January 2, 2019 § 4 Comments
Eighteen months ago, Louis CK was one of the most famous comedians in the world, almost universally loved, devastatingly funny, and, apparently, a decent human being. And then came the scandal, which involved him being an incredible douchecanoe with women, intimidating them and performing sexual acts in front of them. And so, he disappeared from the public eye after apologizing for his behaviour. This was the right card to play and the appropriate response for his behaviour.
But now he’s back. And somehow, getting booked for shows. Last month at a comedy club on Long Island, CK attacked the survivors of the Parkland massacre. That in and of itself makes him an asshole, but comedy has long been the purview of assholes. That’s part of what makes comedians funny. But this was crossing a line, and he knew it. He had to. He’s a smart guy.
But then he went onto whine about his own ‘bad year.’ He complained that the sex scandal cost him $35 million. And he complained about finding out who his ‘real friends’ were, whining that:
People say that like it’s a good thing. That’s not a good thing. That’s a horrible experience. Who the fuck wants to know who your real friends are? I liked having a bunch of fake friends and not knowing who was who.
And then he went onto attack the ‘younger generation’ for essentially having no sense of humour about such things.
And so there we go. Yet another white dude caught being a morally reprehensible character who isn’t sorry for his behaviour. His apology means absolutely sweet fuck all now. Because he obviously didn’t mean it and he doesn’t care that his behaviour was boorish. He has become another Justice Brett Kavanaugh, attacking his accuser(s). And Kavanaugh is just another Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. This is apparently what you do when you’re a white guy accused of being a dickhead, you mumble something about recognizing your behaviour was uncouth and then attack your accusers.
Fuck that. We deserve better.
December 19, 2018 § 3 Comments
For roughly the past 25 years or so, I’ve referred to ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ as the date rape song. The lyrics are creepy as all get out. And yes, I know the song was written in 1944. And I know that the lyrics actually reflect pop culture in the 1940s, including jokes about drinks being spiked (with alcohol) and young men and women were not allowed the kind of freedom depicted in the lyrics in 1944. And that the song was actually written by a married man so he and his wife could sing it at their housewarming party. I get that. But it’s not 1944, it’s 2018.
The lyrics of the song include the woman saying she ought to say no and the man complaining about his wounded pride; then she wonders what he put in her drink; and then she even says the ‘answer is no’, and he continues to badger her. In 2018, this conjures up images of rape culture, of roofies, and continues the idea that it’s romantic to badger and harass a woman until she gives in. And in the context of #MeToo, this shouldn’t be acceptable. The fact it took us until now to figure this out is something else, of course.
I posted something along these lines on Facebook earlier this month (minus the historical context) when a series of radio stations in Canada decided to stop playing the song. Personally, I see that as no major loss. There are still countless Christmas songs we can listen to in 45,000 different versions until we want to pull our hair out. The song kinda sucks anyway, I mean, aside from the rape-y feel to it.
And then the commentariat! My feed lit up with my friends arguing against me. I even got chastised for being a bad historian for failing to note the song is from the 1940s. Over and over, the context of the song was explained to me. But that’s the thing, this cuts both ways. If we want to consider historical context for things, then let’s discuss Confederate War monuments.
Historical context is a real and important factor in debates about history and artefacts from the past. And ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ is an artefact. Questions of historical context and artefacts are immediately loaded. So, to take the example of the Confederate War monument, it does not belong in a public park, but on the grounds of a museum or inside the museum, where it can be historicized and explained, and put into its context. That is possible and doable. And it solves the problem of ‘erasing history,’ which gets pro-Confederates riled up. But a song is not a monument. A monument is not a a living artefact. In the past couple of years, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, from Cee-Lo to Trisha Yearwood. So in addition to being an artefact, it’s a contemporary pop song. And radio DJs can’t be expected to provide the historical context of the song, nor can we expect that in our Spotify and Apple Music playlists, or on our satellite stations on our TVs.
Something else was fascinating about my Facebook post and the blowback I got. There was a very clear disconnect between the ‘likes’ and the comments. The comments were all written by men, save for one woman, a good friend, who noted that she attempts to keep the context of the song in mind when playing it or when she hears it. As for the likes, they were 90% women.
