A Commemoration in COVID Times: Ireland’s National Famine Commemoration Day 2020

What’s another year? Johnny Logan’s performance of his winning 1981 entry during last Saturday’s Europe Shine a Light—the alternative to the postponed Eurovision song contest— inevitably reverberated with the changed realities we presently face under the current COVID-19 pandemic. The ways of the world can take unexpected turns within a year and may profoundly affect our understanding of the past. An example of how past legacies are informed by the present—a now well-established thought thanks to memory scholars such as Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney— was last Sunday’s ceremony to mark Ireland’s National Famine Commemoration Day.

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.

Famine memorial by Edward Delaney, photo by William Murphy (Flickr)
Famine memorial by Edward Delaney

In line with the theme central to this year’s commemoration, Famine Heroes, Minister Madigan paid tribute to the doctors and nurses of the fever hospitals, in and outside Ireland, who risked their own lives to care for others. Their heroism, Minister Madigan suggested, can be compared to “the same qualities of courage and commitment to others in our healthcare staff today” who are facing the challenges of Corona infections and deaths. Minister Madigan’s words certainly added relevance to the acts of charity and devotion that medical staff showed during the Famine years, creating a sense of what Jacqui Alexander has called “palimpsestic time”: past and present times appear to coalesce, and present generations may be able to identify with the plights of their ancestors.

Solidarity and sympathy

In his speech during the ceremony, Fr Seamus Madigan (Head Chaplain for the Defence Forces) included the wish that “we may learn from our past, and bravely work together for a future of abundance, vision and peace.” But to what extent does the commemoration’s recognition of past and present heroism also prompt future historical duty? Last Sunday’s ceremony was strongly focused on Ireland and its diaspora, in relation to achievements in resilience, medical aid and solidarity. At the same time, as newspapers reported just the day before, COVID has brought many global communities on the verge of a hunger pandemic. Those in refugee camps in Syria, Greece and Bangladesh face a heightened risk of COVID-19 contagion. It seems a missed opportunity that the world’s challenge to combat famine and disease remained unmentioned during the commemoration ceremony.

Minister Madigan did, however, speak about communities and individuals from across the world who provided relief during the mid-nineteenth century Famine, specifically drawing attention to the $170 sent by the Choctaw nation. While the story of the Choctaw gift is a well-known part of Famine history, Minister Madigan’s explicit reference to the gesture in her brief speech seems to be a nod to recent contributions made by Irish people. In an ongoing GoFundMe fundraiser for the Hopi and Navajo tribes suffering because of the global pandemic, many Irish names grace the list of funders, causing Rory Carroll in the Guardian of 9 May to remark that “[t]he list of recent donors reads like an Irish phone book”.

Within the discipline of Irish studies, and more specifically Famine studies, transcultural comparisons and acts of philanthropy have been analysed by, amongst others, Peter Gray and Andrew Newby. For some commentators, such comparisons can ensue in declarations of hierarchies of suffering. More constructively, though, comparison can also lead to more egalitarian forms of sympathy. Minister Madigan’s reference to the Choctaw gift, and the recent exchange between Irish contributors and Native-American communities demonstrates how resilient transcultural connections can be throughout the ages and can inform not just sentiments but acts of compassion. Indeed, donations given by the Irish to the Native-American communities now are formulated in ways that connect them to the Famine period: as Ed O’Loughlin and Mihi Zaveri wrote in The New York Times on 5 May “Irish Return an Old Favor”.

CC Image "Famine Memorial by Edward Delaney at St. Stephens Green Dublin" courtesy of William Murphy.

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This blog was written by Marguérite Corporaal and Lindsay Janssen. 

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