Connecting the Famine period to current times
The ceremony without public attendance at Edward Delaney’s Famine monument in St Stephen’s Green lasted under thirty minutes and was sober but not less impressive because of this. The connections made to the current pandemic, the use of poetry and references to international relief initiatives connecting the Famine period to current times, especially stood out in Minister Madigan’s speech. Its finale offered, moreover, a visible reflection on the public processes of heritage creation: Ireland’s Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht unveiled a plaque to mark the first Famine Commemoration at Dublin castle in May 2008, thereby placing last Sunday’s event in a chain of memorialising acts. Minister Madigan also drew several analogies between the Famine past and today’s global pandemic. “As we confront a pandemic today, let us recall that the Great Famine was a public health emergency in its own right”, she said, referring to the typhus, dysentery and the dreaded famine fever that claimed more victims than starvation itself.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, Eavan Boland’s poem ‘Quarantine’ has been referenced repeatedly. Minister Madigan did likewise in her speech, quoting the lines “She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. / He lifted her and put her on his back,” invoking the image of a husband who carries his wife until both cannot endure any longer. Such references can be attributed to the poem’s renewed topicality after Boland’s recent death and amidst our current pandemic. However, the attraction of the poem precedes these matters, as more generally speaking, Boland’s oeuvre has been highly appreciated and her poem ‘Quarantine’ especially has received and continues to receive much public praise; it, for example, made the ten-item shortlist of RTÉ’s 2015 “A Poem for Ireland” campaign, which asked readers to nominate poems they considered to be “the stand-out Irish poems of the past 100 years”.
The popularity of the poem also speaks to the power of fiction. When reflecting on the modes of fiction writing and history writing, scholars such as Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White argue that although we often see these ways of writing as separate on the basis of a supposed fictionality and factuality, respectively, such distinctions often cannot be maintained in the actual writing practice. Importantly, for highly impactful events, the ‘objective’ approach of history writing can feel insufficient, as not doing full justice to the consequences of that event. In such cases, techniques taken from fiction writing can help bring back the desired subjective dimension. In context of Minister Madigan’s speech, Boland’s lines serve a similar function, inserting an evocative individual dimension into the commemoration ceremony by referencing the universal image of the love between a husband and wife.