Irish Studies

Artistic works inspired by the Great Famine struggle to do it justice, but they keep the memory alive

This piece was originally published on The Conversation.

How do you represent in film an experience as keen and painful as hunger? Director Lance Daly’s recently released film Black ‘47 – a revenge epic set during the 1840s Irish famine – is the latest attempt to depict the devastating catastrophe which left more than a million dead in Ireland in one of the worst episodes of human suffering in the 19th century. The famine’s legacy is profound: today Ireland remains the only European country with a smaller population than in the 1800s.

Robert Fripp’s ‘An Irish Peasant and her Child’, a saccharine portrait of curiously well-fed looking victims of the famine. Robert Fripp/Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum

Yet the problem of how (and whether) to convey the horrors of the famine in visual art perplexed artists of the period. There were few conventions in Victorian art practice to represent the starving human body in extremis. More commonly, paintings of the famine reverted to saccharine images of noble peasants at the mercy of external forces, or caricatures of Irish indolence and fecklessness, or simply ignored the crisis altogether, since it didn’t accord with the values or interests espoused by academic painting.

Illustrated journalism – which was in its infancy, with the Illustrated London News founded only in 1842 – fared somewhat better. Many of the best-known depictions of the famine are from journalistic coverage of the crisis, such as the sketch of Bridget O’Donnel and Children from the Illustrated London News, December 22 1849. Black ‘47 makes ample use of this source material, with its opening sequences explicitly mimicking the monochrome palette of 1840s wood engraving.

 

The sketch accompanying the story of Bridget O’Donnel in the Illustrated London News has become one of the best-known depictions of the famine. Illustrated London News

But newspaper coverage was uneven, as what they published was also constrained by their perception of what readers would tolerate. Although frequently based on eyewitness accounts, newspaper images generally pale in comparison with the words that accompany them: too shocking an image and the viewer would quickly turn the page.

Did a silence descend upon Britain and Ireland on the subject in the aftermath of the famine? Has it really remained an unspoken horror left in the past? Recent research on the visual and textual representation of the famine challenges this broad view. Today scholars of “famine memory” seek to more closely observe when, and crucially why, the famine emerges or shifts as a subject of representation. Far from being an unrepresentable event, the memory of the famine has assumed a wide array of visual and textual forms from the 19th century to the present. These include popular and literary fiction, drama, political rhetoric, print and painted depictions, photography and film.

Touted as the “first famine film”, Black ’47 is intriguing example of the genre, but not the first. That distinction belongs to the silent film Knocknagow (1918), the first feature entirely shot and produced in Ireland by the Film Company of Ireland, set loosely during the famine period and based on the popular 1873 novel by Charles Kickham.

With a sentimental and convoluted storyline combining star-crossed lovers, forced emigration, an absentee landlord and a rapacious land agent, and with a dramatic centrepiece scene depicting an eviction, Knocknagow drew upon stock characters and vignettes with broad appeal to the anticipated (largely American) audience. It used a repertoire of images of famine and eviction well known to contemporary audiences through their repetition in decades of painting, engraving and in popular fiction.

Black ’47 adopts many of these same elements, but its dramatic action is situated in the genre of the revenge western (a kind of O’Django Unchained), and it offers a far more sophisticated telling of a familiar story. For example, the targets of its central character’s fury range from the indifferent landlord, a frequent villain in 19th and 20th-century famine fiction, to the gombeen-man, a complex figure who exploited the suffering of his own people (and in the film, his own family).

During the 150th anniversary of the famine in the 1990s, hundreds of public memorials were constructed across Ireland and in the new homelands of the expansive Irish diaspora, something I discuss in my book Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument. Public interest shows no sign of waning since: new memorials are planned, from Glasgow to San Francisco, and the Irish government has adopted an annual National Day of Famine Commemoration. Nevertheless, all representations of the famine respond to pre-existing literary or visual traditions, are crafted to appeal to specific viewers, and stem from a range of political and social motivations. As such, any image of the famine is a complex artefact of its own time and place, not merely an illustration or reflection of historical experience or collective cultural memory.

