Women’s Unexplored Roles During The Great Famine

Author: Marguérite Corporaal (Radboud University Nijmegen)

Women And The Great Hunger

Women and The Great Hunger. Edited by Christine Kinealy, Jason King, and Ciarán Reilly. Hamden, CT: Quinnipiac University Press, 2016, + 236 pp.

Mary Anne Sadlier’s novel about the Great Famine, New Lights; or Life in Galway (1853), demonstrates that women were not always represented as victims of starvation, but also as active agents trying to intervene in class conflict and the provision of relief. The tenant’s wife Honora O’Daly, epitomizes famine, with her “countenance pale as death, eyes sunken and hollow, and lips colorless as those of a corpse.”[1] Nonetheless, she is far from passive: she goes to landlord Ousely’s mansion to demand lower rent and to defy his condition for relief, conversion of her family to Protestantism. Meanwhile, Ousely’s daughter Eleanor openly criticizes her father’s support of proselytism and treatment of tenantry, converts to Catholicism, and brings food to the starving.

Sadlier’s novel is just one among many works of fiction that digresses from the conventional representations of women as spectacles of hunger and imagines them as more active with famine relief. In view of this, Christine Kinealy’s, Jason King’s, and Ciarán Reilly’s edited collection Women and The Great Hunger is a valuable contribution indeed. It seeks to remedy a lacunae in Great Famine research about ways in which women experienced and shaped “the tragedy that unfolded in Ireland” and aims to shift emphasis away from male historical agency. This focus on “ordinary women’s agency, experiences, interpretations and eyewitness perspectives” in relation to the Great Famine and famine-related migration is furthermore explored from a wide array of disciplinary perspectives, including historiography, literature, socioeconomic history, and education (9).

The most interesting contributions to the essay collection are those that are grounded in research of relatively underexplored archival material. Historical research on women’s role in relation to relief shortly before and during the Famine has hitherto primarily focused on upper and middle class women’s involvement in charity, as Peter Gray’s The Making of the Irish Poor Law, 1815-43 (2009), Deborah Wilson’s Women, Marriage and Property in Wealthy Landed Families in Ireland (2009), and Christine Kinealy’s Charity and the Great Hunger (2013) illustrate. Ciarán Reilly’s article touches new ground by examining petitions written by women from the tenant class during the 1840s, on the basis of archives from the Tullyvin and Strokestown estates. This well-researched piece pays specific attention to the often ambivalent status of women in connection to the provision of relief and admission into workhouses, thereby shedding new light on the implementation of Poor Laws from a gendered perspective. Gerard MacAtasney’s investigation of the “under-used archive of the Society of Friends” provides new insights into ways in which women of County Leitrim, by writing letters or establishing relief operations of their own, contributed to famine relief (66).

These two contributions demonstrate the potential of research in regional archives and local case studies to significantly broaden our perceptions of the Great Famine beyond national paradigms. At the same time, the collection includes essays that offer valuable frames for studying the Famine from transnational perspectives. Jason King has published extensively on the care given by sisters from the Grey Nun order to diseased famine emigrants and orphans in the fever sheds of Montreal. The essay he has contributed to Women and The Great Hunger also discusses previously unpublished material about care provided by individual nuns and the correspondence between Father Dowd and the Mother Superior. Gerard Moran’s article on female emigration from Mountbellew Workhouse in Co. Galway to Canada, which is discussed in the contexts of the Poor Law and other assisted emigration schemes, forms a valuable dialogue with recently published research on comparable case studies by Mark McGowan, Ciarán Reilly, and Perry McIntyre on assisted emigration to Quebec, the Cape of Good Hope, and New South Wales,[2] as well as with Rebecca Abbott’s essay on the Earl Grey scheme. Moran’s article contains an interesting discussion of an institution, established by Sisters of Charity at Bytown, to train these unskilled girls in domestic labor and prepare them for future breadwinning. As such, like King’s essay and previous studies such as Maureen Fitzgerald’s Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York's Welfare System, 1830-1920 (2006), Moran’s contribution draws attention to the significant role of female religious orders in improving prospects for Irish Famine immigrants.