At the end of the day, I find the song creepy. And have for a long time. And while I don’t think the song should be banned (I’m generally not a fan of this kind of censorship, having grown up in the era of Tipper Gore’s PMRC). But I am fine with radio stations refusing to play it. That’s their choice. We generally skip the song when it plays on random Christmas playlists or Apple Music Radio around here. Life goes on.
But, perhaps due to what I do for a living, having spent much of the past 20+ years in classrooms with university students, I do see very clearly the effects of pop culture on the kids. I see the effects of rape culture on both the men and women in my classes, I see the effects of misogyny, racism, classism, etc. And I see that they (like I did at their age) take their cues from pop culture as a whole first, their education second (generally-speaking).
And it is in this sense that I see the problems with ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ all the more.
December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
Twenty-nine years ago today, a violent misogynist marched into the École Polytechnique in Montréal, separated the men from the women and gunned down fourteen women. Another fourteen were wounded. He then killed himself. In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life. He claimed that feminists attempted to play the advantages of being women whilst also seeking to claim advantages that belong to men. He had a list of nineteen prominent women in Québec whom he considered to be feminists and whom he wished dead.
The Montréal Massacre shocked a nation. I was sixteen and living at the other end of the country, in the suburbs of Vancouver. This felt a little more real for me because I am from Montréal. My mother, also a montréalaise, was ashen-faced and shocked watching the news, crying. At school the next day at school, a Thursday, the shock was real and palpable. Nearly all of us felt it. Nearly all of us were sickened. Some were crying in the hallways. Some looked like zombies. We talked about this incessantly. We didn’t understand. We didn’t understand such violent misogyny.
I remain shocked by this event even today. What I didn’t know or understand about violent misogyny as a teenager I now do. I am a professor myself and teach my students about misogyny. And violent misogyny. I often talk about the Montréal Massacre, even to American students. In 1989 I was shocked by the irrational hatred of men towards women. In 2018, I am still shocked, but more jaded, I know it’s there and and am not all that surprised when it plays out.
In 2017, my wife and I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, TN. A lot of the older women protesting, the women of my mother’s generation, were carrying signs saying ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit.’ They were right. This is the same shit.
Every 6 December in Canada, we wring our hands and ask how and why did this happen? But we haven’t done much to make it so that this cannot happen again. In the United Staes, we have done even less to make women safe. This is just immoral and wrong.
The worst part is that nearly all of us know the killer’s name. I refuse to utter it, I refuse to use it. To do so gives him infamy, it gives him something he does not deserve. Instead, I am always saddened that we cannot recite the names of the dead. Here is a list of the women he killed that day in 1989:
- Genviève Bergeron, 21
- Hélène Colgan, 23
- Nathalie Croteau, 23
- Barbara Daigneault, 22
- Anne-Marie Edward, 21
- Maud Haviernick, 29
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewic, 31
- Maryse Laganière, 25
- Maryse Leclair, 23
- Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
- Sonia Pelletier, 28
- Michèle Richard, 21
- Annie Saint-Arneault, 23
- Annie Turcotte, 21
It saddens me to think that these fourteen women died because one immature little man decided they’d ruined his life by trying to gain an education. The futures they didn’t get to have because of one violent misogynist with a gun depresses me. And every 6 December, I stop and think about this. I pay tribute to these women. And I think about how I can make a difference in my own world to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes. For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting. They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc. The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous.
The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World. Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine. Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo. This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship. In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.
The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however. They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland. But they offer a glimpse of what is to come. Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.
The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown. Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s. The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998. It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking. It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.
It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures. The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.
But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic. This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy. In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream. But, there are a few gaps here. First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States. And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.
Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States. The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation. But this was not instantaneous. It took a generation or two. It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960. Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.
And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today. And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.
