The Famine in New York
This week is a crazily busy one in New York. As I made my way to the Consulate to hear the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs speak on Wednesday, I ran into President Obama’s cortege. At least one block was closed on either side of the President’s car, and a security guard told me that if I tried to get closer, there were invisible people with rifles nearby who would deal with me swiftly.
Earlier in his visit, Martin had made some intriguing comments regarding whether he would ever like to take the Taoiseach’s job — ‘There is not a member of the Fianna Fail front bench who wouldn’t like to be leader of Fianna Fail’ — but he let no secrets slip in his
speech yesterday, instead touching on all the expected topics — ‘the strong political and cultural relationship that Ireland and the United States has’ and Ireland’s desire to strengthen that bond, and America’s role in advancing the cause of peace in Ireland. Martin also mentioned ‘Hillary Clinton recognizing Ireland’s historic commitment to ending hunger — our experience of hunger in an earlier era and so on.’
Martin is a likeable speaker and what he said suited the setting (he was much better than Cowen, who visited in July). I’ve long felt uneasy, though, about the way Irish public figures talk about the Famine. It’s a story that goes down well in the US, of course, with so many Irish-Americans descended from people who came here during that time.
Ireland has certainly put money into commemorating it, making the Famine a very visible part of its history. When I was last in Dublin I saw the rather gruesome Famine Memorial by the Liffey, and there’s one in New York, which I’ve never gone to see. But do the long-ago troubles of our ancestors really make us more sympathetic towards today’s starving populations?
The Famine story paints us as victims, explicitly of hunger and more subtly of an external enemy, Britain. It gets far more air-time than, say, the Civil War of 1922, which was (arguably) more divisive, problematic and complex; and it deflects attention from the maelstrom of contemporary Irish politics.
I learnt about the Famine in school at some point, just as I studied the War of Independence, World War II and Stalinist Russia. It didn’t stand out. There was no oral tradition, and no stories of angst or awfulness circulated within my family; my grandmother, born in 1898, never said that her parents had suffered (I accept this could be repression rather than a natural forgetting — which would be quite typically Irish too).
So I somewhat resent our government’s appropriation of the Famine as its own thing to interpret and use abroad. I’m not suggesting Ireland shouldn’t do anything to help other countries, or that we should have no empathy; just that it’s false to say our feelings arise from something that happened 170 year ago. The current focus on Africa makes me feel skeptical — for aren’t there poor, hungry people in Ireland too? Perhaps it’s just not as politically rewarding to launch programmes for them.
What do you think? Do Irish people really understand hunger in Africa because of the Famine?
Or is this a self-serving use of a historical event that was genuinely tragic at the time?