Capturing the essence of the Famine for modern times

Capturing the essence of the Famine for modern times Liam Neeson provided a gripping narration on the Famine

Yes, we’ve been having a tough year, and for some it has been a lot tougher than for others. Still, it’s no harm to get some perspective.

This was thoroughly provided by The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine (RTÉ 1). The first episode was shown last week on Monday and Wednesday and it was both absorbing and disturbing. The script was literate as it told a harrowing tale of extreme suffering. Drone footage was used to considerable effect, showing bleak landscapes that perfectly complemented the narrative. Liam Neeson’s narration gave a certain gravity, and various learned contributors, from all over the world, gave interesting perspectives not commonly heard.

This global perspective was welcome – showing how the potato blight of 1845 affected the whole world. Many countries dealt with the situation more effectively and humanely than was the case in Ireland. Perhaps, as one contributor suggested, authorities feared civil unrest if they didn’t act, but humanitarian efforts were effective. As far as Ireland is concerned, some UK authorities tried to help, but others were motivated by laissez-faire economics and were reluctant to interfere with ‘the market’. Others – unbelievably – were reluctant to intervene because they thought the blight was literally an act of God. Prof. Kevin Whelan of the University of Notre Dame suggested that some at the time regarded the famine as a way to sort out “the papist potato eating Irish”. And so it was that food continued to be exported from Ireland.

Apart from the global dimension the accounts of assistance from other countries were mostly unfamiliar to me. Of course, there were the well-known donations from Native Americans, impacted by poverty themselves, but there was also an appeal launched by Queen Victoria, while Catholic solidarity moved the French to help – priests were encouraged to raise awareness in their sermons. £50,000 was raised in France and there was also assistance from Irish Americans, the Tzar of Russia, the Sultan of Turkey and British officers in India. Pope Pius IX urged Catholics to support the famine stricken Irish. We heard of many “motivated by their Christian faith”, who worked tirelessly to help the starving people, and of the many clerics and medics who died as a result.

England’s efforts were often ineffective and even callous. With an aversion to just dishing out charity, the government organised public works – hard labour with small payments so that the poor could buy food like the cheap corn imported for the occasion. One official wrote that the work should be “as repulsive as possible”. An observer wrote that the country was “riddled with useless roads”, Famine Roads that went nowhere, though useful work was done in the building of piers and harbours that have lasted.

Excellent use was made of contemporaneous accounts, and the many paintings and line drawings of the time captured the misery and devastation. One commentator pointed out that this was the age of illustrated journalism, making this one of the first “visually mediated catastrophes”. This documentary does an impressive job of capturing the essence of the Famine for modern times, and also in a most striking visual way. I was reminded of the documentaries of Ken Burns.

Wonderful visual effects were evident in the new animated drama Angela’s Christmas Wish (Netflix), based on characters created by Frank McCourt, and following on from the touching Angela’s Christmas. This time little Angela is still having conversations with baby Jesus in her local church’s crib. The focus this time is on her trying to get her father back from Australia as a Christmas surprise for her mother. The animation, by Brown Bag Films, is marvellous, beautifully coloured with an amazing attention to detail. But effective technique would be rather empty without the engaging, genuine and believable characters, and a Christmas story to draw in the viewers. This drama was prefaced with the tag ‘no material likely to offend or harm’ – if only we could get more of the same.

Finally, The Night Watchmen’s Nativity (Sky Arts, Sunday) was a contemporary and imaginative take on the seasonal story, with vibrant gospel music from the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir. The emphasis was on the night watchmen that were, according to this version, hired by the better off shepherds, at the original nativity. These were outsiders, marginalised people who were transformed by the light of the stable. There was a modern social justice slant, but the treatment was entirely earnest and respectful.


Sunday Worship – Third Sunday of Advent
BBC One Sunday December 13, 11.30 am

Fr John Dickson, Catholic chaplain, leads an ecumenical service from the chapel of Royal Holloway, University of London.

Dementia Choir at Christmas
BBC One Wednesday December 16, 7.30 pm

Two years ago, Vicky McClure took to the stage with a choir of people living with dementia. In this heart-warming Christmas special, Vicky tells the story of the choir in lockdown.

The Promise
EWTN Friday December 18, 10.30 am

A seasonal dramatisation, looking inside Gospel events relating to the Annunciation and birth of Christ.