November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments
The First World War has a complicated legacy in Canada. When the war broke out in 1914, Canada was by and large still a colony of the United Kingdom, despite Confederation in 1867. The young Dominion’s foreign policy was still controlled in London (as was the case for all of the Dominions: South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in addition to Canada). Thus, the UK went to war, so, too, did Canada. As our historians tell us, by the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada had arrived on the global stage.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War had performed more than admirably. The tenacity and valour of Canadian troops became legendary. For example, despite the lack of complete and formal training, the CEF quickly established itself as a forward-leading trench invading force. The performance of the CEF was made all the more impressive, I argue, given the fact that they were not all that well-equipped (this seems to be a constant for the Canadian military). For example, they were saddled with the underperforming and quick-to-jam Ross rifle (due to graft and corruption in Ottawa, of course), and malfunctioning machine guns. And then there was the Canadian knock-off of British webbing that tended to breakdown and disintegrate in trench warfare.
The combination of the performance of the CEF, along with the the diplomacy and leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the international community, and most importantly, the British, realized that the small country across the Atlantic had arrived (South Africa was similarly spoken of). This, ultimately, led to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which finally gave control over their foreign affairs to the Dominions, an important step on the road to independence on Canada’s part.
But. The other side of this argument, and one that seems to be in retreat finally, is that the First World War was the glue that brought Canada together. Canada was comprised initially of four colonies at Confederation in 1867, Canada (modern-day Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. At the outset, the Nova Scotians wanted out. Three of those four were Anglo-Protestant colonies/provinces. The fourth was French Catholic. And then the impact of immigration brought people from all around Europe and Asia as the country spread across the Prairies and British Columbia, an old British colony, joined up in 1871. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873. And the Prairie Provinces were brought in in 1905. But, this was not a united nation. No, it was a regional one, with local concerns mattering more than national ones.
This is part of what made then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy so important, as it re-oriented the economies of the new provinces from a north-south axis to an east-west one. This was also the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1886, from Montréal to Vancouver. Another, older line connected Montréal with Halifax, but it’s worth noting that a few decades before Confederation, Montreal merchants built a railway to connect them to Portland, ME, for a year-round port, rather than Halifax. But even still, old habits were hard to break and Canadians tended to remain local, rather than national.
Hence the narrative that the First World War brought us together. The problem is, of course, that this story is either only a partial truth or a complete untruth, depending on how you look at it.
The partially true version is that the war did unite Anglo Canada, that the concerted war effort across Anglo Canada did work to foster a sort of unity and common cause from Halifax to Vancouver (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949). This includes, to a large degree, the Anglo population of Montréal because, of course, the Canadian economy was run from there a century ago.
But, if we flip the view, this narrative is a myth (but, to be fair, countries do need myths, and Canada is a fine example is what happens when there aren’t any, or at least not many). The reason this is a myth is because of Québec.
As noted, Québec is a charter member of Canada and it is the oldest European colony in what became Canada. Québec was and remains a predominately French-speaking culture, heavily influenced by Catholicism historically. And this put it at odds with Anglo-Protestant Canada.
The First World War was perhaps the first time that the rest of the country even noticed something looking like French Canadian nationalism. The editor of the influential Montréal newspaper, Le Devoir, Henri Bourassa, dismissed the First World War as a European and British problem. He spoke for many, both French- and English- speaking Quebecers at the time.
When the 199th Battalion of the Irish-Canadian Rangers began to recruit in the spring of 1916, the commanders found it a tough slog. The Irish of Montréal, both Protestant and Catholic, were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up (you can read all about this in my book, Griffintown, of course).
But it’s when conscription was enacted in Canada that public anger in Québec boiled over. As Bourassa had continually argued since the onset of war in 1914, French Canadians had no loyalties to either the British or the French (the UK’s ally in WWI, of course). No, he argued, their sole loyalty was to Canada. And this war was a war of imperialism that had nothing to do with Québec.
Nonetheless, through a combination of a crooked election and the political will of Borden, conscription came to Canada and was enacted on 1 January 1918. Of 404,000 men who were considered to be eligible for military service, 385,000 sought exemptions. And in Québec, tensions boiled over.
In Montréal, anti-conscription sentiment was very real. And whilst the traditional narrative tells us that it was French Canadians who were opposed to conscription, that’s only part of the story, as a large number of Irish in Montréal were also opposed. This boiled over in a massive anti-conscription parade and rally on 17 May 1918 in Montréal.
