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Children of the Quest: The Irish Famine Myth in Children’s Fiction

by Siobhán Parkinson

The potato crop failed over several successive years in Ireland in the 1840s; a million poverty-stricken peasants died of hunger or famine fever; and another million or so emigrated, mainly to North America, on “coffin ships” (so called because many of the emigrants did not survive the voyage on the fever-infested, often unseaworthy vessels). This was the “Great” Irish Famine — both an appalling episode in Irish history and a central myth of Irish culture, which defines and informs the Irish psyche even today. To call it a myth is not to disrespect the suffering of those who lived through or died in the Famine but is simply to recognize that historical events acquire their own psychic momentum and influence the thinking, sense of identity, and stories of people generations removed from those events.

In his recent book, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland, the historian Roy Foster, with a certain amount of wearied amusement, describes the packaging of Irish history by the tourist industry here into interpretive centers and waxworks shows. The plan is, he tells us, “to emphasize a fixed number of ‘storylines’ in Irish history, linked to tourist sites and presentations: easily tapped into, easily understood. If only.”

If only, indeed. The word storylines in Foster’s analysis is key, for the central concept of his book is how Irish history has been presented as narrative and made to obey fiction’s rules about plot and outcome, villains and victims. This phenomenon of creating narrative out of history tends, even sometimes intends, to skew history; and this is how myths (not a term Foster uses, by the way) are made.

In its crudest form, the Irish Famine myth goes something like this: The woefully impoverished and cruelly oppressed but spiritually resilient Irish peasants (the victims) were allowed to die by a disdainful and cold-hearted British government (the villains), who were only too pleased to clear the land of the seething masses. That is the main storyline, but there are other elements — cruel landlords (more villains) who exacted exorbitant rents and evicted the desperate tenants who could not afford to pay, the shipping of corn away from a starving country (wanton cruelty by the villains), soup kitchens that required conversion to the established church before relief would be given (cruel exploitation by sidekicks of the villains), and so on. The American version of the myth includes a sequel: But some lucky/plucky Irish people (the heroes) escaped and were welcomed into America (the Promised Land).

Like all good myths, the Irish Famine myth is, at one and the same time, broadly true, moderately inaccurate, and culpably partial. This is not the place (nor am I the person) to explain the matrix of political and economic pressures within which such devastating events were allowed to occur, but let us at least note that the Famine had economic and demographic as well as natural causes that were not all a direct and planned result of outright English villainy — though it is certainly true that British inaction was appalling.

If mythification is intrinsic to the telling of the Irish story, whether by historians or by the creators of theme parks and commemorative events, then writers of children’s books on the Irish Famine are even more likely, whether deliberately or not — and on the whole, I think not — to “[elide] the complexities and paradoxes of Irish history” (to quote Foster) in their writing. This problem is inherent in writing historical novels for children, since the mediation of history to children, especially in fictional form, requires at least some simplification. It is hardly the task of children’s books to challenge a culture’s myths; and when the topic is one that is as difficult, emotionally as well as historically and politically, as the Irish Famine, the task of telling the truth in fiction is formidable, particularly if the writers have internalized their own agendas so thoroughly that they are unaware of them.

What we can — and ought to — expect of historical novels, however, is that they should present history, not necessarily in a balanced way, but in a way that is truthful to the experience of their characters. This is self-evident, for what it boils down to is that we expect fictional truth of fiction; in other words, fiction that is good fiction, whatever its relationship to history. We don’t always get good fiction, though, and especially not in the case of Famine books for children. Some writers seem to be responding to a schools-driven demand for dress-up history in the form of pseudo novels, the literary equivalent of theme parks and waxworks shows. I concentrate here, however, on more fully realized fictions.

