IRELAND’S GREAT FAMINE AND THE COFFIN SHIPS
My recent trip to Ireland gave me time and opportunity to open up my mind to new ideas. I came home with thoughts about the Great Famine, migration in desperate circumstances and famine ships (aka coffin ships). I’ve done some initial research and this post is to record my thoughts while they are still fresh and some ideas for how I might further my research and weave the theme into my ongoing work.
Between 1845 and 1852 over one million Irish people died from starvation and disease. A further one million emigrated. Ireland remains the only country in Europe where the population today is less than it was in 1845.
Thoughts related to my parallel project and critical review are all mixed up at the this early stage…
LEAVING AND DEPARTING
We got the ferry over to Dublin from Liverpool and went to see Anthony Gormley’s Another Place (100 statues looking out to sea at Crosby) and this set off a train of thought about people leaving or returning and how poignant and life changing ‘another place’ can be.
REMINDERS OF THE GREAT FAMINE ON OUR TRAVELS
Everywhere around Ireland there are reminders of the communities of people who died or were forced to emigrate because of the The Great Famine (also called the Great Hunger):
- Numerous graveyards in remote places, often with with simple rocks as headstones.
- Ruins of small houses, now little more than piles of stones, that large families occupied. The Irish have shown little interest in restoring these (unless as a museum and there are many small famine museums and monuments), preferring to build big, modern bungalows. My mother in law explained that the old stone homes were usually far too small to be the basis of a modern family home and the Irish didn’t wish to be reminded of their poverty stricken past. I’ve a feeling this is an important insight.
- Dry stone walls demarcating the land from which people scratched a meagre living.
THE DUNBRODY FAMINE SHIP
This replica famine ship at New Ross started to focus my thinking. These ships transported desperate, starving people across the Atlantic to the Americas (and other places) in the hope of a new life. They were called coffin ships because the conditions were appalling and up to 40% of passengers died before on board. You really had to have run out of all other options to get on one of these ships.
SCULPTOR JOHN BEHAN
This led me to the impressive work of sculptor John Behan (born 1938). He is Ireland’s most notable living sculptor and I would go as far as to draw a comparison with Henry Moore. He has created a series of famine ship sculptures in which the sails and rigging on close inspection, are formed of the rag covered, skeletal bodies of the dead. I was lucky enough to see one at an exhibition at Greenacres in Wexford Town.
The Irish National Famine Monument is a large scale sculpture of one of Behan’s Famine Ships (unveiled by Mary Robinson in 1997) at the base of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. The mountain is a place of Pilgrimage in honour of St Patrick’s 40-day fast in 441AD; connecting the location with hunger.
Commissioned by the Irish Government, a memorial to the Irish Famine, Arrival (2000) (26 x 24 ft.), was presented to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and sited on the Plaza at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Arrival is a variation on Ireland’s National Memorial, described above, with a more hopeful message; in place of the skeletal rigging some 150 survivors—huddled on deck—begin to disembark to start a new life.
Are there different messages communicated through art works made for different locations and audiences – Ireland, USA, Britain? Are there location-specific differences and viewpoints?
Why does art from the Great Famine only seem to depict the victims and not the perpetrators? It was the greed of British landlords (often absent) and cruel social economic policies that led to life-threatening poverty. What little crop the Irish peasants had was often taken from them in rents and exported to Britain. Landlords sometimes paid to put their tenants on the coffin ships to get rid of them.
What do we know about the ruthless people that owned and operated the ships? Like the traffickers today, piling Syrian refugees into leaky boats, someone was making money. The ships weren’t true passenger ships, they were more suited to the goods they brought back from the Americas after disgorging their human cargo.
Why is there so little early art about the famine (i.e. from around or near the time of the events)? Much of the early art I’ve discovered so far is strangely sanitised; peasants / emigrants dressed in neat, presentable clothes with smiling faces. This cannot have been representative of their lives. The art of today is much more revealing of the true desperation, poverty and cruelty that was involved. Was the earlier art somewhat shamefaced? The British didn’t give a formal apology for their role until 1997:
Tony Blair has issued a statement on the Irish Potato Famine 150 years ago which amounts to the first apology expressed by the British authorities.
