Ireland’s John Waters. Locating Family During the Irish Famine

Daffodils for Gravestones by John Waters

This 2008 documentary, Where Was Your Family During the Famine?, in which I feature as one of three subjects of the titular question, has mysteriously entered the public domain on the last couple of weeks. It is, for me, an odd and affecting timing, since — in the timbre of radically different times — we Irish (and other nations in similar by particularised ways) now face a moment analogous to that which faced our ancestors more than 175 years ago.

My involvement, I have presumed, related to the fact that, during the period of the 150th anniversary of that period, I sought to raise questions concerning the trauma those events had imposed on our country and its people, trauma that I believed (and believe) had persisted in the folds of inherited culture right up to that moment, and now this. As we have seen in the past two and a half years, that trauma lies there still, threatening at any moment to grip our society in the fear of obliteration, a secret  terror offering any passing would-be tyrant the opportunity to enslave and destroy us again.

The two other Irish people featured in the documental — public figures, you might say, for I was something like that at the time — the economist, Eddie Hobbs, and the fashion model, Jasmine Guinness, told their stories independently of each other and of me.

So, in this 75-minute documentary, the three of us, separately but on a common quest, seek to trace our origins back to the time of what is sometimes called ‘the Great Famine’. The stories intercut and diverge and merge again, and focus on different aspects as well as varying in their locations and historical details.  This is, in a sense, a journey each Irish person ought properly to undertake, in some form, so that we no longer hold to inculcated notions — untruths, legends, lies — about what happened in our country in the time of its ‘shared history’ with England. It tells, for our own benefit, and for the benefit of recent arrivals on our island who have been primed with the further lies being peddled by such as politicians, NGOs and media commentators, the story of the darkest moment in Irish history — up until that which approaches.

There is, within the three stories, a remarkable convergence of ‘remembering’ and emotion, and, watching the documentary again, I am intrigued by the extent to which it contravenes the official narrative prevailing at that time (September 2008, the moment just before the undoing of the Celtic Tiger), and continuing. Insofar as you could expect of a documentary produced by a State broadcaster, it flirts with a truthful interpretation of the history we had received in sanitised form in State schools since the late 1960s.

The episode at the centre of this documentary is perhaps the most calamitous event in the entire story of Ireland’s place in the History of Western Rapine, and the point of re-telling it, in this and other approximate truth-forms, is not to stir up hatred of anyone, but to replenish a cultural mnemonic in which the meaning of the past becomes restored in something like its truth. In 2008, this was a matter of historical record and psychological completion; in 2022 and 2023, it may again be a matter of survival.  But now we embark on a phase of our history that may prove darker than even that off 175 years ago — indeed, that may prove to be terminal to the cherished hope of our ancestors and those who lost their lives to the genocidal tendencies of those who held power throughout the long journey along the highways and byways of Hell that brought us to the calamitous events and conditions of 2022. Now, again, we face shortages of food and fuel; we labour under the tyranny of a Government that has abolished our constitutional protections and replaced them with concessions by decree; with our country being invaded by indifferent aliens, primed with ideological hostility before their arrival; and a general air of menace not experienced throughout our nation for a century.

Watch the documentary

In our so-recent past, we looked upon the great calamities of the history as mysteries — inscrutable and improbable.  As our country became wealthier and more ’modern’, we more and more came to regard as implausible interpretations of our history attributing malice and mercilessness to our historically domineering neighbour.  Some of us half believed the tales of genocide but had nothing to make comparison with so did not enter fully into the possibility with our deeper emotions; many more dismissed such interpretations out of hand.  In 1966,  a moment of celebration of the 50th anniversary of our  founding revolution as a freed people, the sunlight of truth came around as though suddenly and dramatically shining into a normally darkened room through a tiny south-facing window, by which the room was illuminated by the temporary licence for truth-telling. But, soon thereafter, the gloom reasserted itself and a new scepticism entered, so that in 1973, or 1981, or 1990, we were seen to have carefully rephrased our recitation of what we knew and believed. We spoke mealy-mouthedly again of ‘the blight’, the ‘potato famine’, the ‘Great Famine’, pausing only momentarily to wonder what had been ‘great’ about it.