Anti-Conscription Rally, Montréal, May 1917
From 28 March to 1 April 1918, rioting occurred in Québec City, sparked by the arrest of a French Canadian man for failing to present his draft-exemption papers (he was quickly released). The rioting ultimately led to the Canadian military being called in from Ontario, along with the invocation of the War Measures Act. On the final day of rioting, when the protesters allegedly opened fire on the 1200-strong military force, the soldiers returned fire, which caused the crowds to disperse and ending the riots. In the end, over 150 people were hurt and over $300,000 in 1918 money was caused in damage.
And, in the aftermath, it became increasingly clear to the rest of Canada that perhaps French-speaking, Catholic Québec may have different views on issues than the wider nation.
Having said that, the dead-set opposition to Conscription in Québec was a precursor to the rest of Canada. Given the number of exemptions and the on-going problems at getting men in uniform, Borden’s government changed the rules of conscription in the spring of 1918 to end exemptions. Not surprisingly, the rest of the country came to oppose conscription.
Conscription, though, more or less killed the Conservative Party in Québec. In the fifty years after 1918, conservatives were virtually shut out at the federal level in Québec. And in the fifty years from then, conservatives have continued to have difficulty in Québec; only Brian Mulroney and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, have been able to win support in Québec as conservative leaders.
November 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Across Canada, the cenotaph is a central component of the central square of villages, towns, and cities. Erected in the wake of the First World War, these cenotaphs faithfully record those who gave their lives in the first global conflict. The First World War was the ‘war to end all wars.’ While not nearly as massive or bloody as the Second World War, it is the First World War that is remembered as The Great War.
These cenotaphs recording the war dead are deeply embedded on the landscape. And, unlike so many memorials, they are not invisible. Growing up, I was always aware of them and what they meant. They were solemn and dignified, almost always identical, obelisk shapes. I remember reading the names of the dead on them, and not just on Remembrance Day.
The dead of the First World War seemed so faraway from me, growing up in the 1980s, beyond living memory for me. My grandparents served in the Second World War. And whilst my grandfather’s service as a tailgunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force held a certain romance, it was nothing compared to the First World War.
As a boy in Canada, I didn’t know a lot about the conditions of the War. I learned these in university and the romance of the war dropped away quickly. And I learned more and more about the status of Canada during this period. Even still, the First World War has maintained a certain mystique. Part of this is driven by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by the Canadian soldier (and victim of the war) John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blowBetween the crosses, row on row,That mark our place; and in the skyThe larks, still bravely singing, flyScarce heard amid the guns below.We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,Loved and were loved, and now we lie,In Flanders fields.Take up our quarrel with the foe:To you from failing hands we throwThe torch; be yours to hold it high.If ye break faith with us who dieWe shall not sleep, though poppies growIn Flanders fields.
And so the First World War maintained this mystique. Even if the veterans handing out the poppies in return for a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion were from the Second World War when I was younger, it was a symbol of the First World War they pinned to my lapel.
Last month, I was in Ottawa and visited the National War Memorial located at the intersection of Elgin and Wellington streets, kitty corner to Parliament. The Monument, somewhat ironically, was dedicated in May 1939 to honour the war dead of Canada. Ironic, of course, because the Second World War broke out in Europe barely three-and-a-half months later.
It was whilst staring at this monument that something really struck me about our cenotaphs and war memorials: they tend to date from the First World War. In this case the artillery is that of the First World War, down to the cavalry on horses. These monuments may include the names of Canadian soldiers who served in conflagrations before that one, of course, such as the Boer War. But it is the First World War dead who appear in great number. And the war dead of later wars, including the Second World War were added to the original monument. They were not the original soldiers, and whilst their sacrifices are the obvious equivalent, these memorials date not from their war(s), but the Great War.
And so these original soldiers, those who fought and died in the First World War were the baseline for the Canadian military and, even if this wasn’t the first time that war was made real for Canadians, it was the first time it was made real on a national scale. And even if the First World War left a complicated legacy on Canada, it remains that it was perhaps the first great crisis the country faced. And it gave rise to a series of stories, some true, some mythical, about the import of the war on the still young Dominion at the time.
