deserted villages; in the Famine graveyards and mass burial sites; in former workhouses which now have a variety of functions; in place names, monuments, and memorials.

The Famine is present in our music, song, and drama. But it does not belong in comedy.

The Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park has been to the forefront in telling this story over the past 20 years and more than 50,000 people visit annually to find out what actually occurred. They can live it for themselves in all its horror.

Strokestown, of course, is also home to one of the largest collections of Famine documents in the world. I have examined these over the past few years, showing the utter devastation that the calamity wrought.

Ireland has still not recovered its population of 1840; as a people we remain scarred by what happened and there were (and are) social problems which emanate from the disaster.

In many ways, because of the threatened famines in Ireland in 1880, 1890, 1925, and 1946, it has never left our consciousness.

Indeed, because it remains in our consciousness it allows us the opportunity to contribute to the debate about global hunger and the Irish can be rightly proud of the role they have played over the last 50 years in trying to avert such crisis.

The Famine, you see, is a living thing. It is no laughing matter.

Dr. Reilly is a historian with Maynooth University and author of a new book, ‘Strokestown and The Great Irish Famine’, published by Four Courts Press

YES: We all care about those who starved to death, but history, like religion, is open to artistic interpretation and satire, says Padraig Reidy

Big debate: Is the Famine suitable material for comedy?

THERE’S an organisation called CRAIC that apparently represents me, an Irishman living in Britain.

CRAIC stands for Campaign for the Rights and Actions of Irish Communities, surely the most ridiculous acronym since fundamentalist group, Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN), in Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth. Smith’s KEVIN was a joke.

CRAIC, despite what the name suggests, is a group that takes a dim view of jokes, even jokes that have not yet been made.

CRAIC’s chair (and one also suspects vice-chair, treasurer, chief executive, social secretary and tea lady), Austen Harney has announced a protest at the London headquarters of Channel 4, against Hungry, the “famine sitcom” being written by Irishman Hugh Travers.

Though the script will probably not be broadcast (that is no reflection on Travers, merely the reality of TV commissioning), CRAIC has decided it is wrong, and that it must be stopped.

Let us be clear: this is not an appeal to ‘sensitivity’. This is censorship, plain and simple.

Moreover, it is a censorship motivated by a paranoid, self-pitying nationalism, which believes that a British company, such as Channel 4, making a comedy about Ireland is laughing at Irish people and the suffering of the past.

Those who are calling for censorship (I cannot restate enough that that’s what this is) bombard with facts about the horror of the Great Hunger those who support the right to lampoon history; as if we didn’t know, or didn’t care, about what happened.

“How can you laugh at Irish people reduced to eating grass”, we have heard. “Do you not know how our people suffered?” “Do you not care about Trevelyan? The workhouses? The famine ships? What kind of Irishman are you?”

The implication is that people who actually care about Mother Ireland will call for censorship, while Shoneens, like me, will please the English media while pretending to stand for ‘free speech’.

Don’t buy it. It’s a shallow patriotism that thinks a nation’s history is not open to artistic interpretation, just as it’s shallow piety to claim that one’s god or one’s prophet cannot be mocked.

And it’s a shallow argument to suggest that, as George Orwell wrote, that one’s opponent “cannot be both honest and intelligent”.

It was the misfortune of the anti-Hungry crew that their call for a protest coincided with the horrors in Paris last week.

It would be crass to compare them to the men who murdered cartoonists and journalists in France, but they should learn a lesson, nonetheless: once you take it upon yourself to decide what subject is fit for laughter and what subject is not, once you make special pleading for censorship based on your own grievances, the genie is out of the bottle.

Padraig Reidy is editorial director of 89up and former senior writer at Index on Censorship


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