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 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.
August 2, 2017 § 4 Comments
I am reading Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People. For those who don’t know, Painter is Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University. She is, in academic parlance, a heavyweight. This might be one of the most frustrating books I have ever read. Not for its content argument and its basic argument, which is to trace the history of ‘whiteness’ as a social construct in American society, stretching back to the Greeks. Rather, it is frustrating for a certain sloppiness and factual inaccuracy that dogs the book.
Part of what we base our reputation and claims to authority on, as historians, is our attention to detail and our attempts to make sure we remain factually correct.
To wit, only seven pages in, in discussing the great Greek historian, Herodotus, Painter writes:
Herodotus’ world is still flat — that notion would stand for another thousand years.
She is correct, Herodotus did believe the world was flat. So, too, did, amongst others, Homer. But, for many Greek philosophers (to the Greeks, philosophy and science was the same thing), the world was anything but flat. Pythagoras (he of the theorem) was amongst many Greek thinkers who believed in a spherical Earth. Plato believed the world was spherical. So, too, did Aristotle. Eratosthenes, around 240, attempted to estimate the Earth’s circumference. He did this without any modern tools, of course, and though he was wrong in his estimation, he was only off by around 10%. The great Ptolemy thought the Earth spherical. So, too, did the Romans. Even the early Christian Church believed in the spherical nature of the Earth. Indeed, the belief in a spherical Earth lasted into the Middle Ages and beyond. Stephen Jay Gould argued that the belief in a flat Earth was non-existant amongst the educated classes of Medieval Europe. So, clearly, Herodotus’ error in the belief in a flat Earth did not stand for another thousand years.
Other anachronisms abound. For example, she discusses Samuel Stanhope Smith’s views on race during his academic career in late 18th and early 19th centuries. And while, when introducing him as the president of the College of New Jersey, she notes that said college is now Princeton University, on the very next page, she calls Smith the President of Princeton. He was not. Princeton did not exist until 1896, until then, it was the College of New Jersey.
And then there is a long discussion of the works of Gustave de Beaumont, a French lawyer, more famous for his fiction and quasi-sociological studies of the United States and Ireland. Beaumont is even more famous for being the second fiddle to Alexis de Tocqueville. Beaumont and Tocqueville were life-long friends and Beaumont accompanied Tocqueville on his famous tour of the United States that led to his legendary Democracy in America. In fact, Beaumont published his own work, a novel, that examined that which Tocqueville did not, race in America. But, his Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, while it won the Prix Montyon of the Académie Française, quickly faded from view. Following their tour of the United States, the two French gentlemen made their way to Ireland, and were rather shocked by the wretchedness of the Irish peasants.
But here, Painter engages in some very sloppy and lazy historical accounting. The Irish Famine was from 1845-52. During the Famine, any number of ‘journalists’ headed out from London and other English cities to the Irish countryside, to see the conditions of the starving nation first-hand. Painter is correct to suggest many of these journalists thought the news reports sensationalized. They discovered they were not. But, she conflates, for example, Thomas Carlyle toured Ireland in 1849, two years after the worst of the Famine in 1847, but in the midst of the Famine. Painter conflates the trip of Beaumont and Tocqueville a decade earlier, before the Famine. She also goes on about the Famine conditions Beaumont saw and wrote about. Except, of course, he was in Ireland six years prior to the Famine.
She also, I should add, claims that the Irish were slaves in North America. That is the subject of another post, at an another time.
This is nothing but sloppy and lazy scholarship. Painter is flat-out wrong in her characterizations of views of the shape of the Earth and Beaumont’s journey to Ireland vis-à-vis the Famine. She severely mis-characterizes what Smith was president of. Errors like this should cause the reader to stop and question the author. Is the author to be trusted? How could she make such lazy mistakes?
And this is most unfortunate. Because The History of White People is a fascinating read for the very fact that Painter historocizes and problematizes whiteness as a category. Anyone who knows anything about race and science knows that race is social, not scientific construct, and yet it still dominates our society. So, quite frankly, unpacking the constructions of whiteness in the US is an important historical, sociological, and political act. I would say that this is a book that everyone should read, but such egregious errors with historical fact makes me hesitant.
May 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
Last week, the news out of Montreal was that the piece of land the Irish Memorial Foundation sought to create a proper memorial of the mass grave of Irish Famine victims had been sold to Hydro-Québec, which sought to build a power sub-station there, ironically to serve the burgeoning redevelopment of Griffintown.
But all is well that ends well, apparently. On Friday, Hydro-Québec and the Ville de Montréal issued a joint press release saying that they, along with Montreal’s Irish community, had come to an arrangement to see the redevelopment of a memorial to the 6,000 victims in that grave under what is now Bridge St.
And, frankly, it is about time that this project got underway.
May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.