Famine Sitcom

I have just noticed that Eamon Loingsigh has posted on the subject of a proposed sitcom to be done by an English TV company, Channel 4, set in Ireland during the Famine era. One of the co-authors of the excellent Father Ted, Graham Linehan, has apparently supported the idea of the series. Loingsigh thinks it is a terrible idea, and tweeted Linehan to tell him so. Linehan replied, pointing out that the writer of the proposed show is Irish and calling Loingsigh a ‘fucking moron’.

Now, there are two issues here. One is to do with the way that the Irish Famine is represented in general (Loingsigh has some typically weird views on this) and the other is the whole notion that comedy should avoid catastrophes, disasters or wars of any kind.

To deal with the second question first, I would have to say that I find the whole idea of setting a comedy during the famine era a big risk. Do I think it is possible to spin comedy gold out of this situation without being offensive? I’m quite sure it is but I think it’s a tall order. The young Irish writer they have chosen, Hugh Travers, will really have his work cut out.

But I don’t think comedians should necessarily shy away from subjects like this because they are controversial. I remember hearing the plot-line of the film La Vita E Bella (Life is Sweet) and thinking that it sounded awful. When I actually watched the film, I found it tasteful, respectful and very poignant. At the risk of spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it concerns a Jewish father sent to a camp who tries to convince his young son that the whole thing is a game in order to protect him from the awfulness of their predicament. In other words, if they can find the right angle, a Famine-era comedy programme is certainly possible. One of the best historical sitcoms is Blackadder, part of which was set during the First World War, which was hardly a natural fun-factory. The point is, none of the people protesting about this sitcom have even seen a script yet, never mind the finished article, so it’s way too early to be protesting!

Incidentally, I have seen Graham Linehan in a British sitcom which mentions the Famine. Linehan and his Father Ted colleague Arthur Matthews were speaking to the Steve Coogan character Alan Partridge in a Travel Tavern in Norfolk. “It was just the potatoes that were affected,” said Partridge. “At the end of the day, you will pay the price if you’re a fussy eater.” I’m quite sure that Eamon Loingsigh would find this shocking and unfunny, because he would completely miss the point. The point is that Steve Coogan is a second generation Manchester Irishman playing a pompous, middle-class southern Englishman. The scene is mocking Partridge’s ignorant, smug attitude towards the Irish and the world in general, not laughing at the Famine or its consequences.

The other issue I have with Loingsigh’s post is his traditional nationalist view of the Famine and what it meant. He starts off by saying that he is offended at the idea of calling what happened in Ireland in the late 1840s a famine. Go figure! A million people (probably more) starve to death but we’re not allowed to call it a famine! And he insists that we should use the term An Gorta Mór instead, which he translates as The Great Hunger. Sorry, Eamon, but if I’m feeling hungry, I use the word ocras. The word gorta means famine.

Loingsigh is essentially taking to another level the argument that we shouldn’t call the Famine a natural disaster, which is true. It originated as a natural disaster when the potato crop failed and Ireland was entirely dependent on the potato. There is no doubt that the British authorities failed to act quickly enough or resolutely enough to stop the huge loss of life in Ireland, so it was also a man-made disaster. However, most historians do not accept that Ireland would have been self-supporting if the available food had been more equitably distributed, or that more food was exported than imported during the famine years, or that the famine was a deliberate policy of genocide on the part of the British, whatever Loingsigh says. And let’s face it, great old entertainer that he is, Christy Moore is hardly a trustworthy source. Didn’t they teach Loingsigh about sources in journalism school?

Another silly thing is Loingsigh’s claim that the British exported food from Ireland during the Famine. The British exported the food? The British didn’t have a socialist planned economy in 19th century Ireland. Faceless bureaucrats in Whitehall or Dublin Castle didn’t decide how much butter or oats were shipped out of Ireland every week. Landlords and grain merchants and butter merchants exported whatever food was exported. The fact that in some places the food was protected from the starving masses by soldiers is unsurprising and doesn’t prove that this exportation was state-controlled or ordered from Westminster.

Don’t get me wrong. People should know about the Irish Famine and its legacy. They should blame the British authorities for annexing our country and then failing to fulfil the basic tenets of the social contract between government and people, by failing to keep them alive. But propaganda is propaganda and fact is fact. All scholarship, linguistic, historical, archaeological – all of it should be based on facts, not on ideology.

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