The Irish Famine of 1845 to 1849 is one of those catastrophic events whose aftermath is still felt in the modern day – Ireland remains one of the only countries in Europe (perhaps the only country?) whose 2019 population remains considerably lower than it was in 1840. Its effects still resonate. Modern day Ireland speaks English as a native language thanks to the almost fatal blow dealt by The Famine to the Irish language – the tongue remaining on state subsidised life support ever since; with only a tiny percentage of people who still speak it as their mother tongue. It is a difficult subject to discuss neutrally because of an ongoing discussion on how much the effects of the natural disaster of the potato blight, are directly attributable to centuries of English colonialism – a subject which seems largely swept under the rug in that fair land.
It’s only in this century – now that we are at a far enough remove from those cataclysmic events – that the Famine is being examined in works of fiction – Joseph O’Connor’s book ‘Star of the Sea’; the film ‘Black 47’ from last year being the first time a film was made about the subject – remarkable given than one million people died of starvation and disease in those four years, while another million fled to North America. The newest addition to the cultural examination of the subject is in the form of the opera ‘The Hunger’ which is currently playing in the Abbey Theatre. I went to see it last night.
Written by Donnacha Dennehy; conducted by Alan Pierson and directed by Tom Creed, ‘The Hunger’ takes its inspiration from the book ‘Annals of the Famine in Ireland’, written by American reformer Asenath Nicholson in 1851. That book was a first-hand account of the American woman’s travels in Ireland where she chronicled the conditions and stories of starving people. The opera singer Katherine Manley sings the role of Nicholson. She is joined on stage by sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird who sings the tale of a starving peasant whose wife and children die of starvation, as he crawls along the road to the poorhouse. The singers stand on either end of an earth filled diagonal platform, while the orchestra are visible above and beneath either side of the platform.
As it is a mixed media opera there are television screens across the stage which translate Ó Lionáird’s lament. Interspersed with the singing are on screen interviews with historians and philosophers – including Noam Chomsky – who discuss the causes and responsibility for the Famine. The music is discordant, and threatening which is apt considering the topic at hand. The interviews are chilling in their resonance. We hear about how a century after the Irish Famine, three million people in Bengal, India starved to death while India continued to export Indian grain because of England’s fondness for white bread. All of which was applauded by Winston Churchill. About how the idea that the ruling class in England’s assertion that you shouldn’t interfere with the free market was a bare-faced lie, because then – as now – interference in the market is actively supported and encouraged when it economically benefits the ruling class (in 2019, Ireland’s housing crisis continues to spiral out of control as the ruling party Fine Gael has an ideological aversion to affordable public housing because of its desire to protect its banking and developer chums – granting vulture funds charitable status to avoid paying tax).
With Brexit looming, and the spectacle of the moronic, goonish clown Boris Johnson driving his country over an economic cliff edge, to keep his political party together, ‘The Hunger’s is a chilling reminder the amorality of the ruling class. Just as the Irish were blamed for the Famine for our idleness; just as Churchill blamed the 1943 Indian famine on the Bengalis ‘for breeding like rabbits’, while exporting their grain; today the EU is blamed for the ills of Britain, while the economic betrayal by the ruling class since the time of Thatcher is conveniently ignored by the billionaire-owned, right wing press.
I am no opera expert, having only attended a few, thanks to access to free tickets, given to me by a friend who worked as a lighting technician in the Stopera in Amsterdam. I have no idea whether the music or singing is adequate in opera terms. I loved ‘The Hunger’ however – a chilling, brutal and moving look at the darkest time in Irish history.
‘The Hunger’ runs until Saturday, August 24th in the Abbey Theatre. Unmissable.