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  • The Genealogy of Famine Diary in Ireland and Quebec: Ireland’s Famine Migration in Historical Fiction, Historiography, and Memory

When it was published in Ireland in 1991, Gerald Keegan’s Famine Diary, edited by James Mangan, was widely acclaimed as representing “the authentic voice from beyond the grave of an Irish martyr of the Famine” (Jackson 8). Although the narrative had first appeared nine years earlier in Quebec under the title The Voyage of the Naparima, it was in Ireland that it proved a publishing sensation. Ostensibly the journal of an Irish schoolteacher who had emigrated to Quebec and perished on Grosse Île in 1847, the Famine Diary provided harrowing testimony about the calamitous conditions on board the coffin ships and seemed to anticipate John Mitchel’s contention that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine” (Mitchel, Last Conquest 219; also see Mangan 98). Shortly after its publication in Ireland, the Famine Diary became a national bestseller, was excerpted in the Irish Times, broadcast nationwide in a series of readings on RTE radio, and The Voyage of the Naparima was anthologized in the “The Hidden Holocaust” section of The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada (103–54). The text’s popular reception was attributed by Jackson to its strident denunciation of the British government and the Anglo-Irish landlords, such as Lord Palmerston, which was perceived to be lacking in the professional scholarship of “anti-nationalist revisionist” historians (8).

Soon after its publication, however, the Famine Diary was exposed as a fraud. In an influential article in The Irish Review, Jim Jackson convincingly demonstrated that the narrative was derived from Robert [End Page 45] Sellar’s The Summer of Sorrow (1895), a work of historical fiction by the Scottish born editor of the Huntingdon Gleaner in rural Quebec, rather than the journal of a genuine famine migrant. Perhaps not surprisingly, professional historians greeted the exposure of Famine Diary as a “cautionary parable” (Akenson 16) and salutary lesson about the credulity to which Irish popular or “received memory [—as] distinct from the recall of contemporary witnesses” (Hirsch 106)—is prone. Its fictitious origins were ascribed to the fallacious tendency of popular memory to form impressions of the past more on the basis of nationalist received wisdom than the procedures of professional historical scholarship. According to Mary Daly, the “runaway success of the spurious Famine Diary, and its continuing sales despite being revealed as a piece of late nineteenth-century Canadian-Irish fiction—suggest a strong desire to wallow in its emotional horrors, perhaps at the cost of a wider understanding. For some U.S. and Canadian citizens of Irish descent the famine is in danger of becoming their answer to the Jewish Holocaust: evidence that the Irish too are a nation of victims, a causal explanation for mass Irish emigration and a symbol of national unity” (71). “This farce might be taken as marking the final collapse of the ‘anti-revisionist’ case,” added D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day, “if that case had ever been based on rational argument” (10). For Roy Foster, the reception of Famine Diary was symptomatic of an “idea of self-validation through received memory” (30), which he associated with a “boom in pop history” (33) and the sesquicentennial commemorations of the famine in general. Similarly, Donald Akenson cautioned that “the lesson” of the Famine Diary was “clear: the hunger for knowledge about certain aspects of the Irish diaspora is so great that one must guard strenuously against credulity, especially when the information that comes to hand is evocative, emotionally gripping, and fits with pre-existent stereotypes” (16). More recently, drawing on my own research, Mark McGowan has discussed the Famine Diary controversy in a manner that is less dismissive of popular memory, but he too cautions about the need to be “vigilant” in interpreting “the efforts of clerics and nationalists to mould [that] memory for their own purposes” (Historical Memory 15). According to McGowan, “those who imbibed the Keegan diary . . . had embraced a nationalist school of thought and proclaimed Sellar’s fabrication as further evidence that Mitchel [End Page 46] and Young Ireland were correct...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 45-69
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-15
Open Access
No
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