Feeling the void within

Writing the Irish Famine

July 18, 1997

After a plethora of books, exhibitions, conferences, media and other events to mark the centenary of the Irish famine, even the dedicated academic specialist is threatened with "famine fatigue". As a comparative latecomer in this overcrowded field, Christopher Morash's brilliant book runs the risk of being overlooked, all the more so given its focus on literary and other texts rather than the "hard", empirical evidence of what is claimed as a new revisionism among historians.

And yet, the fruit of the more conventional new research has been disappointing to date, at least in the sense of changing significantly our understanding of this catastrophic human tragedy. Reflecting the nature of the surviving evidence, the most significant contributions, by young scholars like Christene Kinealy and Peter Grey, have been able to do little more than to interrogate more severely and sophisticatedly the inadequacies of the official response, championing the perspective of Cecil Woodham Smith's, The Great Hunger over the more guarded approach of Edwards and Williams's, The Great Famine.

The victims have yet to be given their voice, though a beginning has been made in Cathal P"irteir's selection from the folklore archive, Famine Echoes, and in Cormac O Gr da's essay on the Gaelic material, An Drochshaol. Morash's evidence is still that of observers or commentators, but in offering new ways of understanding the structures and strategies of their texts, he has given us the most radical and important new study of the famine to date.

Starting from the premise that "like all past events the famine is largely a retrospective textual creation", Morash uses some of the techniques of the "new historicism" with a sensitivity that will impress historians as much as literary critics. Set in the framework of dominant contemporary narrative forms, he deals with "famine as apocalypse" and "famine as progress", under each of which "the dead are appropriated by the living". He provides vivid, and sometimes startling readings of some of the poets he had anthologised in The Hungry Voice, particularly Mangan and De Vere, as well as of a host of obscure novelists, all related to the contemporary discourses of politics, economics and religion. He is particularly good on the ways nationalist writings were shaped by key texts of imperial culture, and in the case of John Mitchell, how this could lead to a truly radical denial of the Enlightenment project, and a recognition of "discourse itself as a site of struggle". Morash ends with a new and persuasive interpretation of Carleton, for whom "the famine signalled the end of writing", and of a literary career as the authentic voice of the Irish peasant.

This book makes a distinguished contribution to the lively debate on Irish literary culture in the 19th century, on a par with those of W. J. McCormack, David Lloyd and Norman Vance. However, it is the more conventional "historians" who are most in need of its insights. Without similar sophisticated textual analysis of all famine documents they will continue to argue over versions of "reality" that are several removes from lived experience and still fail to realise it. Morash ends his work: "Writing the Famine will always, whether by inclusion or exclusion, inscribe the dead in discourses other than that of famine per se. The literature of the famine thus exists at a series of tangents to the elusive event itself. We encounter only the ghosts of the dead who are, as ever, absent."

Tom Dunne is associate professor of history, University College, Cork.

Writing the Irish Famine

Author - Christopher Morash
ISBN - 0 19 8189 1
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £.50
Pages - 213

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