Since the 19th century people have questioned whether the famine is a suitable subject for creative reinterpretation. Howls of outrage greeted news of Hugh Travers’ “famine sitcom” pilot commissioned by Channel 4 in 2015, a project eventually abandoned. But the famine should not be considered any kind of sacred cow: this has certainly never been the case historically. As the genealogy of its depiction shows us – from The Black Prophet by William Carleton, writing at the time of the famine, to Black ’47 today, the seismic shock of the famine has continued to haunt all subsequent generations, each seeking forms of comprehension and meaning.

As Walter Benjamin observed: “To articulate what is past does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was’. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” The making, and remaking, of the famine will recur so long as its memory unsettles us.

Emily Mark-FitzGerald is Associate Professor in the School of Art History and Cultural Policy, University College Dublin and is the author of: Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument.

 

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Irish Studies, Uncategorized

Women of the Country House in Ireland – Five minutes with Maeve O’Riordan

Ahead of the launch of Women of the Country House in Ireland, 1860-1914, author Maeve O’Riordan discusses the various experiences of women among the Irish Ascendancy, from financial freedom to their own observations of motherhood.

Women of the Country House in Ireland 1860-1914 reveals the lives of the women among the Irish Ascendancy. How did you go about conducting your research for this project?

The book examines the lives of women from twelve landed families in Ireland, all of whom had a house in Munster. It explores their experiences from girlhood to old age, whether they married or not. I wanted to give space to these women’s own voices, so most of my research time was spent with the letters, diaries, scrapbooks, novels, memoirs, sketchbooks and other items written by women who either were born or married into the Irish landed class. Luckily, their descendants have shared their papers with a library – mostly the National Library of Ireland but also the Boole Library in University College Cork and other places.

With literally thousands of pages of letters written by these women preserved in these libraries, it was possible to become totally immersed in the material. The structure of the book evolved over time as the themes emerged from the surviving letters.

I hope that readers will gain a clear insight into the female experience among the class through the book. By examining women’s own voices it is possible to see how they viewed their own roles within the house. The female role was an important one to the success of the family, even though, legally, women had few rights at the time.

‘a youth and a matron suspiciously placed…with his arm encircling the motherly waist.’‘A Floggy Flirtation, 1889 –Lady Castletown’s scrapbook. Image Credit: NLI

 

What was the female experience among the privileged landed classes like in the mid-nineteenth century? Did it vary a lot between families?

The women in this study were all members of some of the wealthiest families in Ireland, however, even within this group, there were differences in wealth between families. For example, the estate of the Earl of Bantry stretched over 60,000 acres while the Ryan family in Tipperary only owned around 1,000 acres. Olive, the daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bantry married Lord Ardilaun – one of the richest men in Ireland or Britain – who owned the Guinness brewing empire. She had every possible comfort and a number of properties to call home, including Ashford Castle in County Mayo and Macroom Castle in County Cork.  The wives of the Ryan landlords had no such comparable wealth.

The most pronounced difference in experience, however, was within families between married and unmarried women, and women at different life stages. For example, Ethel, Lady Inchiquin, brought a dowry of £100,000 to her marriage in 1896. Throughout her married life, she acted with financial and personal freedom while remaining close to her husband. Ethel’s niece by marriage, Maud, was not as independent. After quarrelling with her mother, Ellen, in 1905, the unmarried woman was thrown out of the house and had no option to live with another sister on an allowance of £15 per month. To provide some context; in 1886, Ellen had hired a governess for Maud and her siblings on a salary of £80 per annum. Maud was completely reliant on the goodwill of her family for her financial security.

Ethel Foster, and extremely wealthy English heiress married the heir of Dromoland Castle in 1896. Their wedding was a statement of wealth and power. Read more about them in Women of the Country House in Ireland, 1860-1914 Image credit: NLI

When working on this project did you come across anything that you found particularly surprising?