Daphne Wolf’s essay presents a very original perspective on women and the Irish Famine through its focus on representations of (and the absence of) clothes of the famine-stricken as well as workhouse dress. Wolf looks at travel narratives and committee reports as well as newspaper illustrations—such as the iconic image of Bridget O’Donnell and her children from the Illustrated London News—and concludes that depictions of the clothing of Irish women during the Famine not only shocked Victorian audiences but also had its impact on public works and the policies of relief organizations. By bringing the areas of public media, fashion, relief and Irish-British relations together in eloquent ways, Wolf’s essay nonetheless fails to address how responses to famine-afflicted women’s outfits were informed by gender conventions and perceptions of femininity and sexuality. In light of passages such as Henry Herbert’s encounter with an almost naked woman in Anthony Trollope’s Castle Richmond, this appears to be a crucial issue that should have been discussed more elaborately, especially in its interaction with conceptions of imperialism and ethnicity.

Maureen O’Rourke Murphy, Maureen O’Connor, Christine Kinealy, Matthew Skwiat, and Amy Martin analyze case studies of individual women in connection to the Great Famine and its legacies. Among them, Kinealy is the only one to look at the Famine’s Nachleben in the widely read historiography by Cecil Woodham-Smith, focusing in particular on how Woodham-Smith conducted research for her book, and how her monograph was presented and received at the time. Sometimes a bit anecdotal, the essay sheds interesting light on a female historian’s role in shaping Famine historiography. It would have been even more fruitful, however, if the essay had also explored the longstanding impact and reappraisal of Woodham-Smith’s work in present times. Murphy discusses Asenath Nicholson’s concern with conditions at schools in Ireland during the Famine, and appears to be an elaboration of material she discusses in her biography of the American philanthropist, Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine (2014). O’Connor discusses Frances Power Cobbe’s recollections of and work as a teacher during the Famine—subjects that have been overlooked in studies about this feminist, abolitionist, and anti-vivisection campaigner. This essay’s most interesting section concerns an analysis of how Cobbe’s experiences during the Famine may have impacted her later views on animal rights and food.

Matthew Skwiat and Amy Martin devote their entire essays to Jane Francesca Elgee, Lady Wilde, also known as the poet “Speranza,” who was well-known for her poem “The Famine Year” (1847). Skwiat offers an interesting reading of Lady Wilde’s poetry against the background of the Romantic literary traditions by which she was clearly inspired, arguing that while contemporaries may have questioned her nationalist sincerity, “Speranza” herself saw the poet as an agent of cultural and political change. Martin’s essay offers a sophisticated close reading of Lady Wilde’s poem in relation to Gothic conventions, but is more problematic in that it suggests that the contrasts between the human and non-human that Wilde foregrounded in her poetry became a unique register that influenced subsequent generations of writers.

After all, similar representations of famine victims as haunting specters can be found in pre-Famine cultural expressions as well as those from its aftermath. For example, the cartoon “Irish Affairs: The Absentee,” published in London newspaper The Looking-Glass on August 1, 1830, which probably alludes to the Irish famine of 1822, represents “the Ghosts of starv’d Irish Peasantry” that come to haunt an absentee landlord (3). Works of fiction like David Power Conyngham’s Frank O’Donnell (1861) also tap into Gothic registers of spectrality to judge the landed class for its neglect of the famishing. Frank O’Donnell states that the “millions of corpses that rot in pauper graves, that are tossed about by the ocean waves, or that sleep in far off lands, slain by the miasma of some pestilential swamp, will yet rise up in judgement” to the “despotic landlords” who have evicted peasantry.[3] It therefore seems to be more appropriate to speak of a famine register that goes back to earlier Irish food crises and that was not only shaped by Lady Wilde but by many writers and artists, in various genres and media. At the same time, Martin’s discussion about how Lady Wilde’s poetry could have influenced depictions of the 1877 Madras famine is very compelling and convincing, backed up by the Irishman’s advertising of Speranza’s collected works at the same time that it discussed mass-starvation in India.

