'An tOcras Mór' The Great Hunger.

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Edited by E. Margaret Crawford:


Essays in Emigration and Famine

(Belfast, The Centre for Emigration Studies, Ulster-American Folk Part and the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University, Belfast, 1997). £25.00 (hardback); £9.50 (paperback). ISBN 0 85389 674 1 and 7

 

Book Review by Don MacRaild


 

 

The Great Famine (1845-52) is etched on to psyche of the Irish people; and it unifies, through a sense of common history and common suffering, Irish people the world over. The Famine comprised a series of events so far-reaching, so massive, that even today there is little consensus of just what its true extent really was. The Hungry Stream comprises a collection of papers that were first read at a conference to mark the 150 anniversary of the onset of what Trevelyan called 'This Great Calamity', held at the Ulster-American Folk Park in 1995. It is both important and appropriate that emigration should have provided the speakers with a unifying theme: important because mass exodus was a dominant image of the Famine; appropriate because the conference and volume represent a coming together of academe and the heritage industry. The Ulster-American Folk Park, like equivalent organisations in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, is now trying to match its recreation of the 'experience' of emigration with another important role as a centre for research and study.

 

The individual essays in The Hungry Stream are organised into broad themes, with many of authors employing common images and language. After Crawford's trenchant introduction we are presented with Donald Akenson's challenging study of the lexicon of the terms 'Galut', 'Exile' and 'Diaspora'. Akenson discusses Famine rhetoric, criticises the overly lurid descriptions of the Famine's human tragedies and denounces what he calls 'famine porn', such as applying terms like 'Holocaust' to this admittedly cataclysmic series of events. Here Akenson is trying to say, not that the Famine was somehow a less than terrible occurrence, but that 'our use of the term is deeply offensive to members of the Jewish community. And properly so. Ha Shoah is their tragedy, and theirs alone.'

 

The essays that follow either consider the factors that caused emigration and the mechanisms that dealth with hunger (or which did not), or else provide case-study examination of the parts of the world where Famine emigrants usually (though not always) landed in great numbers. Writers such as Robert Scally (on external factors promoting emigration), Janet Nolan (on women's emigration), Patrick Fitzgerald (on changing patterns of crisis) and David Fitzpatrick (on representation in letters to Australia) discuss the language of exile and exodus, of starvation and forced flight. All the authors in this collection, like those who have written on the Famine before them, struggle to convey the enormity of the Famine, and to drive home the scale of death, disease and departure. How can we find language that is appropriate to assess the impact upon this small country of losing 2.1 million emigrants in ten short years? And what words can describe the horrors of 1.5 million or more dead?

 

Another important aspect of The Hungry Stream is the discussion of what happened after the emigrants had left. Edward O'Donnell's important study of the Famine Irish in New York illustrates well the massive impact of the Famine inrush on this already fluxing, dynamic city. Some 850,000 found their way there between 1847 and 1851, which put enormous strains on local mechanisms of relief. Also fascinating is Michael Quigley's reconstruction of the horrors of Canada's Grosse Île, the tiny quarantine island in the St Lawrence which the author calls `the most important and evocative Great Famine site outside of Ireland'. Thousands died during and after the passage to Canada, and the authorities there were numbed by the scale of the disaster.

 

To these essays should added Frank Neal's typically detailed and informative study of the dreadful scenes in Liverpool, which the author has since developed into an excellent monograph, The Black 47: Britain and the Famine Irish (1847), which paints a wider picture. The 'Condition of England' crisis that paralleled the Famine threw up a host of social problems in cities such as Liverpool. The Famine inrush added to the crisis and sharpened native perceptions of the Irish as disease-ridden and outcast people. Margaret Crawford's own contribution to the volume is an important study of the role of disease in the migrant stream. Her sub-title - 'unseen lethal baggage' - sends a shiver down the spine. Another interesting contribution is Donal McCracken's explanation of why Irish Famine victims did not come to South Africa, even though there is a long tradition of Irish settlement there. In doing so, McCracken offers a glimpse into an aspect of the Diaspora which few of us know anything about.

 

The Hungry Stream ends with two essays, by Evelyn Cardwell and Lawrence Bickford on 'Famine studies in Schools', which attempt to convey a sense of how teachers can help the young to understand this historic crisis. Cardwell is additionally interested in the ways in which the heritage industry can perform this function. This section is a fitting coda to an excellent book. In general, Margaret Crawford, her contributors and the people at the Ulster-American Folk Park are to be applauded for producing an even-handed and scholarly volume on such an emotive and terrible topic.

 

 

Don MacRaild

University of Sunderland

England

 

This review was written for Immigrants and Minorities, and appears here with the permission of Don MacRaild.


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WHEN GENOCIDE BECAME "FAMINE" : IRELAND, 1845 - 1850

This petition seeks your support for a campaign to:

* Persuade relevant authors, editors and website content providers to stop using the word ‘Famine’ for what took place in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, and start using terms such as, "The Great Hunger" or 'An tOcras Mór

PETITION LINK- TO CHANGE THE WORD FAMINE http://www.petitions24.com/when_famine_became_genocide_ireland_1845_-_1850


June 16, 2010 at 11:14 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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