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INTERPRETING SILENCES: AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE1 JOAN VINCENT walking the fields today alongside Weavers’ Lane in Tattymacall or on the mountain sidefall of Mountdrum, one sees empty wallsteads marking the sites of past cabins. Those living nearby speak of the Great Famine to account for the ruins in the modern landscape, yet it is unlikely that many of the wallsteads do indeed date from that time. They stand not as monumental history but, rather, as a figure of speech for a townland that was once more closely peopled, a society that was then more vibrant. It is that society that the historical ethnographer seeks to reconstruct. This essay explores the impact of the Great Famine on County Fermanagh. It relates the activities of the Irish across the class spectrum during the famine years, and the events—local, national, and global—that punctuated their distress. The potato blight was first reported in Fermanagh in August 1845. Not until March 1854 did mortality in the Enniskillen workhouse return to “normal.” The essay has several aspects. As a narrative, it begins in mid-August 1845 when John Crichton, Earl of Erne and Lord Lieutenant of Fermanagh , writes to the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society about the widespread loss of the potato crop and asks what might be done. It reaches a point of ironic closure, September 1854, when an attempt is made to sabotage a newly opened line of rail from Enniskillen to Derry—a forceful statement from those classless “men of the mountains” whose voices are AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE 21 1 A shorter version of this essay was presented at the Great Famine Commemoration, An Gorta Mór 1845–1850, at Dublin Castle, 9–10 May 1997. I am grateful to the Government Commemoration Committee and the National Famine Research Project for their support. exceptionally difficult to retrieve. For me, as an anthropologist working on an ethnography of the Irish northwest in the 1830s and 1840s, “the event” is the nearest approximation I know to the fieldwork experience. “God is in the Detail. And in the Footnotes.”2 A second aspect of the essay focuses on the attention paid to the cultural discourse that surrounds events. Specific representations and discourses such as the advent of potato blight or the imposition of the Irish poor law are located within their historical contexts of production as “situated knowledges.”3 The State’s construction of knowledge, local knowledge , and subaltern knowledge are all of concern. A third aspect of the paper revolves around the long “aftermath” that I delineate for the famine crisis in Fermanagh. Distress does not pass away quickly. William Wilde’s phrase for its most lingering manifestation— “poor law desolation”4—takes on particular force for me as I recall a return to an earlier fieldwork site in eastern Uganda. The memory of a desolated landscape barely recognized in 1991 after years of war-induced famine has indelibly marked any perspective I might have as a historical ethnographer on the Great Irish Famine, An Gorta Mór. AN EVENT Beginnings are notoriously difficult, but they are also, as we now perceive, enabling. In Fermanagh in 1845 growing doubts about a good harvest were enveloped in the web of anxieties that invariably gained ascendancy in those November days between All Soul’s Day and Martinmas, when debts were settled, rents and wages paid, and contracts reached over grazing and conacre. To these seasonal concerns in November 1845 was added the prospect of higher poor law rates and escalating rents. On 11 September 1845 Fermanagh’s leading newspaper carried a small item reporting the advice that the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society had given John Crichton, Earl of Erne and Lord Lieutenant of the county, after learning from him of several instances of total failure of the potato crop in the vicinity of his home at Castle Crom on the eastern shores of Upper Lough Erne. Closeted between news of Tussac grass from AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE 22 2 Owen Chadwick, “God is in the Detail. And in the Footnotes,” Observer Review, 30 March 1997, 16. 3 Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science...


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