Why is it okay in Britain to laugh at the Irish famine?

Posted By: January 04, 2015

Paul Breen @irishcentral January 4, 2015 

Paul Breen, a Fermanagh native, is a university lecturer and author living in London.

“Burying the Child” by Lilian Lucy DavidsonPhoto by: Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum Quinnipiac University

Those who live in England, as I do, live in a society where insult is not tolerated whether it is in the workplace or on the terraces of football grounds.

The proposed sitcom by an Irish writer Hugh Travers based on the Irish famine ordered up by Channel 4 is a ludicrous exception to this.

Why does Channel Four want to make a joke out of Irish history? Would they make a show about the dark sarcasm of slavery in Africa, or the fate of the Lithuanian Jews in 1941, and let the audience laugh with, and at, them on their way to the woods where tens of thousands were slaughtered?

Would they find amusement in 200,000 people being shepherded into ghettoes, or the massacres that sought to eradicate 1,000 years of history?  

I would hope not and think not, although some Jewish comedians do refer to the Holocaust. I doubt though that they would go to Vilnius and Berlin, and make quips about the Ponary Forest where these things took place. 

So why is it still okay, in Britain, to reduce Irish suffering to a laugh? Why, when history is so raw with the wounds of the Northern Irish conflict, has nobody at Channel Four considered the impact and interpretation of this?

What message does it send out to the three quarters of a million Catholics in the north of Ireland who are British citizens whether they like it or not?  

How do they think British Sikhs would greet news of a comedy set around the Amritsar massacre, when hundreds of nonviolent protesters were shot dead?  Or are Sikhs a part of some new, inclusive Britain, but Irish Catholics not? 

Some thought might argue that a show about the Irish Famine could serve some educational purpose, and bring the tragedy to public consciousness. I agree that such a show could do that, but probably not a comedy by a young writer who, consciously or not, is desperate to become a household name. 

Within the fine literary tradition of looking to the stars in Ireland, from Sean O’Casey to Oscar Wilde, this comedy seems to have come out of the same gutter as Benefits Street. Back in January 2014, millions of British people, and lots of Irish too, watched this poverty porn fest set in Birmingham’s James Turner Street, featuring the lives of England’s uneducated urban poor. 

Channel Four at the time was accused of poor taste, and exploitation of the vulnerable purely for the sake of a shock effect to boost their ratings, within an increasingly competitive British TV market.  

Gone are the days of shows like Brookside, in its earliest incarnations, where drama was laced with social conscience. This is now a channel that, having worn the benefits’ debate down to the stub, wants to give us 19th century poverty porn, if rumours are true. 

Of course, great art, literature and film challenges the notion that some subjects should never be touched. Blackadder brought humour to the trenches of the Somme, whilst Donegal playwright Frank McGuinness made the courageous gesture of looking at this through the eyes of Ulster Protestants.  Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching at the Somme bravely surmounted the sexual and political trenches of Catholic Ireland in the 1980s. 

Last year, two equally courageous films about Ireland’s past and present came out in cinemas to much critical acclaim. Jimmy’s Hall, by Ken Loach, and Calvary, by John Michael McDonagh, present new perspectives on faith and fatherland that are as refreshing as they are entertaining. 

McDonagh’s work especially is so free of stereotype and romanticism that it leaves you burning long after the flames of laughter have passed. There is almost not a single sacred cow or Hollywood motif of Ireland that goes untouched, right down to a coke-sniffing scene in the toilets against a backdrop of Irish dancing. 

Within that, there’s a simple and breathtaking subversion of every hooley, involving the Irish, shown on the big screen since Titanic. And this is healthy, seeing Ireland’s sense of itself portrayed, and challenged in art. It’s part of our movement towards being a modern nation, and hopefully one day an island that is secular, united, and able to rewrite its history in such a way that it incorporates the Britishness of its own past, and its Protestant citizens.    

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary shows us that the nation of Ireland is no longer a holy sepulchre we cannot expose to ridicule. 

However, this seems quite different from the promise of a black comedy on the subject of the famine, written by a man in his early 30s looking to kickstart his career. Perhaps he can do a great job, and a year from now we shall all applaud his work in bringing the story of the Irish famine into British consciousness. However, the problem comes from the fact that this is not a story that is within the realm of mainstream British consciousness, in the same way as slavery, or even the cruelties of sexism and racism in the 1970s.  

This isn’t like Blackadder’s take on the Somme which was already known to all British people as a place of terrible and heroic sacrifice. Many people in Britain know very little of Irish history in the past 50 years, never mind the 150 before that. 

Of course there’s an even bigger argument in all of this than just Ireland. Famine, unlike even the holocaust and the horrors of the Somme, is not confined to the past. 

The Irish Famine, contrary to what some may believe, probably did not happen just because the victims were Irish and perpetrators British. It happened because they were poor, and as they were starving, the ruling classes exported the grain and meat in order that the tenant farmers could pay their rent. Those ruling classes, as Ken Loach might well agree, treated their own people little better than the Irish throughout history. 

You only have to look at the stories of the Blackheath rebellions to see how easily the poor were disposed of within England, when they rose above their station or refused to pay their dues. The famine in Ireland could well have happened in the East End of London, Scotland, or the far north of England under a different set of circumstances, and the poor would have been treated as badly.

Famine is still happening today in parts of the world from the Horn of Africa to the blacked-out, silenced terrain of North Korea. Even in Ireland, hunger didn’t stop in the 1840s and 50s. My own father’s generation tell of hard times in the 1940s and 50s, because they too were poor, just as many of our people have been poor for centuries.

This is perhaps why we are a people renowned for our charity and sympathy, reaching out across the world to help others who might be going through today what we went through in the past. Hunger isn’t Father Ted or Blackadder. It’s too real, and too close to home, in these days of recession and millions, yes millions, of British and Irish people in need of support from Food Banks.

Hunger is not something that can be mocked from the safe distance of our settee on a Saturday night. There’s a part of the story of the Irish famine in all of us, regardless of whether or not we have Irish ancestry. This is a communal tale of human suffering that serves as a lesson on the inhumanity of the rich towards the poor, and should not be exploited as anyone’s stepping stone to notoriety.    

So I would ask Channel Four to think very carefully about their motivations for funding and showing this comedy.

Some will argue with this, that it was no big deal.

Except it is a big deal, and Channel Four needs to know, ‘It Wasn’t Alright in the 1970s, it’s not alright now in a time of Food Banks, and it certainly wasn’t alright for the people of 1840s Ireland.’