“BBC Channel 4 has commissioned Irish writer Hugh Travers to pen a television pilot about a subject of his choice.” Travers’ choice? A sitcom about An Gorta Mor—the so-called Irish Potato Famine.
Tentatively called “Hunger”, the proposed comedy series has already motivated more than 30,000 people to sign a petition of protest on Change.org.
Before going any farther, it is important to note some facts about An Gorta Mor—Irish Gaelic for “The Great Hunger”—since this dark period in Irish history is widely misunderstood as a tragic crop failure and nothing more—as well as why the famine is a controversial political and racial issue.
Between 1845-49, a blight struck the Irish potato crop, causing the worst famine to occur in 19th century Europe. It is commonly assumed that the subsequent deaths by starvation of over one million men, women and children, and the mass exodus of two million more (one-third of Ireland’s population) , was due to the fact that the Irish grew nothing but potatoes. This is far from the truth. During this time, Ireland was one of Europe’s leading exporters of food—from thirty to fifty shiploads a day. All bound for the country that ruled her, England.
This was due to a variety of factors which cannot be gone into at great detail due to space constrictions. So I will briefly outline a few of them here and leave it up to the reader to further inform his or herself.
- Irish Catholics were prohibited from owning land, voting, obtaining an education, or entering a profession. 2. As a result, rents to the landowning British (mostly absentee landlords) were paid in the form of livestock (mainly beef) and crops, leaving the 80% Catholic population with little to eat but potatoes and some dairy products. 3. Failure to pay the rent led to mass evictions. 4. The resulting circumstances (no jobs, no food, no homes) led to widespread influenza, typhus, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, cholera, and a host of other illnesses. This is not to mention violent and often murderous competition for what food sources were left. 5. Despite the genuine humanitarian efforts of some British, others saw the Famine as a way of letting “nature” solve their “Irish Question”—once and for all. British civil servant Charles Trevelyan, whose chief responsibility was dealing with the famine, described it as “ a direct stroke of an all-wise and merciful Providence.” Unfortunately, the sentiments of this man (neither wise nor merciful) were echoed by many in both the British government and the English media.
So, back to Hugh Travers’ proposed sitcom—what’s the punchline?
The Irish Times has quoted Travers as saying, “ I don’t want to do anything that denies the suffering that people went through, but Ireland has always been good at black humor.”
In defense of Travers, Irish comedian Dave McSavage told BBC trending , “It’s good to open things up. It sounds like the people against “Hunger” are close minded nationalists. Comedy is tragedy plus time. The famine was a tragedy but enough time has passed.”
Has it? There are millions of people starving in the world today, right now. I doubt if any of them will catch a laugh from “Hunger”, if it ever airs. As for passage of time, who would (or could) find humor in a sitcom about slavery, the Holocaust, or The Rape of Nanking? Or a wacky comedy about Bobby Sands and his comrades who died on hunger strike for basic human rights for people not just in Ireland, but around the world?
I abhor censorship, and some of the best laughs I’ve ever had were guilty pleasures borne out of comedy done in bad taste. Travers should be allowed to show us his sitcom. That is his right. However, in a privileged position to write a program of his own choosing, he would do better by his countrymen and the world as a whole to expose the “famine” for what it was—agricultural disaster, economic and racial oppression, diaspora…and in the minds of some, an unique opportunity for a genocide without conscience or regret.
Free speech is one of our most cherished treasures as human beings. As is fire. It can be used to warm or to burn, constructively or carelessly. An Gorta Mor set the stage for Irish rebellion that to this day still burns. Unfortunately, no one stands to win. Except perhaps for nonchalant comedians and the television executives that “give” them what was theirs all along; “free reign.”