The Irish Famine as Represented in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Irish Famine as Represented in Nineteenth-Century Literature

By 1845, Ireland had become familiar with the unreliability of their staple crop—they had suffered through intermittent potato crop failures throughout the previous one hundred or so years, and the hunger that resulted from the failures of 1800, 1817, and 1822 had even been widespread enough to have been described as "famine." So when the crop of 1845—which by early indications promised to be bountiful—began to fail due to an inexplicable rot that destroyed the potatoes even before they had been dug up, many believed that the abundance of the crop would compensate for these losses. By winter, however, the rot had even blackened and spoiled the tubers that had been stored in pits. Reports of potato crop failures in the United States and, later, Europe, had made their way to England and Ireland, but in general the British government ignored the ramifications of the possibility that the disease would make its way to Ireland. Meanwhile, the Irish farmer made extra efforts to ensure that the crop of 1846-47 would be better. In fact, this season became known as "Black '47," the year in which the potato disease destroyed crops throughout the countryside; the year that marked the beginning of the "Great Famine"; and the first of several years in which record numbers of people died from starvation, malnutrition, dysentery, cholera, and typhoid fever. The Famine claimed countless numbers of victims (estimates range into the millions) throughout the late 1840s. Many of those who managed to stay alive fled to other countries, often to the United States. A cure for the potato blight (the disease was actually a fungus which was eventually identified as Phythophthora infestans) was not developed until 1882.

Critics note that the literature of this time period is scarred with incomplete, disjointed images—such as the "skeletal spectre" of death—which recur throughout the poetry and prose. Many Famine writers begin to describe a scene of a starving child, or a cabin whose emaciated inhabitants lie dead in the corner, only to abruptly depart from the image, refusing to detail it further. Often the same writers note their uncertainty regarding their ability, or even their right, to describe with words the horror of the Famine. This uncertainty, and these fragmented images, are the thread which binds together the vast array of Famine literature.

The political history of the Famine years is touched upon to varying degrees in the novels, poetry, and narratives of the time period. This history is not just that of Ireland, but that of England as well, for Ireland's history is inextricably tangled with England's. In 1801, the Act of Union between England and Ireland had made the two countries one, merging their economies and political structures; and historians, among others interested in the affairs of England and Ireland, have debated the role of British politics in the Famine. Some pose the question of whether the disaster could have been averted altogether, or, at the very least, if the suffering could have been assuaged to a greater degree than it was in reality. Others defend Britain's policies. Even some of the literature of the time period, especially Anthony Trollope's Castle Richmond (1860), while sympathizing with the victims of the Famine, seems to argue that the Famine was a "blessing in disguise" for the Irish, brought about by either God or nature, in that it created the suffering necessary for the emergence of a more equitable social order. From this standpoint—that the Famine was required either by nature or by God—Britain's policy of limited intervention is justified. Many contemporary and modern observers, however, revolted by the concept of the Famine as a blessing of any kind, agree that the British government did too little, too late, for the nation it occupied.

For a variety of reasons, the social, political, and economic structure of pre-Famine Ireland, which had been occupied for decades by the English, left Irish peasants in a position of absolute dependence upon the land, and on the potato in particular, for their existence. Irish farmers were tenants, most often renting land from absentee English or Irish landlords. The Irish paid a high price for the land—many times much higher than its actual value—but they had little choice, for without land, the Irish farmer had no means of supporting his family. As the population as well as unemployment increased, the rented land was subdivided until several families settled on a patch that could only grow enough potatoes to support one family. When the disease struck potato crops in 1845, and as crop failures continued throughout the next several years, the effect on a people completely reliant on one crop was utter devastation.

At the time of the Famine, England was experiencing its own economic crisis, and the concerns of Ireland were often viewed as trivial in light of this. Reports of widespread famine in Ireland were accused of being exaggerated. A few government officials advocated public relief efforts in Ireland, and finally, in 1847, some government aid was provided in the form of public works projects, soup kitchens, and workhouses. Critics of Britain's aid, contemporary and modern, argue that none of these efforts addressed the agricultural issues that formed the heart of the Famine problem. Britain's relief efforts, or lack thereof, also became a rallying point for the Irish nationalist movement during these years, and the literature of the time period, particularly poetry, which details the suffering of Famine victims was praised and published by Irish nationalist papers, including The Nation and The United Irishman. These publications, however, were often either ignored or derided in England.

