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Remembering and Forgetting the Great Famine in France and Ireland

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 16, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2012
pp. 80-94 | 10.1353/nhr.2012.0051

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The columnist and critic Fintan O'Toole posed a characteristically provocative question in the Irish Times on August 5, 1997, when, in the course of discussing the scarcity of artistic responses to the seminal event in modern Irish history, he asked "Whatever happened to the Famine?" The Great Famine of the 1840s is often seen as a lieu de mémoire, or site of memory, but also as a locus of forgetting in Irish history. Despite the seismic shift that it set off across Irish society, the Famine was frequently shrouded in silence throughout succeeding generations. One might wonder, therefore, what was known of it elsewhere—for instance, in Ireland's nearest continental European neighbor and age-old ally, France?

A great deal, it would seem. To date, I have identified more than two thousand French texts from the nineteenth century that refer briefly or at length to the Famine. The French commentators include journalists, priests, poets, playwrights, satirists, statisticians, scientists, lawyers, horticulturalists, botanists, epidemiologists, postgraduates, aristocrats and proletarians, conservatives and revolutionaries. They published mainly in Paris but also in provincial cities like Grenoble and Clermont, and even further afield—for instance, in Montréal. Yet, even as they set pen to paper, the French observers repeatedly question the very aim of their work as they cast doubt on the ability of mere words to capture a catastrophe so huge as the Irish famine. Decades after the event, Ernest Fournier de Flaix wondered, "Comment écrire sur l'histoire de cette famine? Des milliers, des dizaines de milliers, des centaines de milliers d'hommes et de femmes périrent. Elle a couté plus de vies que l'Angleterre n'en a perdu dans aucune de ses guerres depuis Hastings jusqu'à Waterloo" ("How can the story of this famine be written? Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men and women perished. It cost England more lives than any of its wars from Hastings down to Waterloo.").

Their reactions range from empathy and searing passion to clinical detachment: in an 1862 study, the editor-in-chief of L'Economiste français, Jules Duval, actually put a positive gloss on the mass emigration triggered by famine in Ireland: "Thus, Ireland's excess population was happily drained and the country was led into a state of prosperity that it had never heretofore known."

One surprising finding, in surveying the French literature, is the extent to which Ireland and potatoes were already linked in French minds. Writing at the height of the Famine in 1846, Balzac describes in his novel La Cousine Bette a typical impoverished Parisian who "eats potatoes like the Irish, but fried in rat fat." Elsewhere, his praise of a restaurant in the Quartier Latin, Flicoteaux, depicts Ireland as the land par excellence of the potato: "potatoes are always on the menu [in Flicoteaux' restaurant]. Even if there were no potatoes in Ireland, even if they were in short supply everywhere, you would still find them in Flicoteaux."

However, more than the equation that "Ireland equals potatoes," the French had long made the connection that "Ireland equals famine." From at least the late seventeenth century onward, French commentators depict Ireland not as a land of famine but of famines. The Famine of the 1840s is thus contextualized as just one of countless such events, albeit admittedly the worst. In an award-winning 1827 study on the death penalty, a lawyer at the royal court in Paris, Adolphe Garnier, refers to "Ireland where, through poor administration, entire families sleep in cellars and on the streets, beset by fever and hunger." Elsewhere, the eminent traveller Gustave de Beaumont—who had visited Ireland along with his friend, Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s—comments, "Every year, nearly at the same season, the commencement of a famine is announced in Ireland, its progress, its ravages, its decline. . . . When Bishop Doyle was asked, in 1832, what was the state of the population in the west, he replied, 'The people are perishing as usual'." De Beaumont concludes by quoting the Commission for Inquiry into the State of the Irish Poor, who posit that "there are in Ireland nearly three millions of individuals who are subject every year...



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