If the Famine continues to be a central and defining element in the Irish soul, it is perhaps even more vital to the Irish-American soul. The Famine, after all, was the mother of Irish America, the beginning of an extraordinarily sustained wave of Irish emigration to America. One result of mass Irish emigration to America has been the creation of an alternative Ireland. The Ireland that Irish people live and work in and continue to mythify in our own way is a living, breathing, developing place; but the Irish-American Ireland, to judge at least by the products discussed here, is a strange, static, hybrid land made of memory, nostalgia, and illusion. It seems possible that a whole new fictitious culture of Ireland may be in the process of creation, a culture that so far exists mainly in novels and films originating in America,  but that is beginning to infect theme parks, pubs, and, notably, airports here, too. Perhaps the emerging, fictitious culture of this illusory country will in time come to replace the actual, lived culture of Ireland in the mind of the world, and if it goes on developing for long enough, it will no doubt come full circle and start actually to be Irish culture. Ireland itself, with its fake “Irish” pubs, synthesized “Celtic” music, and history-tourism industry, seems prepared to collude in the creation of this artificial culture, and after all, if enough people agree that the inauthentic is authentic, inauthenticity itself acquires a sort of perverse authenticity.

lutzeier_coldest winterA peripheral character at the end of The Coldest Winter (discussed below) remarks, “It’s the ones that cross the ocean as tells the stories. They’re the dreamers. . . . They’re the ones as believe in fairy stories.” Irish Famine books from America, perhaps inevitably, set themselves the task of constructing Ireland for their readers; the Ireland they construct, however — mythic, Celtic, almost prelapsarian — whatever its appeal for an American readership, is scarcely recognizable in the country it is supposed to represent.

Patricia Reilly Giff’s Nory Ryan’s Song is problematic on several counts. It is a direct translation of the Irish Famine myth (American version) into fiction. This book has its moments. For example, the passage from chapter nine that is quoted on the back cover is an evocative piece of writing. But the novel suffers from problems of pacing (everything happens too precipitously), failure to sustain the images it introduces, lack of perspective on the historical events at its heart, a superficial understanding of the culture it is working with, and ultimately a failure of nerve.

giff_nory ryan's songThe novel opens with the eponymous Nory playing at being Queen Maeve. I doubt if a peasant child of the time would have been familiar with the Queen Maeve story, but whether it is historically possible is not really the point. The problem is that this is one in a series of motifs dropped into the story whose function seems to be simply to give an Irish flavor, but it’s a chemically created flavor at best, a sort of literary monosodium glutamate. We are not told who Maeve was, what she was like, or why Nory identifies with her. Maeve’s name is simply invoked in passing, and the motif is barely mentioned again — except that Nory’s pet dog, with unsettling bathos, is named after Maeve.

The scene where the wicked (and predictably English) landlord gallops by on his horse and discovers the poor starving children poaching fish from his stream is unnecessarily melodramatic. Like the random mention of Queen Maeve, it has little function in the plot, but it is clear why it is there, for the novel creaks under the weight of its own agenda: “The English had an army, and souls of vinegar, and they had killed and killed, and we were still not free.” The historical analysis here is not only naive but unlikely to represent the real views of a peasant child of the time. Such a child is likely to have felt particular cruelties sharply and deeply, but I cannot imagine that she would express these feelings in what amounts to republican polemic. This retrospective attribution of a particular political viewpoint to a character who is unlikely to have held that view, or not in that form, is disturbing as well as unconvincing.

Given its polemical agenda, the novel’s failure to be true to itself is perhaps unsurprising. For example, we are constantly told that Nory loves to sing — even the title insists on this — but not a single song is ever mentioned. At one point, Nory opens her mouth to sing, and finds she cannot. This could have been a moment of great power, but who is going to believe that she is desperate to sing, when we haven’t an inkling of what her song would be? This is typical of the undeveloped motifs that are wheeled on and off the stage in the book.