There are a number of findings which surprise others when I talk about the book, particularly the fact that so many of these women were involved mothers who breastfed their babies and only relied on wet nurses in instances where they were too sick to nurse their own babies. For example, Mabel, who is depicted on the cover of the book with her son Brendan joked that he was turning her into a pagan as she could not attend church as he wanted to be constantly fed. When he was three months old she wrote that Brendan was ‘still practically a two-hours baby’ which meant ‘that the time for doing regular everyday things never seems to come’.

However, what has surprised me the most was the amount of movement across the Irish Sea on marriage. It has long been understood that many Irish landlords found English wives, but it was not known the extent to which women who grew up in Ireland ended up marrying into the English gentry and aristocracy. Of the peers’ daughters in this study, twice as many married English rather than Irish husbands. I want to examine this experience further in my future research.

How do you think Women of the Country House in Ireland 1860-1914 paves the way for further research into the history of women?

There has been a huge increase in the level of interest on women in the country house over the past few years. This book examines the female experience in a number of aspects of their lives. However, this book is only a starting point. Each one of the chapters could be expanded into longer studies of marriage, experiences of unmarried women, girlhood, political involvement, travel, social networks etc. I hope to complete some of this work, but many studies are needed before we can build a complete picture of the class at the time.

Maeve O’Riordan is Lecturer in Women’s and Cultural History at the School of History, University College Cork.

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Irish Studies

Strangling Angel: Diphtheria and Childhood Immunization in Ireland

Michael Dwyer, author of Strangling Angel, discusses Diphtheria, cover-ups and the childhood immunization programme in Ireland.

Strangling Angel was inspired by the work of Dr Jack Saunders, Chief Medical Officer to Cork City, Ireland, from 1929 to 1956. Saunders’ annual reports give a unique insight into the challenges faced by a new cohort of public health doctors on the frontline of health service provision in early to mid-twentieth century Ireland. These records reveal the extraordinary origins of the childhood immunization programme in Ireland and they locate Cork city as the unlikely European frontline of the bacteriological revolution. Saunders’ alliance with the British pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome gave him access to cutting-edge, yet highly experimental, anti-diphtheria serums which were field trialled among institutional children, and among the wider child population in Cork.

Even close engagement with the statistical record relating to infectious disease in Ireland could not justify Saunders’ radical intervention, nor would it offer any rationale as to why the first home-grown Irish government opted to introduce and actively promote a national anti-diphtheria immunization programme. Despite the distinct absence of diphtheria from the historical record Strangling Angel shows that the disease was a prolific child-killer in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Ireland. The early chapters of the book attempt to rescue diphtheria from obscurity and to re-establish its reputation as ‘the most dreaded disease of childhood’. The ‘strangling angel’ of children, that showed scant regard for status and infiltrated Europe’s royal palaces as well as her slums and hovels. A sinuous disease, diphtheria very often took every child in a household and regularly decimated the child population of entire communities.

The long period of disruption attendant on the First World War, the Irish Revolution and subsequent Civil War left the newly independent Irish state with a seriously compromised system of public health administration and service provision. In 1923, the reconstitution of the Ministry of Local Government as the Department of Local Government and Public Health demonstrated that the incumbent Cumann na nGael administration had set improved health services among their first national goals. When the collection of statistical data relating to infectious disease resumed, it became clear that infectious disease in general, and diphtheria in particular, was endemic throughout the country. A new cohort of public health doctors, trained in modern public health interventions in America, were recruited to take charge of public health administration and service provision in every county.

In New York, William Park and Abraham Zingher had demonstrated the effectiveness of combating high levels of diphtheria among school children by administering anti-diphtheria prophylactic as a preventive measure. Although active immunization found advocates in Europe, a strong anti-vaccination lobby ensured that laboratory interventions were not adopted in Britain. In Ireland, the Cumman na nGael government eschewed the reticence of their British counterparts, took their cue from the American experience and adopted and promoted anti-diphtheria immunization. This is noteworthy. It demonstrates that Irish officials and medical officers readily abandoned traditional sanitarian approaches to disease control and embraced new public health methodologies to protect child life. Furthermore, it demonstrates that when it came to public health, the Cumman na nGael administration were not as conservative as the historiography suggests and did not always adopt the British stance on any given matter.

