Noted Famine Historian Finds 'Nothing Humorous' about Channel 4's Proposed Comedy 'Hungry'

World-renowned Famine historian and Director of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, Professor Christine Kinealy, has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the Channel 4 commissioning of a new comedy series about the Great Hunger. What do you make of Professor Kinealy's argument? Would you agree that the Famine is "too recent, too raw and too relevant" to be funny?


Is a comedy about a tragedy in bad taste?

Hungry is shameless … in more ways than one, says Professor Christine Kinealy, Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, USA

Hearing that Channel 4 has commissioned a comedy about the Irish Famine was not a good start to 2015.

Defenders have likened the concept to that of Shameless, a comedy-drama (on both sides of the Atlantic) about an impoverished, dysfunctional family. But, poverty is not the same as famine, and being dysfunctional is not the same as being powerless.

This year marks the 170th anniversary of a mysterious potato disease, or blight, appearing in Ireland.

Six further years of potato disease followed. But what turned the inevitable subsistence crisis into a lethal famine was a series of inadequate and inappropriate relief measures introduced by the British Government — which had been the sole legislator for Ireland since 1801.

The consequence was that in the space of six years Ireland lost 25 per cent of its population, making the Great Hunger the most lethal famine in modern history.

Moreover, the population of Ireland remains smaller today than it was in 1845, making it unique among western democracies who have all experienced massive population growth. Put another way, the impact of the Famine continues to this day.

There was no neat or happy ending.

Mass emigration, both during the Famine and in subsequent decades, created Irish communities throughout the world, particularly in North America, where millions of Irish Americans regard the Famine as part of their founding story.

This is evident from the large number of memorials that have been erected there since 1995.

But while emigration may have provided an escape from starvation, many who left regarded it as exile. The early generations of migrants not only experienced extreme anti-Irish prejudice, recent research has shown that if they survived the journey, their average life expectancy was only six more years.

Again, no neat or happy ending.

For many years there was a silence in regard to the Famine. Tellingly, the first place to introduce the Famine as a part of the schools’ curriculum was New Jersey in 1994, as part of a human rights curriculum.

For Irish people, while the Famine is a significant part of their history, it can also be viewed as part of a wider history of the denial of human rights and the struggle for social justice — issues that have as much relevance in the 21st century as they had in the 1840s.

Hunger and famine exist in many parts of the world today. Viewing them through a prism of comedy is not only insulting, it is disingenuous and ideologically dangerous.

As a result of the new research on the Irish Famine that has emerged in the last 25, we have gained many fresh insights into the complexity of those tragic years.

This research has helped us to move away from simplistic narratives and crude stereotypes.

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.

Where do comedic and artistic boundaries begin and end? I don’t know. But I have researched the topic of the Famine for over 30 years and I have failed to discover anything that is humorous about the slow and painful deaths of one million people, a disproportionate amount of whom were children under the age of nine.

Nor do the accounts written by the men and women who witnessed the suffering first-hand record anything other than abject horror at the scenes they were witnessing — in the words of 26-year-old Quaker, James Hack Tuke, who visited Mayo and Donegal in 1846 and again in 1847, the people were ‘living skeletons… scarcely able to crawl’.

In the space of only six years, over one million people died in Ireland. Many were buried without coffins, in mass pauper graves; others were left where they dropped dead, for fear of contagion. Just as tragically, their names and deaths were not recorded, as so they remain lost to us forever as individuals.

We only know them as a cold statistic. In death, as in life, their lives did not matter to uncaring bureaucrats in Westminster and Whitehall. Comedy is no way to honour their memory.

The Irish Famine is too recent, too raw and too relevant, to be reduced to the medium of a comedy show. Bad history and bad comedy will combine and the outcome will be bad taste. Yes, it is shameless.


Professor Christine Kinealy, whose most recent publication is Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland. The Kindness of Strangers (Bloomsbury, 2013), is a former Irish Post award-winner who was previously a senior lecturer in history at the University of Central Lancashire. She is currently Director of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University.

Born and raised in Liverpool, to parents from Mayo and Tipperary, Prof Kinealy earned her PhD from Dublin’s Trinity College.

Article original posted in the Irish Post on January 6, 2015.


Tags: An Gorta Mor, Famine, The Great Hunger

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Some comments from Dr. Kinealy particularly resonate for me: 

"Hunger and famine exist in many parts of the world today. Viewing them through a prism of comedy is not only insulting, it is disingenuous and ideologically dangerous."

and "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."

That said, I think the proposers of this series may sally forward much better informed, as to both the challenge they've taken on and the hazards they face. With these, I think one can fairly ask, to what benefit or purpose would the producers toil?

I thank every individual who has taken the time to better inform me on the issues here, as with these I see powerfully on display the freedom of speech that so many in the world today would try to deny us. 

It was Genocide pure and simple, to let a People starve while your exporting Beef and Grain is Murder by default in my view.Would not surprise me if Trevelyan thought it would ease the problem with the fractious Irish and clear the Tenant Farmers off the land similar but in terms of tragedy ,far greater than the Highland Clearances.