Novels written during this time period were authored by upper-class men and women, rather than by the peasantry decimated by famine, and often came down rather softly on the British handling of the Famine, even as they offered harsh and painful images of Famine victims. The most frequently noted problem of most Famine novels—cited by contemporary and modern critics alike—is the apparent conflict between the story itself and famine analysis. Often the Famine backdrop is a marginal, and even obtrusive, part of the novels. This problem is shared by two of the most well-known nineteenth-century Famine novels: Trollope's Castle Richmond and William Carleton's The Black Prophet (1847). Modern analysis of Trollope's work, however, has attempted to prove that the Famine is neither incidental to Castle Richmond nor a separate story that should have been handled as such, as previously argued in the May, 1860, edition of the Saturday Review. Rather, critic Hugh Hennedy argues that Trollope parallels the plight of the Fitzgerald family with the plight of Ireland itself: as the Fitzgerald family emerges strengthened after its dealings with an unscrupulous member of the middle class, so does the whole of Ireland emerge "almost with triumph" from the Famine, as "the idle, genteel class has been cut up root and branch" and the "poor cotter .. . has risen from his bed of suffering a better man." Similarly, Christopher Morash demonstrates that the seemingly incidental depiction of the Famine in the novels of the time actually serves a purpose. Morash contends that Castle Richmond and two other novels (Margaret Brew's The Chronicles of Castle Cloyne; or, Pictures of the Munster People [1885] and Annie Keary's Castle Daly: The Story of an Irish Home Thirty Years Ago [1875]) view the Famine as "a Malthusian 'check' upon extravagance, moderating the two extremes of society, making them both more like the middle class." While the advent of this new social order is prescribed by the conventions of the novel, Morash maintains, the authors convey details about Famine suffering as a reminder that establishing an empowered middle class comes at a heavy cost.

Like these novels' apparently incidental depictions of the Famine, which arguably convey a larger meaning, Famine poetry contains fragmented, unfinished images which seem to stop short of portraying the fully horrific nature of the Famine. Modern critics, such as Morash, maintain that the disjointed and incomplete nature of these images stems from the hesitancy of Famine poets to describe the indescribable. Such images include that of death as a "skeletal spectre" (due to the emaciated appearance of the living and the dead) and that of the "green-mouthed corpse" (referring to individuals who tried to eat grass to ease their hunger but died nonetheless, often with masticated grass still in their mouths). The reuse of these images in later Famine writings, Morash explains, contributed to the formation of collective, constructive memories among the Irish as a people, and that such memories are displayed in twentieth-century art and literature, including the 1990 film The Field. In a separate essay, Morash also discusses the role of Famine poetry, particularly that of the millenarianism movement and poets such as James Clarence Mangan, in supporting the Irish nationalist movement. Critic Margaret Kelleher agrees with the significance Morash attributes to Famine poetry when, in her discussion of the poetry most often published in widely available Irish periodicals, she states that such works "played an important role in nationalist famine historiography." Kelleher lists the themes of eviction, starvation, and emigration as highly prevalent in Famine poetry. Nationalists sought to use the poetic depiction of these themes, the results of the Famine, to incite rebellion against England.

In addition to poetry and novels, eye-witness accounts were transcribed during the Famine. Such narratives, some twentieth-century critics argue, have long been overlooked by historians. Kelleher asserts that this dismissal is perhaps due to the fear by some historians that the material is too subjective or overly emotional. She maintains that a significant amount of research on the nature and influence of such accounts has yet to be undertaken and offers her own examination of the first-hand experiences of one American woman—Asenath Nicholson—during the Famine years. K. D. M. Snell agrees that the eye-witness narratives are sources too often discounted by historians. Snell describes one such account, that of the Scottish-born Alexander Somerville, who traveled throughout Ireland during 1847 and recorded all aspects of rural life, including the human effects of the Famine, and issues such as tenant rights, the dependance of the Irish peasant on the land, and the Poor-Law system. Just as such accounts are so frequently overlooked by modern scholars, contemporary readers often considered the reports exaggerated in order to muster sympathy for the Irish among the British, or to urge the revolt of the Irish against the British. In fact, in 1845, an editorial in the Achill Herald summarized the work of Nicholson: "It appears to us that the principal object of this woman's mission is to create a spirit of discontent among the lower orders and to dispose them to regard their superiors as so many unfeeling oppressors. ... "

The Irish Famine has been compared to the Holocaust in dimension, despite other obvious differences. It is not surprising, therefore, that the literature of the time period has been undergoing such a thorough re-examination by twentieth-century readers and critics. Modern reviewers of Famine literature, poetry, and narratives are perhaps as much moved to horror and its accompanying sympathy by the stark depictions of the Famine—sometimes edged with agony and despair, sometimes softened but rarely eased by memory—as they are by an effort to learn about and from the historical event itself.