THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE -- 1845 - 1848
(By Frank Conry) 06/05/'03
Oh! stones of sorrow, stones of pain,
You heard their cries; You called their names,
Your wrote them down in the pale moonlight
And left them here to die.
The complexity of Irish history culminated in the Great Famine of 1845-1848, which is quite immediate to me as my four grand parents, (Conry. Flanagan, Flannery and Sharkey), were born before and during that period.
The 100th anniversary (1945-1948) of the famine horror was ignored in Ireland on a local and national level. On that 100th anniversary no attempt was made to confront the social and cultural patterns of denial associated with this tragedy. This denial is deeply embedded in the Irish Psyche.
Fifty years later (1998), Killaraght, Boyle, Breedogue and Ballinameen had no communal Famine Service in Killaraght Graveyard and no memorial was erected in the graveyard for the famine victims buried there. That, indeed, is a sad refection on the awareness of the whole area, especially when we know that our immediate ancestors experienced the horrors of poverty, destitution, starvation and emigration. Some people survived, some succumbed.
People exposed to these conditions of sheer horror can display tremendous courage, generosity and caring but also they can experience shame and guilt, an urge to ''hang on to what you have'' and a capacity to ''turn a blind eye to the needs and sufferings of others''. The contradictory traits of famine trauma are. - callousness coexisting with compassion, competition coexisting with cooperation, silence and hypocrisy coexisting with openness and honesty. Failure to confront and understand the origin of these traits serves only to perpetuate them to the detriment of the individual and the community as a whole.
The litany of cases in Irish private family life and community, in the institution of the Church and in the State institutions, which has, and continues to shock this country, all display elements of the same pattern - brutality, cover up, silence, secrecy, hypocrisy, xenophobia, and double think. These traits are as much part of our collective mental legacy from the famine as is courage, honesty, kindness and compassion.
The areas, Killaraght, Boyle, Breedogue and Ballinameen, which have been listed above, with burial plots in Killaraght, and with pre-famine ancestral roots, should have acknowledged, on site, our victims and survivors buried there. A memorial, in stone, should be erected and a ''WE CONFESS'' reconciliation service for these victims and survivors should be held in the graveyard.
The famine reality was sanitised, made remote, detached and impersonal when commemorated in church, through abstract symbols, or in an area without shared ancestral roots.
Denial of the famine is there at a local and national level. The second level history course in Ireland, which was examined in the year 2001, had no place for the famine - the course started some two decades later. In New York schools, the Irish Famine is right up there beside Slavery and the Holocaust (ref. Harry Browne, Irish Times EL). Denial of the famine is below the collective surface of humanity and this was borne out by the demolition of Boyle Workhouse which, of course, should have been retained as a sacred place of pilgrimage. In contrast, King House or the Cistercian Abbey were not demolished. No contrived symbols of the famine would be required in Ireland, if the Irish Workhouses were left intact. The demolition of these hateful houses did not eliminate the truth and served only the reinforcement of denial.
Denial of the famine can also be seen in the art of John Behan's National Famine Memorial, which is a ship in bronze, at the foot of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo. A ship, if you think about it, is only a partial symbol of the famine and is far more representative of survivors than of victims. The construction of the ship is dramatic and abstract. So abstract that the incorporation of the ''lazy beds'' in this symbol requires an interpretation. Stone is the appropriate medium not bronze. The Workhouses were constructed from stone. In the Workhouses the famine victims broke stones for the making of roads. The famine was real; it is immediate and the use of an inappropriate medium, like bronze, or abstract symbols, at this distance in time, is denial. On the other hand, Liam Swords, (priest/author), used a very sensitive symbol in his book ''In their Own Words'' when he wrote about the Famine. Indeed the Church liturgy should incorporate, for about five years, readings from Liam Sword's book and for that period the Old Testament readings could be dropped.
IN CONTRAST, PLEASE NOTE THE ABSENCE OF DENIAL IN THE REENACTMENT OF "THE BATTLE OF THE CURLIEUS"
This reenactment was a commemoration of a battle which was fought outside Boyle on the 15th August, 1599. It was acted out on site with period props and costumes and a horse memorial was erected. Temporal boundaries were ignored. Quite an amount of research must have been undertaken for this show. No such research would be necessary for a famine commemoration and the absence of a realistic commemoration for this tragedy can be seen only as an expression of collective guilt. There is an ear for personal guilt but, obviously, the collective guilt of the famine is still taboo.
Even though the people from Killaraght, Boyle, Breedogue and Ballinameen are separated by temporal artificial boundaries, we can, nevertheless, unite in a community spirit with our dead in Killaraght graveyard and have a communal reconciliation service for our famine victims and survivors buried there. A famine memorial should be erected in Killaraght Graveyard.
Like a horror dream, the famine is beyond our control and can never be altered. We will always walk in the shadows of famine victims unless we turn on the light of awareness which would find expression through a famine memorial based on truth and reality.