The Great Famine of 1845-51 was, the Galway historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh tells us*, ‘a subsistence crisis, and a social calamity without parallel in the 19th century. It resulted in more than 1,000,000 dying of starvation and related diseases; and it ‘precipitated a virtual tidal wave of emigration that would see 4,000,000 flee the country during the following 20 years’.
It starkly showed ‘the utter failure of the government of the most advanced economy in the world at the time, to respond adequately to the crisis. It decisively altered the class structure of rural Ireland. It was a drastic agent of social change. It set in train a chain of continuing emigration that would see the population of Ireland fall from approximately 6.6 million in 1885 to 4.4 million in 1911’.
Coming up to the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine, Patricia Noone, from the Claremorris Arts Group approached John Behan, and asked him to create a suitable memorial that would convey something of the scale of the tragedy. John, a Dublin man, but who had been living in Galway since the 1970s, was immediately attracted to the theme. He knew he had to avoid the journalistic picture of famine; he needed an idea that would convey not only the death of so many hundreds of thousands of people, but the other ‘death’: the flight from the homeland, the abandonment of language and culture, the desperate reach across the sea for safety, the hope that surely, no matter how difficult the journey, something better could be found.
John’ s journey
John’s biographer, Adrian Frazier** describes John’s journey into the Great Famine. He studied all the contemporary accounts that he could find. He walked through the deserted villages on Achill Island and in Mayo. He examined the hillside lazy beds (parallel ridges for planting potatoes high on the mountainside, in the hope that they would escape the deadly famine fungus ). No village or cottage remained. He wandered through the empty 19th century Dickensian workhouses where the homeless sought shelter before moving on.
In the summer of 1997 the largest bronze sculpture ever made in Ireland was unveiled at Murrisk, at the foot of Croagh Patrick. It is a 30 foot long ‘Famine ship’, with its cargo of skeletons and despairing spirits. Even its planks are made from emaciated bodies. The ship is crowned by three empty masts, that resemble the three crosses at Calvary; provoking, Frazier says, the bardic poet who speaks out for his people; rooted ‘just where it should be, beside Clew Bay, near Westport, Co Mayo, from which so many Famine ships sailed.’
There was an interesting sequel to John’s Murrisk memorial. On December 1 2000, An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern unveiled another massive sculpture by him beside the East River, on the front lawn of the United Nations building, in New York. Named ‘The Arrival’ the sculpture shows more than 100 bronze figures arriving in the New World, some descending the gangplanks, not in despair, but with an air of confidence.
It was a gift from the Irish people to the UN in recognition of its work for famine victims all over the world. But it also symbolized that despite the horror of our own Great Famine, and the initial struggle to find acceptance among Americans, the Irish people had triumphed. It had earned its place in America, and was contributing to the political, social and economic might of that great and generous republic.
I attended that ceremony. There was such a big crowd and such genuine excitement, that it was difficult to see the sculpture properly. I returned the next day. Again a large crowd of at least a dozen nationalities, all talking at once, stood around the sculpture admiring its power and universal message. Did John’s ‘arriving’ people represent their hopes as well?
I suspect that it did.
An artist like John Behan, and his Famine series, is a powerful and a moving witness to ‘our social calamity without parallel in the 19th century’. But by sharing and sustaining his images, I have learned something of the sense of loss endured by today’s emigrants, and their flight from the land, that we, as a nation, once shared.
Next week: More about John Behan
NOTES: *I mBéal an Bháis - The Great Famine and the Language Shift in 19th century Ireland, by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, USA, on sale €11.95
**John Behan, The Bull of Sheriff Street, by Adrian Frazier, published by Lilliput Press, on sale €25.