I imagine I'm one of a diminishing number of people who actually knew someone who survived the Famine. My great grandmother Winifred Bradley (Gallagher) was born in Glenvar on the Fanad peninsula in Co. Donegal. When she married my great grandfather she moved across Lough Swilly to live in the townland of Clonglash on the outskirts of Buncrana. She died in 1951 having lived to the grand old age of 103 years.

To have met someone who survived the famine -- that is amazing, Peter.

Thats amazing, Peter, did you manage to get any Information off her?

When I knew her she was in her late nineties and beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. I was a pre-schooler and spent my time wandering the fields and chasing chickens. I think she may have found me to be a bit of a nuisance to have about the place. (This attitude still prevails in some quarters!)

Here, here, Christine Kinealy! I'm so glad she has acknowledged the disgust I felt when I first posted about the petition to stop this program from being made. I am pleased that we are on the same side agreeing that this program would be "shameless".

Amen to Christine Kinealy's response. I hope her words have an impact and this comedy will not air. I have studied about The Great Hunger for many years and have written a young adult book, 'The Irish Dresser,' about a family leaving Ireland in 1847 to come to America. I am astonished at the ignorance surrounding this event and have come to believe that some of it in this country is due to the shame of our ancestors who arrived here destitute and despised. Tom Hayden quoted, "There are unmarked famine graves in all of us." I sat on a festival committee in 1997 because I had written a play about The Great Hunger. An Irish born man who sat on the committee said to me, "Now why would ye be bringing this up now for?" Small children came to the play at the festival and cried.And then I've had people ask me, "Why would the Irish only want to eat potatoes back then?" I have gone into middle schools to talk about my book and this time in history, as well as hunger issues today. A little boy came to me once after I spoke and handed me money from his pocket and told me he wanted to feed the hungry children. I thought I'd write this book and it would be the end of teaching about The Great Hunger, It's humbling. I'm not a professor or historian. I'm a writer and this subject I'm passionate about. It's sort of a calling, I guess. And now my protagonist in my fourth novel that takes place during the Civil War in New York is very much exhibiting the psychological effects of The Great Hunger. I've told her this book will be the last one about her, but even so, I will always carry this burden and desire to teach about The Great Hunger even as I go on to other works. You can read about my work on this site and go to my web site:

All of us have a duty to respect those gone before us. The dead deserve the utmost dignity.

To belittle the people of Ireland who died of Starvation or starvation related diseases during 1845-48 disregards this basic duty of  mankind.

the Island of Ireland has been bestowed with some of the most fertile land in Europe. i.e. The Golden Vale.

In 1845-48 One crop failed. Not every Crop.

The remaining crops were loaded on ships for transport across the Irish sea. Those who carried out this effort knew what they were doing. People need food and Ireland's remaining food - that could have saved its people when the potato failed could have been used to feed the people at this time.

The people of Ireland died in their masses as a result throughout Ireland...on the north Atlantic to Canada and at Grosse Ile Quebec.

The foreign army stationed in Ireland at the time didnt die of Starvation...................

The aristocracy throughout the land didnt die of Starvation...................

The land owners and property owners throughout Ireland didnt die of Starvation .........Some Famine that !

Why ?   because Famine conditions did not exist. There was intent to reduce the population of Ireland.

Now 150 years later a TV station decides to run a comedy show.

Shame on ALL those who reduce themselves to such despicable lows.

I cannot believe that any civilized person would find humor in this wholesale genocide perpetrated by a people claiming to have reached a high level of civilization and Christianity against a weak and near neighbor. The genocide was an act of criminality. That someone would present it as a comedy is an act of barbarity. It appears as an act of mental illness. At minimum, the person should be subjected to psychological examination. Decent people should spurn such "entertainment". No nation but Britain would rehash their own part in such a debased history as this form of comedy. Please do not give this project the time of day. To do so would encourage more of the same. Common decency demands that any person of common sense scorn such scoundrels as they find something to laugh at in the genocide of millions of innocent peasant Irish farmers.

Too true. 

 My great grandmother lived in Co. Cork during the famine.  She opened the door one day and a youth of about  16 asked "May I borrow a shovel Ma'am?"  She asked why he needed the shovel and he replied "To bury my brother".

 In Limerich a field used to be pointed out.. there a man was shot dead for stealing a turnip. 

I don't see much comedy in these stories. 

Anna Creagh

I agree with the article and would direct people to a poetic work by Lady Francesca Wilde ( Oscar's Mother) "The Famine Year" if the comedy folks find it funny after reading this work then maybe they should go back to human school.

A reporter asked the finance minister of England (Cook) why the people were starving when the grain bins were full and his reply was "We are better off without that rif raf"

There were twelve countries that sent ships with food to Ireland because England said there was a famine, I wonder what happened to that food, I direct you to Rossa's Recollections for more detail of what it was like to live through the famine, it is obvious to me that genocide was the order of the day, especially since the population of Ireland ballooned to eight million in the course of about 60 years.

As far as open discrimination against Irish emigrants in the US just read "No Irish Need Apply" by John F Poole, the signs were real but yet we thrived. My father's great Uncle Thomas was in the civil war and stayed in the states until about 1870 and he talked about the signs that said "No Irish Need Apply"

Perhaps the comedy folks will do justice and make this satirical, an example would be " A Modest Proposal" (Swift) not at all funny but makes a good point.


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