The story is clearly close to the author’s heart — indeed it seems to be based on her family history — and perhaps that is the source of the problem. At any rate, the result is a novel that is outrageously sentimental. It sets out to manipulate the emotions of children in the service of the Irish-American Dream, but without ever letting them have any real emotional connection with the Famine. Nobody dies in this book, for example, except a very peripheral character whom we never meet. This is famine we are talking about, this is the most awful event in Irish history, this is a story about a time when breathing skeletons walked the land; but Patricia Reilly Giff gives us an indecently skewed version of history, starving children who eat grass as if they are experimenting with a new food at a picnic, a pet-dog motif that is straight out of the Lassie movies, and a maudlin vision of America as the Promised Land.

lyons_knockabegWe know pretty soon where we stand in Knockabeg: A Famine Tale, by Mary E. Lyons: America is designated, in fairy-speak, as “Great Land.” We’re clearly in mythic territory here, even without the “stage Irish” of the voice of the seanchaí (traditional storyteller) in which the author has chosen to write her novel. (To be fair, this voice is reasonably authentic, though irritatingly overdone. Much more irritating is the whimsical faery [sic] language — “weeshy,” “twosies and threesies,” “clah clah”— presumably mostly invented by the author.) Knockabeg is nevertheless a book with a certain weird charm. It is undoubtedly better written than many Famine books for children, and it has a refreshing streak of humor, but the Ireland of Knockabeg seems to be a kind of extension of George MacDonald’s or Arthur Rackham’s fantastic Britain, only poorer. Its fairies, who have remarkably English names (“Sticky,” “Wink,” “Jam”), are prettified, sub-pre-Raphaelite creatures, quite alien to Irish culture: drinking dew out of acorn cups, for example, is something that no self-respecting Irish fairy would be caught dead doing, much less “pack[ing] a squirrel-skin pouch with faery darts,” or weaving skynets from seaweed. Moreover, the whimsy of the fairy plot is in poor taste in the context of the underlying story of hunger, fever, death, and despair. I found this mishmash — Finian’s Rainbow meets Schindler’s List — quite disturbing to read.

Both of these American novels suffer from the fact that their authors have chosen to attempt to write in an Irish idiom. Nory Ryan’s Song is sprinkled with Irish (Gaelic) words. Some of these are perfectly appropriate (a stór, for example, a term of endearment), but many are used with a disquieting randomness and can only cause unnecessary mystery for non-Irish readers. On the other hand, the book is also liberally sprinkled with startlingly American turns of phrase — in back of (for behind), which has no currency whatsoever in Irish speech, is particularly anomalous in a first-person narrative supposedly told in the voice of a young Irish girl. Even the generally convincing language of Knockabeg is peppered with misplaced Americanisms. For example, share is used to mean tell — an American usage that is rare and always ironic in Ireland — and suspenders to mean those things that hold your trousers up. Suspenders is certainly not a word likely to be in the average Irish fairy’s vocabulary, unless it’s the kind of fairy who goes in for sexy underwear. (Braces or possibly galluses hold your trousers up on this side of the Atlantic.)

Attempts by non-native authors to write in an Irish idiom are perhaps doomed from the outset, and the result is often a coy and clumsy, Darby O’Gillish representation of Irish speech patterns. It strikes me as odd that this is considered acceptable. If Native American speech, for example, were to be characterized in modern books for children in the “How, paleface, me Apache” mode of outdated Westerns, I imagine that it would be considered inappropriate in the U.S.; yet it seems that no one (apart from Irish reviewers) raises an eyebrow when Irish speech is caricatured in similar ways. Native-written novels, whatever their other faults, at least present Irish characters who talk like real people.

conlan-mckenna_under the hawthorn treeMarita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree was the most commercially successful Irish novel for children of the 1990s (maybe ever), and here in Ireland it is considered the central work on the Famine for children. It has been described (by Amanda Piesse, writing in Children’s Books in Ireland) as “fatally flawed” because of its tendency to slip register, and it is true that it does. For example: “It took an age before they reached the Collins’s cottage. There they said farewell.” Here we move, within the space of a handful of words, from a modern colloquial voice, “It took an age,” to the archaic, poetic “farewell,” which no one says in real life, not even (I suspect) 150 years ago. Verbal infelicities abound, particularly in the speech tags attached to dialogue, and yet the book has occasional moments of poetic power: “‘Are we in hell?’ asked Peggy. . . ‘No,’ said Eily, ‘just a place destroyed.’” The inversion of adjective and noun here has just the right degree of solemnity for the occasion, and is in keeping with Irish speech patterns.

