Women and the Great Hunger – bookcase review by Fiona Murphy


Women and the Great Hunger. Christine Kinealy, Jason King and Ciarán Reilly (eds). Cork University Press; 236pp; €25/£21.95 pb; 23cm; 978-0-9909454-2-0.

Women as critical agents of survival and hope


In The Illustrated London News in 1849, ‘The Sketch of a Woman and Children’ shows Bridget O’Donnell and her children, recently evicted from their home—a barefoot mother in rags holding her children close. Representations and imaginings of the Great Famine have been dominated by such images of women and children as victims, but scant attention has been paid to their roles as carers and providers, relief-givers, landowners, activists and protestors. The Great Famine lingers long in Ireland’s collective memory, and it is with this often-fraught act of remembering that this collection engages.

There are sixteen essays in this important contribution, addressing some critical gaps in the historiography of the Great Famine. In particular, it evokes the dynamism and agency of women and children, which hitherto have been broadly neglected (with the exception of Margaret Kelleher’s and Patricia Lysaght’s work). Its five sections cover key themes highlighting the varied, complex nature of female participation. We meet female activists, protesters,

poets, novelists and artists, nuns, orphans and exiles—voices and presences with important stories to tell. In many respects, this book, through its attention to the depth of women’s engagement with and relationship to the Famine, parallels the type of ‘écriture féminine’ that Helene Cixous advocates in The Laugh of the Medusa (1975).

The Famine has become a rich field of study, witness to extensive constructions, reconstructions and imaginings of the diversity of the Irish experience of famine and British colonialism (for the two go hand in hand). The Famine’s sesquicentenary resulted in the production of a wide array of readings of it—some in the vein of a post-revisionist culture. This veritable explosion of discussion, however, all too often neglected the role of women. The Famine has also been the subject of sometimes-invidious debate, particularly regarding its cause and whether it in fact constituted genocide (see most recently Tim Pat Coogan’s 2012 The Famine Plot).

Despite such a large body of scholarship, there are nonetheless gaps in how the Famine is discussed. Margaret Kelliher has very importantly noted in her work that there has been an ‘affective gap’ in portrayals of the Famine. Indeed, in many instances, the brute force and traumatic experience of Irish female victims and survivors has all too often been sanitised through distant voiceless depictions of their everyday experience of famine, death, loss, suffering and emigration. Why there has been such a failure to grasp and depict the agency of women in re-imaginings of the Famine is a big question but one also linked to the fact that their voices are sometimes absent from or made invisible in historical sources. It is thus sometimes in creative interpretations, such as the recent novel by Evelyn Conlon, Not the Same Sky (Wakefield Press, 2013), and not scholarly work that we find strong insights into the everyday lives of female survivors of the Famine. Happily, these essays go some way towards remedying this.

This collection thus goes somewhat against the scholarly grain in its articulation of the strength of females, who existed as critical agents of survival and hope in Famine Ireland. It is a volume populated with inspiring stories of writers such as Cecil Woodham Smith (Christine Kinealy), Jane Elgee (Matthew Skwiat and Amy Martin) and Asenath Nicholson (Maureen Murphy); artists (Sandy Letourneau O’Hare and Robert A. Young); activists and campaigners such as Frances Power Cobbe (Maureen O’Connor) and the Grey Nuns of Montreal (Jason King). It also highlights the agency of female petitioners and activists (Ciaran Reilly and Gerard MacAtasney) and the roles that women assumed vis-à-vis the state and the Church (Cara Delay). Narratives of survival and life in sites of emigration, particularly Canada and Australia, are also dealt with (Gerard Moran, Eileen Moore-Quinn and Rebecca Abbott). Finally, Oonagh Walsh’s chapter makes a very important contribution in attempting to delineate Irish health history by articulating the relationship between epigenetics and the Famine.

Leafing through the stories of women during Famine times evoked a very large and often uncanny parallel to the current refugee experience. From a certain perspective, this collection (perhaps unwittingly) presents a history from which many of us have clearly learned very little. In Ireland we have an image of ourselves as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’, but our ancestors, those who survived famine and colonialism, were treated in a similar fashion to contemporary refugees. Retelling history is not only about doing justice to absent voices and stories but also about the value of seeing that history in and for the present. If we are to recognise the value of our own history of famine and colonialism, then this should properly speak to how we treat individuals and families in our contemporary world. If anything, this book should show us that reverence for the past should lead to respect and action in the present.

Fiona Murphy

To buy a copy of this book directly from the publishers click here.

Fiona Murphy is based in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen’s University Belfast.

First published in Books Ireland September/October 2017 issue 375

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