Before the establishment of a stand-alone Department of Health in 1947, the quality of health service provision depended on the efficacy, or otherwise, of the County Medical Officer. Although the Department of Local Government and Public Health actively promoted anti-diphtheria immunization in a bid to completely eradicate diphtheria the decision to implement immunization schemes rested with the local Medical Officer in each county. The wider medical community in Ireland retained their colonial affiliations and continued to view Britain as their professional compass. Furthermore, the wider and more conservative medical profession viewed the new cohort of public health doctors with suspicion. They saw them as a threat to their medical authority, and to traditional income streams, and did not readily support active immunization. The national childhood immunization programme was not readily accepted by the medical community in Ireland: the necessary components to ensure a successful intervention did not combine organically. They were forged through conflict and tragedy.

The most tragic and disturbing incident centred on the Ring College immunization disaster in 1936 when a routine anti-diphtheria immunization scheme resulted in twenty-four children contracting Tuberculosis and the death of a twelve-year-old girl. The historiography relating to the Ring incident is unanimous in its verdict; that Burroughs Wellcome mistakenly supplied a vial of live Tuberculosis in lieu of anti-diphtheria serum. However, Strangling Angel presents new evidence which strongly suggests that an elaborate cover-up of criminal proportions, designed to protect the beleaguered local doctor Daniel McCarthy, was mounted by his advisors, some of whom were senior medical practitioners. The initial cover-up of the immunisation accident itself left the affected children without the close medical attention which they required, and a child fatality ensued. Attempted criminal interference by McCarthy’s advisors failed to halt a coroner’s inquest into the death of the child, and a concocted verdict exonerating McCarthy and laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of Burroughs Wellcome was subsequently returned by a local jury under the influence of the college authorities.

When the subsequent high court case failed to uphold the charge levelled against Wellcome, or to apportion blame on Dr McCarthy, an ambiguous verdict decimated support for established childhood immunisation schemes in Ireland, and the incident was adopted by the anti-vaccination movement in Britain as a warning against the implementation of immunisation schemes there. Furthermore, the Ring incident was hijacked by the Irish Medical Association to support their monetary claims for increased remuneration for providing immunisation services. When minister Sean T. O’Kelly refused to budge on the matter, the medical association withdrew their immunisation services stating that no clarification had been forthcoming on the issue of indemnity relating to the use of anti-diphtheria antigens. As agreement on indemnity or remuneration could not be reached, the medical union maintained their withdrawal of immunisation services for over ten years: until an intervention by Minister Noel Browne settled the matter in 1948. This whole debacle, a direct result of the Ring incident, impacted adversely on the health and life expectancy of infant and child populations in districts far from Ring College.

In 1941, pandemic diphtheria spread across war-torn Europe. By the time the disease reached Britain and Ireland it had taken over one million child lives. The severity of the infection in Britain forced health officials there to perform a volte face, and to introduce a national programme of anti-diphtheria immunization. In Ireland, diphtheria re-appeared in levels not witnessed since the pre-immunization era. Parents were faced with a tough decision. To expose their children to a rampant and potentially fatal disease or to subject them to a compromised immunization programme. By 1944, mounting diphtheria fatalities focused minds and municipal health clinics were overwhelmed by parents seeking to have their children immunized.

 

Strangling Angel: Diphtheria and Childhood Immunization in Ireland is important as it is the first comprehensive study of the origins of the childhood immunization programme in Ireland. It portrays Irish public health authorities as being progressive regarding their willingness to accept and employ new public health initiatives, and importantly, it highlights how this attitude differed from the sluggish response of their British counterparts. The book explores the radical public health interventions which pitted efforts to achieve communal health against the rights of the individual. It presents a historical precedent where the actions of one medical practitioner undermined public confidence in the immunization process itself. In an era when childhood immunization is increasingly considered more of a lifestyle choice than a lifesaving intervention, this book may bring some historical context to bear on a current public health debate.

 

Michael Dwyer is a lecturer in the School of History at University College Cork.

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