Artistic works inspired by the Great Famine struggle to do it justice, but they keep the memory alive
How do you represent in the cinema an experience as vivid and painful as hunger? The recently released film from director Lance Daly Black ’47 – an epic revenge set during the Irish Famine of the 1840s – is the latest attempt to portray the devastating catastrophe that left more than a million people dead in Ireland in one of the worst episodes of human suffering of the 19th century. The legacy of famine runs deep: today Ireland remains the only European country with a smaller population than in the 19th century.
Yet the problem of how (and if) to convey the horrors of starvation in the visual arts puzzled artists of the time. There were few conventions in the practice of Victorian art for depicting the hungry human body in extremis. More commonly, famine paintings reverted to sugary images of noble peasants at the mercy of outside forces, or caricatures of Irish indolence and recklessness, or simply ignored the crisis altogether, as it did not fit values ââor interests defended by academics. The painting.
Illustrated journalism – which was in its infancy, with the Illustrated London News only founded in 1842 – fared somewhat better. Many of the best-known depictions of famine come from journalistic coverage of the crisis, such as the skit of Bridget O’Donnel and the children from the Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849. Black ’47 makes extensive use of this source material, with its opening sequences explicitly mimicking the monochrome palette of 1840s woodcut.
But newspaper coverage was patchy, as what they published was also limited by their perception of what readers tolerated. Although often based on eyewitness testimony, newspaper images generally pale in comparison to the accompanying words: an image too shocking and the viewer would quickly turn the page.
Has silence descended on Great Britain and Ireland on this 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 famine calls into question this broad vision. Today, âfamine memoryâ specialists seek to observe more closely when, and especially why, famine appears or moves as a subject of representation. Far from being an unrepresentable event, the memory of famine has taken on many visual and textual forms from the 19th century to the present day. These include popular and literary fiction, theater, political rhetoric, printed and painted representations, photography and film.
Billed as the âfirst famine film,â Black ’47 is an intriguing example of the genre, but not the first. This accolade belongs to the silent film Knocknagow (1918), the first feature film shot and produced entirely in Ireland by the Film Company of Ireland, set freely during the famine period and based on the popular 1873 novel by Charles Kickham.
With a sentimental and convoluted story combining doomed lovers, forced emigration, absent landlord and rapacious land agent, and with a dramatic center scene depicting an eviction, Knocknagow drew inspiration from original characters and vignettes with a broad appeal to the expected (largely American) public. He used a repertoire of famine and eviction images well known to contemporary audiences through their repetition in decades of painting, printmaking, and popular fiction.
Black ’47 takes up many of those same elements, but its dramatic action is in the genre of the western revenge (a sort of O ‘Django Unchained), and it offers a much more sophisticated narration of a familiar story. For example, the targets of its central character’s fury range from the indifferent owner, a villain common 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 built across Ireland and in the new homelands of the vast Irish Diaspora, which I discuss in my book Commemoration of the Irish famine: memory and monument. Public interest has not weakened since: new memorials are planned, from Glasgow to San Francisco, and the Irish government has adopted a Commemoration of National Famine Day. Nonetheless, all depictions of famine respond to pre-existing literary or visual traditions, are designed to appeal to specific viewers, and stem from a range of political and social motivations. As such, any image of famine is a complex artefact of its time and place, not simply an illustration or reflection of historical experience or collective cultural memory.
Since the 19th century, people have questioned whether famine is a suitable subject for creative reinterpretation. howls of outrage hailed the news of Hugh Travers ‘pilot of Hugh Travers’ ‘famine sitcom’ commissioned by Channel 4 in 2015, a project that was ultimately scrapped. But famine should not be seen as some kind of sacred cow: it certainly never has been historically. As shown by the genealogy of its representation – of The Black Prophet by William Carleton, writing in the days of the famine, in Black ’47 today, the seismic shock of the famine continued to haunt all subsequent generations, each seeking some form of understanding and meaning.
Like Walter Benjamin observed: âExpressing what happened does not mean recognizing ‘how it really was’. It means taking control of a memory, such as it flashes in a moment of danger. The making and re-enactment of famine will recur as long as its memory disturbs us.