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.
Oh, I forgot! There is an excellent movie that does not candy coat the truth about the Great Hunger. It was made by the BBC years ago. It is called The Hanging Gale. I know no other movie that gives justice to this time period as this one has done.
Hello Cynthia and Irish friends,
There are so many untold stories that would make wonderful films. I've written a feature on Mary Mallon 'Typhoid Mary', which is registered with the WGA and have written several other short screenplays. I also am open to a collaborative effort. It seems the biggest hurdle to making a film is the money to back it.
Do you have a web site? I'd love to learn more about your work. My web site is www.cynthianeale.com.
Thanks for your link. I'm an actor, voice artist and writer. I'm building a website, but here are some links in the meantime:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Seattle-Radio-Theatre/173853249301358 (I'm Vice President of Seattle Radio Theatre)
All the best,
You noted that you wrote to TG4 which is an Irish Language Station whereas it is Channel 4 in England that is proposing to air the comedy on the Great Hunger.
I would have expected an answer similar to which you received from TG4. You may not have received a response from Channel 4.
Is it possible you wrote to the wrong organisation ? No big deal for me but just wondering here.
I have been reading the responses to this and I am really struggling with saying no, because I believe in free speech. I know it is difficult to imagine anything funny about the Irish Great Hunger, but when the subject of genocide is handled by veterans like Mel Brooks, we do learn more. There is power in laughter.
David McSavage from The Savage Eye did a small skit on the Great Hunger in one of his previous shows. But the whole message was that an out of touch with reality ruling class had no mercy on the native Irish, unless they became protestants.
I really am struggling to say it should be stopped. I don't know. This one is a very tough call, but I do think that if the project is handled with the intent to show how governments can make disastrous decisions and people can suffer greatly because of it, yes, I do think it should go ahead because of free speech. Maybe people will learn something en-route.
There are limits to all "freedoms." We can walk around town, but are restricted from killing another pedestrian. We have responsibilities to those whom we share the world. Free speech is tricky. Do you believe children should be allowed to view pornography in magazines? Do you believe hate speech against Jews should be allowed in a synagogue? Perhaps this seems extreme. But, to us who have relatives who died horrible deaths during The Great Hunger, it is just as extreme. What if a comedy was made of 9/11 and the planes going into the Twin Towers? If you lost family in a disaster, how would you feel for it to be made into a sit-com (low on the entertainment food chain). A joke at the expense of the people buried along the road, mouths green from eating grass. The Great Hunger was an intentional effort to end the Irish, after so many efforts by the English. I really get tired of the argument if Mel Brooks can do it....Sorry. Each case needs to be judged on its own merit. There have been enough people who have expressed their anguish over this. A sit-com? That's pornography of violence. That said, I can sincerely appreciate that you are struggling with it. It shows you are a thoughtful person. That can't be said for the people who suggested the idea.
Thanks for the comment Patdee. I left Ireland when I was 24. I was born and raised there, so I too am affected by the Great Hunger. Notice that I am refusing to call it a famine, because it wasn't. There was food in Ireland but it was being exported. So it was an imposed shortage of food, not a famine. I am sensitive to the atrocities of the Great Hunger, but I still think that if the sit-com is presented in a way that highlights the fact that members of the British parliament wanted to eradicate the Irish by starving them, then there is a sensitivity to the subject matter. And you are absolutely right, not everyone will find it "funny" ..... but free speech is tricky, as you said. And the reason I struggle with this is because it is such a painful and sensitive area of Irish history. An area that was taboo for academics to discuss honestly because of a fear that their careers would be stalemated. I have been to the Great Hunger Museum in Hamden CT many times, in fact I was there when the exhibit was in Quinnipiac University, and I learned things from that exhibit that were not in my history books when I was growing up. Was it fear of insulting the English government that caused this censorship of the facts? Things like the fact that a tribe of American Indians gave more than the Queen of England towards the Great Hunger relief fund during the years of the hunger. Was it fear that knowing this would reignite violence and hatred? Probably. But to use censorship like this insults the audience. Let them decide for themselves, and with debates and critical thinking the audience will hopefully come to a better understanding of the true facts of the famine. And who knows, maybe thats what will happen with this sit-com, and possibly nobody will find it funny at all and it will get cancelled, if it ever even gets made. Free speech is important to me, because censorship presumes that the audience are all idiots. I grew up in a country that censored tv viewing heavily, and I totally disagree with it. RTE was notorious for its censorship, and it was an attempt of behalf of the Church and the State to keep the people like sheep. I don't come to this decision of "yes" let Channel 4 do the sit-com lightly, but my hope is that the audience will not be sheep, and will grasp that this is a painful topic, decide whether it is funny or not, and the whole thing may or may not even make air time.
There is nothing remotely funny about the supposed Famine ; it was not a famine ; it was genocide - as per the Hague convention 1946.
If the 'subject' was going to be a documentary or a film about the supposed Famine ; showing the British Establishment as the instigators of the cruel and harsh regime - that perpetrated the terrible atrocities on the landless cabin dwellers; tenants etc ; then I may ;
As a comedy ; Noooooooooooooooooooo not ever