The story has the simplicity of myth. The basic structure, which Hawthorn shares with many Famine novels, is that of a hero journeying in quest of redemption — and finding at least a modified version of it, though leaving enough uncertainty for a sequel. In spite of its faults, Under the Hawthorn Tree has enduring appeal. It is unwaveringly child-centered in its telling of the story, and it speaks directly to Irish children about a country that is recognizably their own, in an idiom that is, by and large, actually  spoken in this country (even if it is a modern version of that idiom).

Conlon-McKenna is clearly working within rather than questioning the received Famine myth; but apart from a tendency to cram in all the recognizable Famine motifs — eviction, the shipping of corn out of Ireland, marauding dogs, fear of the workhouse, the smell of rot — there is no sense that she has an agenda in Under the Hawthorn Tree beyond providing a little light education and engaging the sympathy of the reader for the plight of the characters, which she definitely achieves.

There is no overlay, either, of forced Irishness. The contrast between the unselfconscious use of the Irish vernacular by Conlon-McKenna and the straining after an Irish-sounding idiom in the American novels discussed is marked. Like any book written by an Irish author for Irish children, Hawthorn can take much for granted. Written out of and into a lived understanding of what it is to be Irish, it is a book that concerns itself not at all with Irish “culture.” Though there is a classic kindly wise woman who proffers the children saving herbal remedies, there are no fairies, pishrogues, holy wells, or sub-Celtic, post-Celtic, or pseudo-Celtic shamrockery here. It is as unselfconsciously Irish as Enid Blyton is English (and, incidentally, is stylistically quite Blytonish as well). Culturally, it is the equivalent of an American book about a kid who wears a baseball cap, eats peanut-butter sandwiches, has a “mom,” and finds none of this remotely remarkable: it’s just the way things are.

lally_hungry windSoinbhe Lally’s The Hungry Wind is clearly aimed at an older readership. It is technically superior to Under the Hawthorn Tree, and the plot is much more developed, but it’s not a fraction as popular. This may be partly because quite a large part of the story is set in the workhouse, where the characters are at a remove from what is going on in the rest of the country. It lacks the mythic power of the quest: the characters withdraw from the heroic journey, there is a change of gear, and the story moves into a different mythic territory — the Jane Eyre/Oliver Twist territory of abusive institutions.

Perhaps the real reason The Hungry Wind lacks mass appeal is that, uniquely among the books discussed, it refuses to endorse all aspects of the specific Irish Famine myth. For example, while it does contain the standard-issue emotional eviction scene, the economic rationale for the eviction is as clearly explained as its devastating impact is realized. Moreover, two of the main sympathetic child characters are Protestants, debunking the notion that the Famine was some sort of (wicked) Protestant English versus (heroic) Catholic Irish board game. The Hungry Wind is also the only one of the books that tackles the theme of sexual abuse. This is both refreshingly realistic (for children in situations where the balance of power was so egregiously skewed in favor of adult figures of authority must have been subject to abuses of every sort) and a further refusal to mythify the Famine (the abuser is an Irishman in a position of power, not a British soldier or a wicked landlord). Realism is, of course, a countermythic mode, and complexity a direct challenge to the simplifications of received myth.

morpugo_twist of goldIf American writers cannot resist romanticizing Ireland, the British writer Michael Morpurgo is inclined to do the same in his Irish Famine novel, Twist of Gold, though it does break with the mythic pattern enough to show a British soldier in a sympathetic light. Twist is really a traditional children’s adventure story that happens to use the Famine as background, and it is a good yarn (this is Morpurgo, after all), if rather far-fetched. Unfortunately the story is, for me, fatally compromised by the central, impossibly romantic image of the torc, the “twist of gold” of the title. I just couldn’t swallow the idea that a destitute family in Famine times, however elevated their ancestry, might have a torc — essentially an archaeological artifact dating to the Iron Age — as a family heirloom. Conlon-McKenna’s hidden treasures of a dress and shawl, or the gold coin, gift of a sympathetic soldier in The Coldest Winter, which can be sold for food, are far more believable props in their respective stories.