Women and The Great Hunger also contains a few essays that briefly address the Famine period and approach their subject across a longer stretch of time. While it makes sense to compare Famine afterlives and post-Famine legacies, in the case of the essays by Cara Delay and Turlough McConnell, the subjects of women and priestly authority and the transformative work of the Sisters of Charity in New York are only partially discussed in relation to the Famine and its conditions. Delay has investigated resourceful newspaper accounts to discuss interactions between women and Catholic clergy during the Famine era, but branches out into the 1880s and how women back then described their interrelations with priests. McConnell’s article covers the period 1740-2017 and only devotes two paragraphs to the Famine period and its wave of immigration. As such, both essays sit less comfortably with those that offer a more exclusive focus on the Famine in the rest of the volume.

Unfortunately, Women and The Great Hunger also includes a few essays that are methodologically rather weak. Eileen Moore Quinn attributes the survival of certain tales related to the Famine, but especially Irish verbal art, in New England to female Famine immigrants, against the background of the contestable idea of post-Famine traumatic silence. Her statement that “Irish women’s lore had a staying power preserved in Irish New England late into the 20th century, if not longer” is insufficiently proven on the basis of the material she provides and fails to take into consideration the transformative power of intercultural contact between various communities (132). Rebecca Abbott’s essay, a reconstruction of the experiences of female immigrants on the Earl Grey Scheme rooted in interviews she held with their descendants, neglects to account for the transformations that inevitably take place in oral histories that are mediated transgenerationally. It is a shame that she does not engage with concepts such as “prosthetic” or “postmemory” in the presentation of her findings.[4] Sandy Letourneau O’Hare and Robert A. Young Jr. describe the coming into being of a recent exhibition of Lady Sligo’s letters at Quinnipiac University. While this exhibition and the materials that were archived are relevant, the essay itself disappoints in that it fails to reflect upon the choices made in creating the exhibition and methods to ensure visitor participation. An engagement with museum practices and research would have made this a stronger contribution.

Oonagh Walsh’s essay is inspired by the field of epigenetics, and it argues that the mental problems that many Irish suffered from for several generations since the Famine can be attributed to the genetic transformations caused by food shortages. Walsh’s essay refers back to similar, recent research about the Dutch Hongerwinter of 1944-45—although she does not mention Tessa Rosenboom’s latest interventions in that field—and applies the results of Hongerwinter research, which have proven a more frequent occurrence of mental diseases such as bipolar disorders among people conceived during this food crisis, to the Great Famine. While this is thought provoking, the problem is that Walsh fails to justify sufficiently why these findings can be transferred and lead to similar conclusions in the case of the Great Irish Famine. Furthermore, she argues for the existence of an Irish collective mental instability that spans numerous generations, and that, in her view, has been genetically imprinted on the race through stress experienced by pregnant women during the Famine. This highly contestable notion of inherited trauma—which she moreover compares to how the Holocaust has mentally affected succeeding generations—is hard to prove. It is, moreover, regretful that Walsh sticks to this biomedical and trauma-oriented perspective, and does not embed an analysis of mental institutions and their function during and after the Famine in her argumentation, as, for instance, Damien Brennan’s Irish Insanity, 1800-2000 (2013) does.

The book’s final section, entitled “New Directions,” therefore contains provocative research, but all in all, these contributions require further reflection and elaboration. The questions that these articles raise, however, may also spark off further debate, and critical interrogation about current practices in Famine research. Other sections in Women and The Great Hunger provide solid research, suggest new resources, and promote new perspectives on the Great Famine. Placing the spotlight on women’s agency, the collection moreover contributes to our awareness of alternative Famine histories in a period when gender issues are undergoing a revival in academic and societal debates.

[1] Mrs J. Sadlier, New Lights; or Life in Galway (New York: D. and J. Sadlier, 1853), 80.

[2] See “The Great Famine: Global Contexts,” a special issue of Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies, edited by Jason King and Marguérite Corporaal. Breac 6.1 (2018).

[3] See David Power Conyngham, Frank O’Donnell (Dublin and London: James Duffy, 1861), 84-85. See also chapter 3 in Marguérite Corporaal, Relocated Memories: The Great Famine in Irish and Diaspora Fiction, 1846-70 (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2017).

[4] See Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); and Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).