Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Famine Memory and Contemporary Irish Poetry

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Famine Memory and Contemporary Irish Poetry

Article excerpt

To mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Irish Famine, (1) entrepreneur Norma Smurfit donated the work of sculptor Rowan Gillespie to the Irish state; it is now installed on the Custom House Quay along the northern bank of the river Liffey, which runs through Dublin city. The sculpture consists of a group of figures in bronze. Their bodies are elongated and emaciated, their clothes roughened and tattered, their belongings carried in small bundles under stooped shoulders and tired arms; they straggle along the quay as if intending to embark on one of the infamous coffin ships that crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s. (2) Nearly a year after the figures were installed, Smurfit proposed to add a "sea of names" (Kelleher 2002, 262) to be cast on bronze plaques set in the cobbles surrounding the figures; she offered individuals and corporations the opportunity to purchase plaques and add their inscriptions to the memorial. The gesture was controversial, interpreted by some as an attempt to link surviving generations with the legacy of the Famine, while others saw the plaques as a callous commercialization of history. The monument embodies a shift observed by Jeffrey K. Olick, "from a culture of monuments to one of memorials; in place of the celebration of heroes ... mourning victims" (2010, 212). Today, visitors to Dublin can be seen on bright days posed next to the statues, their bodies seeming fat and well-fed next to these figures that recall anonymous ancestors and forge a connection between diaspora and Irish homeland. These tourist photographs dedicated to personal genealogy and ancestral remembrance reverse a history of shame attached to the Famine and its refugees; at the same time the practice of posing beside these statues indicates a prevalent contemporary participation in the production of cultural memory. (3)

While the installation works effectively to connect contemporary identity with past loss, it is itself oddly abstracted from any explanatory history (4): the causes of the Famine are not voiced, the politics of hunger are unexplored, the connection between colonial occupation and indigenous starvation--a connection much debated in Famine historiography--is never made.3 Emptied of political history while gesturing toward cultural memory, the monument represents heritage nostalgia and a retreat from a particular form of Irish politics that calls upon the past to explain contemporary conditions. In contrast, a strong thread in Irish poetry from the 1940s to the present keeps alive a counter-narrative of the Famine, one by which cultural memory serves to help expand understanding of contemporary Irish identity. (6)

At the opening of a conference on the Famine in 1995, Irish president Mary Robinson spoke of this "event which more than any other shaped us as a people. It defined our will to survive. It defined our sense of human vulnerability. It remains one of the strongest, most poignant links of memory and feeling that connects us to our Diaspora. It involves us still in an act of remembrance which, increasingly, is neither tribal nor narrow" (quoted in Whelan 2004, 203). Robinson's claim is that centering cultural memory on the Famine opens a narrowly national version of Ireland to the diasporic, promising by this inclusion, anticipated in the poetic tradition, to invigorate the uses to which Famine history is put. While Lorraine Ryan sees Famine memory as a "monolithic entity" that is "centered on white Catholics" (2011, 207), I will argue that in contemporary Irish poetry's Famine memory, with its emphasis on diaspora, purist versions of Irish identity as Catholic, indigenous, rural, and situated are replaced with inclusive and hybrid connections to Irishness as widely transnational. The "tribe," emphasizing the native, the endogamous, and the monocultural, is challenged by the cultural complexities of diaspora. Contemporary poetry, that is, preserves the transnational investments of Irishness in Robinson's version of Famine memory while troubling the heritage nostalgia that has dominated discussions of diasporic connections. …

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