Entextualizing Famine, Reconstituting Self: Testimonial Narratives from Ireland

Article excerpt

This article shows how the past was used to construct and disseminate an alternative view of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1850). Theories on the entextualization process are considered in tandem with those on reconstituting identity. Ambivalent selfhood is situated within the historical parameters of famine, language loss, and the legacy of colonial representation. [Ireland, famine, narrative, language, identity]


In 1995, at a special folklore workshop devoted to the Great Irish Famine, an instructor of an adult Irish language revitalization program in Ireland began the discussion of relief by relating the following anecdote:

We've all heard the phrase, I'm sure, "He took the soup." "He took the soup . . . ?" You've heard that one? . . . The idea was . . . that to get . . . relief during the Famine . . . soup kitchens and things like that . . . [the idea] was dependent on your changing religion and . . . going over to the Protestant churches because [they] were in charge of the relief effort. So it's a very common thing, a very insulting thing to say, "Oh, he took the soup" . . . and there are a lot of humorous stories . . . . A woman, for example . . . agrees to go to Protestant services as long as she is allowed to graze her [donkey] on the parish lawn . . . . The priest sees her one day at this and . . . she's on her way into Mass and it's a Catholic Mass . . . having just been to a Protestant one, and he takes her to task about this and she says, "(Father), I go to Mass for the good of my soul and to church for the good of my ass."

When the laughter subsided, the instructor provided yet another example, reiterated his initial explanation, and code-switched into the Irish language: "Agus ta go leor scealta mar sin . . . Soupereacht an t-ainm a bhi air sin-'souperism' " ("And there are plenty of stories like that. Soupereacht is the name for it-'souperism'.")

This article examines how the past was used to construct and disseminate an alternative view of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1850),1 one of the most sensitive and compelling episodes in Irish history. In an interactive classroom workshop the instructor entextualized testimonial narratives from that historical period to provide participants an opportunity to reshape and reconstitute a sense of Irish self. The entextualization process is an attempt to manipulate, fix, and/or restore cultural and ideological meaning by imbuing putative "ancient lore" with authority (Kuipers 1990; Raheja 1996). 1 situate the condition of ambivalent selfhood within the historical parameters of famine, language loss and the legacy of colonial representation. I explain how archival voices, gleaned from descendents of those who survived the Famine years, were utilized for a number of purposes. I direct most attention to the implementation of narrative for self-reconstruction and the formulation of new-identity. Through the structure, content, and context of the interpretations of an authorial figure, acquirers of language and culture gained the ability to think and feel in socially sanctioned ways (cf. Ochs 1988; Schieffelin 1990; Miller et al. 1990; Stroud 1992). Cultural meanings were acquired for particular purposes in socially-defined activities (cf. Vygotsky 1987[1934]; Wertsch 1985), and linguistic practices served as salient loci for social legitimization (Bourdieu 1977; Gal 1989; Irvine 1990).

The Status and Background of the Texts

In their Ur-forms 'the testimonial narratives under review were witnessing statements by descendents of those who had survived the Great Famine. They were written in response to a questionnaire distributed by the Irish Folklore Commission for a statesupported collecting project in 1945. According to Angela Bourke (personal communication), "The Irish Folklore Commission never collected from dirty houses"; that is to say, collectors chose their informants according to the ideals and standards being promulgated by the young Irish republic (O'Giollain 2000: 140). …


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