Art Encounters | Great Famines Within: Declan O’Rourke’s The Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine
Ach na dearmaid ar gcaithú,
Cuimhnidh lámh ar an mead,
A tháinigh muid tharais,
Más féidir linn cuimhniú, is teacht ar an tuiscint,
Más féidir linn tuiscint, maith (far an) croí.
(But don’t forget our sorrows,
And all of our sadness,
Reflect on all that we have overcome,
If we can remember, we can try to understand,
If we understand, we can learn to forgive).
Declan O’Rourke, Go Domhain í do Cuihmne. The Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine
Storm Ophelia had just passed when a different storm began to grab my attention. This new (or old) storm was related to the two major storms that grabbed my attention during my undergraduate years in the 1990s: the Holocaust and the Irish Famine. Every time these events were mentioned in some form or others, the ears on this largely inattentive Arts student would prick up. And if there’s any truth in the conviction that ears prick up when something that burns within us is mentioned, this perhaps confirms it. Years later I’d write a significant chunk of a PhD (that would later become a book), on films that responded to the evil of the Holocaust. But this came from an interest in mass suffering on such monumental scale that a people dance around the topic afterwards. Yet everyone is aware of it.
W.G Sebald gave a set of lectures about the silence in post-war Germany relating to the mass destruction of the Allied bombing at the end of war. Others have drawn on the concept of ‘post-memory’ to describe a burying of collective emotion related to such suffering; a void in the cultural response to such trauma. Not surprisingly then, when I read Tom Murphy’s play Famine in my final year in college, it was the first time I came to think of the famine as a monumental event impacting the Irish in a not too dissimilar way. Murphy hails from Tuam in Co. Galway where I also come from and his play Famine, which vividly evokes the horrors of the Irish famine in the West, left an indelible mark on me. It was one of a handful of works, whether in the form of literature or in visual art, I encountered as a student, that dealt with the famine’s lasting impact.
Fast forward to October, 2017: the Limetree Theatre in Limerick. I’m attending a gig by the Black American comedian Reginal D. Hunter. He’s in in the process of delivering a gag about having to dress in a confederate uniform by his agent and the BBC on July 4th when he hesitates to find a word. A guy in the crowd decides to shout out an answer, bellowing ‘confederate uniform.’ Unsure whether the intrusion is welcomed or not, a palatable tension grips the auditorium. At this point Hunter pauses, staring out into the darkness, and asks for the shouter to reveal himself or herself. He pauses again before saying something to the effect ‘because you’re Irish and you suffer from a lack of national self-esteem, you all automatically thought I was going to be angered. But I’m not. I’m going to raise a toast (holding up his glass).’ You could feel the relief setting in among the audience. But the break in the delivery of Hunter’s well-rehearsed comic act was incisive and thought provoking, not because Hunter made perceptive observations about the Irish national psyche earlier but because he was now exposing a discomfort, a pervasive lack of confidence in being Irish. As a perspicacious observer of culture, he was highlighting a trait perhaps best observed by others: a deep-rooted assumption that we’ve done wrong.
Sometimes you just feel something. Nobody needs to explain it. It’s a vibe. You just get it. I got that Hunter had exposed something about the Irish psyche that evening. And he did it quite brilliantly, in a way that is best delivered in comic form. I left the theatre thinking about the tension Hunter had cut through like a knife. I wondered in that moment whether something in our history could explain the traits he identified: that incessant need to apologise for even being here (‘sorry, sorry, sorry’). Elvis hasn’t left the building. He just kept apologizing for being in the building in the first place.
The next day flicking through the terrestrial channels on RTE I stumbled upon a live performance by Irish singer/songwriter Declan O’Rouke. O’Rourke and his band were giving a rousing rendition of ‘Johnny and the Lantern’ on the Late Late, a song from O’Rourke’s latest album Chronicles of the Irish Famine (an album about the Irish famine sixteen years in the making). Each band member was dressed as a victim of the famine, investing a theatrical dimension in the performance. It felt as if O’Rourke and his band members were not content to play the role of famine sufferer, they wanted to become the sufferer they were singing about in the process of performing. This was theatrical performance taking the form of living history.
The next morning I listened to the album on Spotify when walking the dog. I found the multiple perspectives taken up over the course of the album deeply affecting; rendering the famine both personal and therefore moving. Each song takes up a different perspective on the tragedy, from those forced to board the coffin ships with slim chances of survival (‘Villain Curry Shaw’), to those whose nearest and dearest die in their arms (bringing to mind the chilling line in Murphy’s Famine ‘cold and silent now is your bed’) (the latter song is ‘Poor Boy’s Shoes’). Not content, however, to summon these ghosts of the famine in the present (in order to expunge the misery of the great hunger as Ireland’s story) O’Rourke also explores the corrosive ideology (‘Laissez Faire’) of the time; that invisible hand Malthus, among others, believed to shape a nation’s destiny. The conviction that market forces alone will help balance the population is not wholly different to the market-driven initiatives of today (the housing crisis). Indeed, the album can be looked at as a call to remember the struggles brought about by the famine as a way of confronting present issues in Ireland. O’Rourke’s songs are chronicles of a time when the emaciated roamed the land, scavenging for food, but in their precise rendering of human struggle (such as forced evacuation), they bring us back to the question of who we are today.