pilling_black harvestAnn Pilling’s Black Harvest is flawed in its representation of Irish speech: Irish people do begin sentences with sure, and they do say so it is, but not in the syntactical patterns in which British writer Pilling uses these phrases. These occasional linguistic lapses can be overlooked, however, in view of the book’s strengths. Set in modern times, it is about a family of English children who come on holiday to Ireland and (literally) unearth a Famine story. Their holiday house is built on the site of a Famine grave, and the family is gripped by a terrifying haunting, the modern children not only seeing ghosts but actually living out the horrors of the Famine in their own bodies. The Famine myth is cleverly interwoven with the modern story, and the distance created by this device, and by the use of a cast of English characters looking in from the outside, is in complete contrast to the almost unavoidable sentimentality of novels set directly in Famine times, without lessening the emotional impact. This is a tense and engaging novel, drawing the reader in by powerful plotting and well-maintained suspense, as well as interesting conflicts among the child protagonists. Of all the novels discussed, it is the one most likely to be enjoyed by boys: it is a true adventure story with elements also of the horror and mystery story, and the emotions that are engaged are curiosity and fear, and only ultimately empathy.

The Coldest Winter by Elizabeth Lutzeier is published by two separate publishers in Britain and in Ireland, a fairly unusual (though not unique) arrangement. Whatever its nationality, The Coldest Winter is, in my view, far and away the finest of the Famine novels for children. Like almost all the books discussed, it works generally within rather than against the received myth (though, as in Morpurgo’s novel, there is a sympathetic soldier character), but in that framework, the characters are much more richly developed and the story is more complex, sophisticated, and resonant than in Under the Hawthorn Tree or even The Hungry Wind. It is a warm, convincing, and at times almost unbearably moving story of a family’s desperate search for food, work, money, etc., while trying to maintain their dignity. Though it shares mythic structures with almost all the Famine novels, there is no sense that Lutzeier (in spite of her ancestral connections with Ireland) is setting out to re-create a mythic Ireland for her readers.

Book jackets, though hardly the responsibility of their authors, are most revealing about the cultural messages their publishers wish to convey in the marketplace where the books are sold. The jackets of Irish Famine books that are aimed at an American or international market (whether or not they originate in the U.S.) tend to show well-fed and clearly modern children in Laura Ingalls Wilder–style clothing, images that are not remotely in keeping with the Irish Famine and that reflect a sanitized, theme-park approach to history, as also do the books’ contents in many cases. Nory Ryan’s Song certainly falls into this category, though Knockabeg has a surprisingly credible cover image, showing a convincingly Irish if regrettably sturdy child in front of a thatched cottage (pity about the stardust). Donald Teskey’s cover illustration for the original Irish edition of Under the Hawthorn Tree was far more appropriate than the cover that was used on the U.S. edition of that novel — surely a case of an American publisher deliberately choosing to reject a realistic portrayal of Irish Famine children in favor of one that would meet the approval of American book-buyers. The current cover (also by Teskey), which is now used on both sides of the Atlantic, is a more convincing depiction of children of the time and place. The latest Irish edition of The Coldest Winter features a wonderful cover illustration of a stylized landscape with equally stylized, attenuated figures, worked in glowing embroidery by Aileen Johnston.

Although Irish-written novels certainly have the advantage of being able to take the culture completely for granted, it does seem to be, at least from this short survey, the Famine novels by British-based
writers — outsiders, presumably, to both Irish and Irish-American culture — that are able to move most resolutely beyond the requirements of both the national myth and the history syllabus. Anyone, of course, may write about the Great Irish Famine, and it looks (who’d have thought it?) as if it is the Old
Enemy who does it best. Well, as the narrator of Knockabeg might have said, there’s a thing!


Siobhán Parkinson is an Irish writer of children’s fiction and is editor of the quarterly Inis — The Children’s Books Ireland Magazine (formerly Children’s Books in Ireland). Her latest novel, The Love Bean, has recently been published by O’Brien Press.

From the November/December 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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