At a weekend festival in County Cork to commemorate the famine, which claimed one million lives, a letter was read out from the Prime Minister in which he blamed “those who governed in London” at the time for the disaster. (The Independent 1 June 1997)
Were the Irish also late to commemorate through art the tragedy of the Great Famine ? If so, why? The National Famine Monument was unveiled in 1997 at the same time as Tony Blair was apologising on behalf of the British. I wonder if the Irish had some reluctance about looking back in art to the poverty and tragedy of the Great Famine. This thought comes from my mother-in-law’s comment earlier.
The Great Hunger/Famine in Ireland is today taught in schools in Ireland and the USA. Is it taught in UK schools?. The American story is a more positive one of course as represented in Behan’s piece for the United Nation’s Plaza, Arrival.
Does the art around refugees today continue to depict the victims and not the perpetrators?
I was prompted to think about this by a Facebook (an excerpt from a Ted talk by author and filmmaker Jackson Katz) posting that is doing the rounds which questions why the media always focuses on the women who have been raped or abused and not the men who are usually the perpetrators of these crimes.
TIME AND PLACE
Looking back at my questions above I realise that the contexts of time and place are important in interpreting and understanding famine art and bearing these in mind will help me to structure my research and analysis. It might even provide a basis for my critical review.
Place – where you come from influences how you might view the famine
- From an American perspective – Americans gave the Irish immigrants who survived the journey a new beginning and a new life with opportunities. This is a positive story, one they might be pleased to tell.
- From an Irish perspective – the Famine was a great tragedy, a million people starved, a million were forced to leave. There was horrendous physical and emotional suffering. It is hard to revisit and be reminded of such pain, easier to tuck it away into the recesses of the mind.
- From a British perspective – there is guilt about the greed and disastrous economic and social policies that led to the famine. Tempting to keep quiet and avoid the subject.
Time – the passage of time may alter perspectives
- Ireland is now a relatively strong economy and has moved on from a poverty stricken past. The Irish people can examine the past more openly and deeply without feeling they are inextricably tied to poverty.
- In today’s political environment, the British can no longer hide from their culpability, particularly as Ireland so openly commemorates the lives lost and social upheaval.
- The Americans… I need to research this more but I do know that a great many Americans are descended from the immigrants who fled from the famine and this is a topic of great interest today.
PARALLELS IN ART REPRESENTING TODAY’S REFUGEES
A few months back I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and they had on show an artwork by Issam Kourbaj. Dark Water Burning World – 2016: Syrian refugees represented as matchsticks stuffed into flimsy boats. It made a considerable impact on me and I photographed the blurb, which says:
Boats made from repurposed discarded bicycle steel mudguards, extinguished matches and clear resin. The sea is neither abundant nor beautifully mysterious for many Syrian refugees. It has turned into a terrifying tunnel through which their fates are being decided: to live or die.
Dark Water Burning World is a new artwork ,inspired by 4th century BC Syrian Sea vessels, deals with the way escaped Syrians now carry visible and invisible scars scorched into them by the separation from their homeland: scars of permanent loss and continuous losing. They have not only lost their land, their possessions, their homes and their people, but also for many their pride and their identity. They have lost the tangible and the intangible, their past, presents and most notably their futures.
Kourbaj’s work typically considers, exaggerates and alters the discarded object and extends its familiar voice into the realm of the poetic.
I’m not sure how I might use this but it feels worth noting as it might be useful to contrast and compare with Behan’s work.
STARTING POINTS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
MY IRISH HOLIDAY / PHOTOS / EXPERIENCES
Graveyards, gravestones, churches, quays, ruins, beaches, ocean, rocks, cliffs, fields and field patterns, existing street art and sculpture, my seaweed drawings, boats, wrecks. Do more sketches of these things; don’t worry about making complete pictures – just impressions. Also there are some truly fantastic street sculptures and memorials which I’ve started to gather together in a Pinterest Board. .
SEAWEED DRAWINGS AS A VISUAL METAPHOR?
I’m thinking about how my seaweed drawings, made by the ocean tides, could be a visual metaphor for those people who died in the coffin ships. The tides pull the strands of seaweed into the ocean; they leave traces (like footsteps) in the sand but the next tide wipes them out. https://learningmojo.wordpress.com/2017/10/08/seaweed-drawings/
Could I do something with these in my Wednesday printmaking classes?