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  • "Though Blighted Troth Be All Bereft":Famine Memory in Finnegans Wake
  • Donal Manning (bio)

The perception that there was a literary "culture of silence" in the aftermath of the Great Irish Famine has been debunked by several critics.1 Nonetheless, James Joyce has been held to have ignored the catastrophe, a reticence expressed most notably by Terry Eagleton's rhetorical question: "Where is the Famine in the literature of the Revival? Where is it in Joyce?"2 Colm Tóibín's remark that "For Joyce and for many other writers, the Famine was too distant," in contrast, has received less attention.3 Recognition of Joyce's engagement with Irish history and politics, however, has been followed by an expanding body of work analyzing his treatment of the Famine, particularly in his writings up to and including Ulysses. Few studies have considered references to the disaster in Finnegans Wake. In providing a comprehensive appraisal of the appearance of the Famine in the Wake, this article demonstrates heartfelt representation of the disaster and the confrontation of its social and cultural impacts. As such, Joyce contributes to a communal memory of the Famine.

Recent criticism holds that Joyce makes an invaluable contribution to Irish cultural memory. In the musings of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom on their own personal trauma and on contemporary Ireland's predicament, Oona Frawley sees Ulysses as depicting intensely both individual and collective memory.4 Len Platt, likewise, notes that cultural memory theory has "engaged the interest of Joyceans," who are familiar with his stance against convention and the "authorised version."5 [End Page 44]

After a brief overview of famine memory in Joyce's earlier works, this article shows that the Famine appears insistently as a set of rich, poignant, and varied allusions in the Wake. These allusions will be seen to fall within the seven famine mnemonic clusters described by Marguérite Corporaal and colleagues: starvation, landscape, religion, landlords and tenants, nationalism, femininity, and migration.6 Borrowing inter alia from contemporary political debates and historical accounts, newspaper reports, poems, and ballads, the allusions exemplify the construction of communal memory. Further, given the blurring of characters and identities in the Wake, Joyce avoids the criticism that famine writing risks appropriating the personal trauma experienced by its victims and claiming it unfairly for later generations.

In his 1907 essay "Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages," Joyce writes, "in the years in which the potato crop failed, the negligence of the English government left the flower of the people to die of hunger."7 Whether or not one agrees with him, this is a straightforward précis of a moderate nationalist appraisal of the Famine. Joyce's early fiction reinforces his engagement with the disaster. Thus, Andrew Gibson argues that the "paralysis" that pervades Dubliners reflects the sense of shock that overwhelmed Ireland during the Famine, and the torpor that followed it.8 Similarly, Gibson argues that the petty meanness displayed in the stories reflects a corresponding and related heritage of moral debility.

Ulysses contains much famine imagery. Bonnie Roos notes Deasy's complacent recollections of the disaster in "Nestor" and the concentration of pertinent allusions in "Circe," including Bloom's hoarding of food and hints of cannibalism.9 Julieann Ulin shows that famine memory pervades Ulysses to a much greater extent than Joyce's earlier fiction. For example, Stephen's preoccupation with the emaciated image of his mother, with corpses, and with dogs repeatedly hints at images of the "walking dead" and of corpses eaten by scavenging animals. Bloom muses on similar themes in "Hades," and in "Cyclops" the Citizen excoriates the British government's management of the disaster.10 Ulin notes the [End Page 45] many references to hunger in "Lestrygonians," including Bloom's observation, "Hungry man is an angry man."11 Roos argues that Joyce's depiction of the Famine in Ulysses exemplifies an important step in Ireland's coming to terms with the catastrophe: "The danger is not only that without confronting the Famine, the Irish cannot learn to escape their bondage, but also that if unlearned, the Irish … may be condemned to repeating their Famine history."12 It will become clear that Joyce develops...


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