November 9, 2018 § 1 Comment
A little while ago, I got to visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Qunnipiac University in Hamden, CT. My wife’s Aunt Claire lived in Hamden, and as a good Irish American woman, she loved this museum and it is one of my great regrets that I did not get to the museum with her before she died last spring. May she rest in peace.
I was on a tour at the museum, despite my deep knowledge of Irish history, the Famine, and the diaspora, to say nothing of the practice of museums in general. I kind of regretted this. Our experiences of museums and their collections are mediated by the docent. And in some cases, this can work really well, we get docents who are knowledgeable and personable and they make us think about the artefacts, collections, exhibits in ways we would not otherwise. In sbort, the docent, as Franklin Vangone and Deborah Ryan note in their Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, ‘can make or break the visitor experience.’ Vangone and Ryan advocate a more personable approach to docent-led tours, one that lets the experience of the docent in the museum, come through. This is to avoid rote-memorization. They also advocate a non-linear interpretation (amongst other innovative measures) of the museum, one that can account for multiple interpretations and stories simultaneously.
The other major problem with docent-led museum tours is that they are telling us, the visitors, a pre-determined, pre-packaged nodes of information. But, of course, we, the visiting public, go to museums to seek out our own experiences of the artefacts, the history, etc. Indeed, when my students write museum reviews, part of their remit is to both cast a critical eye on the museum, the structure of the tour, the artefacts of the tour, the story being communicated, and so on. But they are also supposed compare their own experiences, what they looked for, what they took away, with the pre-packaged history they consumed at the same time.
People tend to either love or hate docent-led tours. I’m more ambivalent. Sometimes they’re fantastic. Other times, they leave a lot to be desired. My visit to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was the latter experience. The thing was, my docent clearly approached his job in a non-linear, personable manner. He told stories of his involvement, his approach, and why he loved doing this. He was also really good with a lot of his audience, composed of university student. He made eye contact, he had a presence. What he did not have, though, was pitch modulation in his voice. He talked in a dull monotone. And he very clearly needed to keep authority on his side of the tour, to the point where he was patronizing and insulting in taking questions or comments. And, with a group of undergraduate students (not mine, for the record), this immediately shuts down a dialogue, though it was also clear that my docent did not want a dialogue.
As a way of a comparison, my wife was on another tour at the same time, with another docent. My docent was a late middle-aged man, and hers was a similarly aged woman. Both docents were of Irish heritage, of course. But her docent was lively, had both a modulated voice and was willing to take questions and different interpretations of events and items. I was jealous.
So clearly, at least on this day, one’s experience with the museum was determined by which docent one ended with.
The museum itself holds so much promise. The building housing the museum, purpose-built, resembles an Irish Work House from the mid-19th century. The work houses were where (some) of the starving Irish peasantry were sent. There, they met with disgusting, vile, unsanitary conditions and disease preyed upon the inmates.
The Famine Museum, however, is built of much higher quality materials. And, unlike a fetid mid-19th century Irish Work House, is shiny and comfortable, of course. The visitor experience begins with a short documentary where the background of the Famine is delivered. I found this bizarre.
One has to also presume that the majority of people who seek out this museum are already familiar with the concept of the Famine. I’m not sure a 10-minute video is really going to do much to aid in people’s understanding of the calamity (as a reminder: 1845-52; potato blight; Irish peasants lived on potatoes; grain and meat was still shipped out of Ireland to Britain whilst the peasants starved; British response wholly and completely inadequate; 1.5 million or so die; 1.5 million or so emigrate; Ireland hasn’t really recovered yet). But what did surprise me was that the narrative of the documentary termed this a genocide.
I don’t disagree. As the Irish nationalist and Young Ireland leader John Mitchel said in 1846, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’ It wasn’t just that the British response was inadequate, it was purposefully so and the words of Charles Trevelyan, the Under-Secretary of the Treasury was unabashed in his delight at the suffering in Ireland, a chance to remake the country, he thought.
But what struck me was that when I was reading for my comprehensive exams fifteen years ago, the idea of the Famine as a genocide was not one that was accepted by academic historians, for the most part. Since the early 00s, however, the idea has become more and more accepted amongst Irish history scholars and now, it appears we can indeed term the Famine what it was, a genocide, caused by the massively inadequate response of the government.
