On January 1st of this year, myself and many others were shocked of news that a British television outlet (Channel 4) is funding a sitcom about the “famine in Ireland.” Hugh Travers, an Irish writer is behind it, was quoted as describing it, ““we’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless in famine Ireland.” (Showtime’s series called Shameless chronicles the comic tribulations with a family led by a drunken father of six).
I wasn’t planning on writing this topic as I’m deep into writing the second book in the Auld Irishtown trilogy, but the controversy hasn’t gone away. When I heard the writer behind the Irish show Father Ted, Graham Linehan, was supporting the British network’s plans, I tweeted my opinion to him after he tweeted about “the idiots protesting the famine sitcom.”
In response, he tweeted back:
For which I tweeted back again:
Not that the world is concerned about my opinion, but I would like to say just a few words. First off, describing this as a sitcom about a “famine” in Ireland is very quickly offending many people. There was a blight on the potato in Ireland in the 1840s, yes, but there was not a famine on food in general in Ireland. In fact, it is extremely well-chronicled by mainstream writers all over the world that England, who used Ireland as one of its colonies, exported millions of dollars worth of grain, beeves of cattle, ham, oat, provisions and much more during the worst years of what the Irish have come to call The Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mor.
Here is a video of Christy Moore, a famous Irish musician listing off the British exports on the day of September 14, 1847.
It due to this Great Hunger that so many Irish came to port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other countries such as Canada, Australia and more. Boney, starved, sick from more than a month-long journey in the worst ships in the British empire owned by profiteers that sought to make money from the catastrophe. These horrid vessels became known as Coffin Ships because so many Irish died in the hulls (30% mortality rate) or, being left on the deck to the elements of the sea, died on the way to America and were dumped overboard unceremoniously. Some ships even sunk on the way.
Worse off were those that were stuck in Ireland. More than a million having died a very slow and horrifying death due to hunger and related diseases such as yellow fever, cholera and typhus. To add shame on top of these shames, many were evicted, often during the winter and left to die on roadsides alone. Children were the most vulnerable and died in the worst poverty Europe had known in centuries. Drawings of women gaunt and crying for their babies, themselves dying not long afterward. Homeless and despised.
The Acts of Union, forced upon Ireland by the English in 1800, clearly outline that Ireland was part of the British Empire and therefore responsible for the welfare of its people. But the British mercantilists, closely associated with the English Parliamentarians, strictly believed in the economic philosophy of Laissez Faire. Or, most agree, at the very least abused this “hands off” economic approach to the benefit of the landlords and to the detriment of the subjects. Irish tenant-farming peasants renting English-owned lands (within Ireland’s proper border) did not procure the type of profit grazing cattle would, and so the landlords lobbied against helping the starved and dying and got their cattle fields.
Those in power also used God against the peasants in Ireland, stating that the famine was a divine intervention, and sited His Providence as a reason the Irish suffered because of their supposed laziness, feckless nature.
During this time period, the British Parliament made half-hearted attempts to help with schemes such as road building. Though many died working on these roads that didn’t pay enough to feed families in any case. Workhouses were supposed to be places to shelter the evicted and the starved, but instead came to be nothing more than a covered area to die in. There were also the soup kitchens, some of which became famous because of the requirement of the starved and dying to renounce their Catholicism for Britain’s Protestantism in exchange for the soup.
During this time period, some of the more well-off Irish took advantage of the situation and gave food loans out to the desperate and needy at ruinous interest rates. These Irish became known as gombeens and were reviled by the survivors in Ireland for generations.
These are all true stories. Even the English do not deny their truth. And cannot deny it. But still to this day, the Great Hunger is mostly ignored and oftentimes made fun of by some rude and overly-entitled English. It is, without being divisive or polarizing, a horrible chapter in world history as reprehensible as the enslaving of Africans or a Holocaust against Jews. And for the Irish (and even some Americans like myself), it is still as inflammatory.
Can you imagine it? A British television outlet funding a COMEDY about the Great Hunger? Wait though, can you imagine a British television outlet funding a comedy about the Great Hunger WRITTEN BY AN IRISHMAN? There could be nothing more inflammatory than going through with this, unless of course Germany planned to fund a comedy about the Holocaust written by a self-hating Jew. Or if Americans fund a sitcom about slavery, written by an Uncle Tom because writing a comedy about the Great Hunger by a gombeen will cause great and very divisive chaos.
I believe it is my right, and yours too, to voice my opinion about this idea, which I believe is in very bad taste. I do not feel as though I am restricting someone else’s right to free speech. In fact, I am exercising my right to free speech in speaking out against it. Of course, being a believer in free speech means that if this really, really bad idea does come to fruition, I will allow it without any action against it. Accept for my right to protest it.