- The Great Irish Famine: Visual and Material Culture ed. by Marguérite Corporaal, Oona Frawley, and Emily Mark-FitzGerald
Turning point, calamity, revolution, horror: these are but a few of the terms used to describe An Gorta Mór by the contributors to The Great Irish Famine: Visual and Material Culture, edited by Marguérite Corporaal, Oona Frawley, and Emily Mark-FitzGerald. These terms—complex and almost contradictory in connotation—speak to the difficulty of representing the Famine, both at the contemporaneous moment and for generations after living with its legacy. With this important contribution to famine studies, Corporaal, Frawley and Mark-FitzGerald offer the first edited collection devoted to an entirely visual and material culture perspective on the Great Famine.
The editors have divided the collection into three sections that follow, as Mark-FitzGerald notes in her introduction to the text, a "roughly chronological sequence": Section I, "Witness and Representation: Contemporaneous Depictions of Famine"; Section II, "Negotiating Form: Famine/Post-Famine Modalities and Media"; and Section III, "Legacy: Postmemory and Contemporary [End Page 147] Visual Cultures." The collection's range comes not only from this broad temporal view but also from the diversity of perspectives of the contributors, who hail from universities across Europe and North America as well as from institutions such as Ireland's Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and the Irish Heritage Trust and National Famine Museum in Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. Likewise, the contributed essays cover an impressive array of visual and material products: paintings and sketches, political cartoons, religious artifacts, textiles, memorials, television shows, graphic novels, and even a film that never was.
This variety and diversity, looking to capture a fuller picture of the Famine in history and memory, is enhanced by another focus of the collection, as explained by Mark-FitzGerald: "prioritiz[ing] methodologically close readings of specific engagements with the famine." Rather than presenting broad or universalizing claims about the Famine and its representation, each chapter engages specific examples of visual and material culture, offering nuanced analysis of the product or production itself within its specific historical, cultural, and geographical context. Enhancing this goal, and an invaluable part of this collection, are the thirty-nine brilliant reproductions of the paintings, drawings, and artifacts discussed by the contributors.
The four chapters in section one exploring contemporaneous material and visual items all deal with a predominant presumption that the Famine was a moment of aporia in terms of cultural production, not only because, as Niamh O'Sullivan points out in her chapter, "Irish artists tended to avoid the appalling conditions in which the majority lived" but also because that majority's struggle to survive supplanted all leisurely or artistic activities. The contributions in section one suggest that, while representations of the Famine by or depicting the actual suffering of the famine victims may be rare to nonexistent, exploring representations beyond that focus, both within Ireland and abroad, can offer a fuller understanding of the Famine.
This suggestion to look beyond seemingly obvious images of the Famine is manifested in the first chapter, O'Sullivan's "The Bond that Knit the Peasant to the Soil: Rural Lore and Superstition in the Work of Daniel Macdonald." Rather than exploring Macdonald's famous 1847 painting An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store—"renowned as the only known painting representing the blight itself"—O'Sullivan examines representations of superstition in his works from just before and during the Famine. She reveals a continuity in such representations, highlighting not only superstition's role in uniting the Irish peasantry and providing a link between life pre- and post-Famine but also its connection to sedition and proto-nationalism that heightened during the Famine.
In the second chapter, "HB's Famine Cartoons: Satirical Art in a Time of [End Page 148] Catastrophe," Peter Gray explores depictions of the Famine in the political cartoons by the London-based middle-class Catholic Irishman John Doyle, known as "H. B.," aimed at a...