Now, again faced by the conditions of avarice and inhumanity that characterised that era, we are again ill-equipped to defend our children and ourselves. We have lived through an age of affectation, of pretence, in which the rich and powerful adopted the ideological fashions of the time and pretended to care for the struggling, the poor and the downtrodden. Many of them characterised themselves and their cultural heroes as ‘philanthropists’, a word which, for a tiny expenditure in tax-discountable ‘donations’, a man with excess cashflow can contrive to have added to his name. During this period, the descendants of the predators concealed their true natures behind facades of liberalism, humanism, even Christianism; camouflaging by their vehemence the shallowness of their compassion. So as not to provoke an excess of cognitive dissonance, they briefly suppressed their urgings to subjugate and plunder and seemed, for a time, to be happy with mere abundance; they did not want everything.

Now, again, they do. They have lost patience with this nonsense of democracy and begun to wonder about the wisdom of equal opportunity for all. Now, once again, the sundial of history has been seen to move, but this time, so to speak, it is moving backwards, regressing to the times when it was not incumbent upon the rich to be nice to those who were not so rich. Now the gloves have come off and it is acceptable again to cite the law of the jungle, to speak of ‘useless eaters’, to look at the newly dependent old and ask with a stare, ‘Are you still here?’

It never went away, this lust for imposing misery on others. It simply shifted its attention to other parts of the world. But now this has become too dangerous: These heroic adventurers might be accused of racism. So they have turned their attentions yet again to their own, to plunder that which is under their noses rather than in an adjacent or far-flung continent.

Now that we appear to be approaching the beginning of a new cycle around the same old block, and stumbling almost randomly in answer to a sudden burst of curiosity upon this documentary in which I was involved during a different life, 14 years ago, I thought this might be a moment to post it for whatever it might be worth. One of the things that may strike some viewers is how far its tenor is from that of the present moment — that at least it seeks to approach certain fundamental questions of who we are, where we come from, and where we think we might be going. Such concerns are now infra dig, if not actually verboten.

The title of the documentary — made for RTÉ by the Irish film company Animo Films, is self-explanatory: Where Was Your Family During the Famine? The ‘famine’ referred to is, needless to repeat, the  succession of alleged naturalistic crop failures, several years in a row, in the period  between 1845 and 1848. It was, it becomes clear yet again, a determined and persistent onslaught on the Irish population — a slaughtering as though of diseased livestock, with explosive consequences for the nation then pertaining, with drastic demographic outcomes for more than a century afterwards, and psychological damage right unto this very moment. Some people, logically but pedantically, insist on loudly denying there was a ‘famine’ at all, asserting — as though this were not obvious — that what Ireland experienced then was a genocidal onslaught with a view to ethnic-cleansing, by our then English overlords. But the use of the term ‘famine’ does nothing to gainsay anything of that interpretation, and anyone who says it does has not read their Padraic Pearse, our founding poet and patriot, since he begins his most famous essay, The Murder Machine, with the following paragraph:

‘A French writer has paid the English a very well-deserved compliment. He says that they never commit a useless crime. When they hire a man to assassinate an Irish patriot, when they blow a Sepoy from the mouth of a cannon, when they produce a famine in one of their dependencies, they have always an ulterior motive. They do not do it for fun. Humorous as these crimes are, it is not the humour of them, but their utility, that appeals to the English. Unlike Gilbert’s Mikado, they would see nothing humorous in boiling oil. If they retained boiling oil in their penal code, they would retain it, as they retain flogging before execution in Egypt, strictly because it has been found useful.’

The use of the term ‘famine’ does not, accordingly, of itself imply denial. Famine and genocide are not mutually exclusive categories. On the contrary…. Continue

— “Teaching” the children in Ireland.

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