- From Silence to Plenty:The Famine in Early Twentieth-Century Periodical Fiction*
"The remains of centuries are here; and the mind wanders from the wonderful and sublime in natural scenery to contemplate in solemn, gloomy silence the waste and desolations of time."1
"The Famine had fallen upon the land, with a cloud of horrors unknown to other peoples, undreamt of by the men of this generation. It was not merely that thousands sickened of starvation and walked the land, gaunt and ghastly heralds of fast following death. The gasp of the dying, the silence of the dead—these were awful and appalling."2
In 1850, toward the end of the Great Irish Famine (1845–51), William Stevens Balch—an American preacher, evangelist, journalist, politician, and historian—published Ireland as I Saw It. As the first of the above epigraphs demonstrates, Balch's narrative is marked by a duality found in travel writing about Ireland in the post-Famine decades; his admiration of the landscape stands in uneasy contrast to his remarks invoking desolation and silence.3 The second epigraph appeared almost a quarter-century later when the exiled nationalist John Mitchel returned to Ireland. To describe his warm reception, his life, and his accomplishments, the New York Irish-American reprinted an article from the Dublin Freeman's Journal. In that biographical [End Page 123] sketch's references to the Famine, the article's author alludes to the "silence of the dead."
"Silence" and the related word "absence" have become key terms in academic and popular discourse about the Famine. Especially since its 150th anniversary and the accompanying commemorative boom of the mid-1990s, scholars, politicians, and journalists have insisted on the appropriateness of both words in their assessments of how Irish and diasporic communities approached the event and its human costs. Many have emphasized the paucity of material as the starting point of any sustained engagement with the Famine. Such presumed "silence" and "absence" are read in light of psychoanalytic trauma theory that turns to both concepts to describe symptoms of a society suffering the effects of traumatic repression. Scholarly research since the commemoration years, however, including work by Christopher Morash, Margaret Kelleher, Vincent Comerford, Melissa Fegan, Christopher Cusack, Marguérite Corporaal, and this author counters such perceived absence by unearthing ample textual confirmation of Famine memory. Yet despite such accumulated evidence, the conviction that the Famine has been cloaked in silence persists in both Irish and Irish American discourse.
Building upon previous scholarship, this essay seeks to further qualify notions of traumatic silence and repression in relation to the impact of the Great Famine. After reviewing recent developments in the understanding of that event as a cultural trauma in psychoanalytic discourse, I turn to a literary case study to demonstrate an early twentieth-century engagement with the Famine's legacy—thereby complicating readings assuming communal silence and repression. This exploration focuses on a selection of stories about rural Ireland published in the Dublin story paper the Irish Packet between 1903 and 1906. Although the essay's argument is informed by a larger corpus of rural fiction in the magazine, I will limit the analysis to four examples: "Con the Quare One" and "Herself" by Jane Barlow (1857–1917), "The Frenzy of Famine: A Tale of '47" by Harry Allen, and "The Holy Well" by the magazine's editor Matthias McDonnell Bodkin (1849–1933).4 My current research on Irish and Irish North [End Page 124] American periodical culture between 1850 and the early twentieth century demonstrates a plethora of material, both fiction and nonfiction, that engages with memories of the Famine and Irish famines more broadly. The Irish Packet is just one of many examples that demonstrate the pervasive role of such memory in popular periodical literature.
I have selected this Dublin magazine as my central case study for several reasons. The contents of the Irish Packet suggest that representations of the Famine were considered suitable matter for creative work. Moreover, these rural stories evidence the formulaic nature of Famine fictions as they tap into familiar representations of victimhood. And, crucially, the Irish Packet stories have a moral dimension in that they provide opportunities to...