‘Mary Kate’ is one prominent example. The song is about the hardship of forced emigration, but the subtle overlay of strings on a near baritone voice, poignantly captures the pain of leaving loved ones. In dramatizing the pain of forced emigration, the song makes explicit the experience of emigration per se. Perhaps all the songs are relevant in this regard. While – no doubt – invested with historical accuracy, each song – on my listening – takes aim at a famine within; a legacy that effects who we are now (that spiritual poverty Tom Murphy spoke about when broaching the famine as theme). From ‘Rattle My Bones,’ making visceral the physical deterioration of the body in starvation, to the diseased, vermin-infested coffin ships of ‘The Great Saint Lawrence River,’ the album vividly pictures the hardship of famine suffering. ‘Go Domhain í do Cuihmne,’ an elegiac spoken word song spoken first in Irish and then in English, concludes the album. It is a song that presses the listener to engage with the famine as a collective experience of trauma. It is therefore a call to engage with the past as a way of finding ourselves in the present. ‘Reflect on all that we have overcome,’ O’Rourke whispers to us, for ‘if can remember we can try to understand.’
I came away wondering what O’Rourke meant by ‘remember, remember, remember,’ the last three words spoken on ‘Go Domhain í do Cuihmne,’? And in what form such remembering should take? My thoughts on this now, as I look back to the live performance, is that O’Rourke wants remembering to complement what we already know, the facts that are out there about the famine historically (also important). It is a kind of remembering that takes place via the transformative properties of art; a kind of reliving of the conditions of suffering. This is why the cover for Chronicles of the Irish Famine is such an important addition to the songs. The musicians are dressed as famine victims on the cover, shown performing, in the process, the role of those who populate the album. It is not just the referencing of famine victims that is important here, but the identification with them in performing the songs. The image on the cover is an historical enactment (when we actively take on the persona of another in order to empathize with them), a process that involves putting oneself in the shoes of those who died in the famine (not just learning about why and in what form they died). It enacts therefore, on this reading, a kind of becoming of the past in the present.
This becoming (by way of performing songs) is the remembering art can foster specifically. It is why the performance by O’Rourke was so affecting, and why reading Murphy’s Famine influenced me so much. Both, I feel, imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of those who died years ago. I start imagining all the Waldrons from South Mayo who died during the famine, so as to make me more empathic to those around me today. The famine, which lives in me as our burden, is the famine within we all share in the present; the famine within that needs to find ways of coming out.
These thoughts had come from encountering Chronicles of the Irish Famine, in the aftermath of Reginald D. Hunter’s comment that evening. At some point over the course of the next week I remembered being a student again, thinking back all those years ago when I first heard the term survivor guilt used in the context of the Holocaust. The concept was used to explain feelings of having done wrong experienced by survivors of great collective trauma. Survivors are riddled with guilt simply for having survived. I now began to think about survivor guilt in the context of the Irish famine. Could it be that the Irish are victims of something similar? That the collective experience wrought by the famine has marked our national psyche in a similar way? The term survivor guilt was first used for the Holocaust (credited to Primo Levi), but it has been retrospectively applied to survivors of disasters and large-scale catastrophes before the Holocaust. Famine, I believe, is one such disaster. And the Great Famine is – no doubt – a disaster we need to recognize for what it is. Only then can the famine within, that great legacy of the present, find peace with the past.
Now imagine this: the day is October 30th and the year is 2030. Oct. 30th is now a Bank Holiday called Famine Remembrance Day. In 2017 the government – out of the blue – announced the day. My two sons have come home. We’re all fasting because the day commemorates the legacy of the Great Famine. Fasting has – since 2017 – become tradition. Famine Remembrance Day is approximately two months before Christmas, and it’s traditional for people to fast in commemoration of those who died (not dissimilar to the wearing of a poppy in the UK to remember those who died in the war). ‘I’ll get the guitars,’ I say to Ylva (my wife), as we sit around the room where musical instruments lie. Ylva starts tuning a fiddle. I take out two guitars as we all bring our seats near the piano in the corner. ‘Anton, Karl, play a tune. Mam will join in. and I’ll bang along on the bongos,’ I announce. ‘Right so, I’ll play Arthur McBride, Paul Brady’s version,’ Anton replies, as he starts strumming. Karl then pipes up and says ‘no, that’s about the Great War. Let’s play ‘Poor Boy’s Shoes,’ for the day that’s in it.’ ‘Whose song is that again?’ I hear myself say as I try to jog my memory. ‘Its Declan O’Rourke…You don’t remember? Didn’t you write about the album when it first came out? You taught me the song for fecks sake. Are you ready then or what?… let’s go…one, two, three….when he met her at the dance….’