And remember, that ‘British’ government was not actually supposed to be British. The country was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Thus, Ireland was part and parcel of the wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-19th century.
An example of the perfidy of the government: when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire pledged to donate £10,000 for relief for the Irish peasantry, Queen Victoria asked him to cut reduce his donation by 90%, to £1,000, as she herself had only pledged £2,000. And then there’s Trevelyan. He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’ When I teach the Famine in Irish history, my students are always flabbergasted by this to the point that more than one has asked me if I made it up. I wish.
At any rate, from the downstairs, we went upstairs and began with one of the most stunning Famine sculptures I’ve ever seen. Most Famine sculptures are haunting to begin with, wraiths of humans staggering to the docks of the River Liffey in Dublin. Or to the Foyle in Derry. But Kieran Tuohy‘s work, carved out of bog wood, defies easy description. This is the centrepiece of the museum. It still haunts me. A family of 6, victims of the Famine. Here, our docent was magnificent, I have to say, as he encouraged us to look closer. He began with the infant in the mother’s arms. He pointed to the way she was holding the infant, how the infant’s body looked.
Was the baby dead? The rest of the figures are lean and gaunt, dirty hair hanging down, vacant expression on the faces. And then as one scans downward, there are no feet. These are spectral figures, wraiths, ghosts. They are the dead of the Famine. The dead of our ancestors, essentially.
But this is kind of it. The museum is the world’s largest collection of Great Hunger-related art. The unfortunate thing, though, is very little of it is on display. In fact, almost none of it is on display. On the day we visit, there is an exhibit about the American Civil War. The Famine is central to the story of the Irish diaspora, especially as it relates to the United States. For most of us of Irish ancestry (ok, fine, I’m Irish Canadian, but part of my family actually emigrated to New York before heading north), our ancestors initially came here during the Famine. And the sons (and grandsons) of Erin who suited up for the Union and the Confederacy were in America precisely due to the Famine.
While the massive bulk of Irishmen who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union (around 160,000), some 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy. This is kind of one of the dirty secrets of the Irish diaspora. And one that is conveniently papered over most of the time. To be fair, our docent did note that the Irish also fought for the Confederacy, but they weren’t the focus of the exhibit.
Either way. The Civil War. I can’t even begin to count the places I could go to find images of the Civil War in this country, and finding this war inside a museum ostensibly dedicated to the Famine was disappointing, to say the least.
And so I was left with the remainder of the permanent exhibitions, which focus on the American response to the Famine. And a feeling that this is the most poorly-named museum I have ever visited; it should not be called Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, but The Museum of the Irish Famine in America. Aside from Tuohy’s sculpture and a few other pieces, there was nothing about Ireland to be found. This was the story of the Irish in America.
And then there was the thing I found most fascinating. Our docent told us the origin story of the museum. But the interesting thing was that after a slight mention of a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s, he moved onto the (much too long) story of how the museum came to be over the next fifteen years or so. And he made no mention of why there was a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s in the first place.
1997 was the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, generally regarded as the worst year of the Famine. And this was a chance for the Irish, and the diaspora, to re-think the Famine, its causes and meanings, and its consequences. It led to an explosion of academic scholarship, popular histories, documentaries, and public art attempting to reckon with the Famine.
And it even gave then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair a chance for a mealy-mouthed acknowledgement of the role of the British in the Famine, skirting the fine line of apologizing. That Blair couldn’t even be arsed enough to deliver the short lines himself, or have Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (the great-great-grandaughter of Queen Victoria) do it speaks volumes. Instead, an Irish actor recited the lines at a festival in Cork.
At any rate, none of this is part of the narrative of the museum, instead the narrative of the Great Men who built it is the central message. So we get the story of more Great White Men and their wonderful work in doing Great Things.
Anyone who knows me that I don’t generally like museums all that much. The ones I have visited and truly enjoyed number in the single digits. There is a reason I am a big fan of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. The lessons of it can be applied to larger institutions, of course. But rarely am I as disappointed by a museum as I was by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, from the docent-led experience to the exhibits.