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The Cultural Effects of the Famine

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The cultural effects of the Famine
kevin whelan
This chapter shows how the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852 was the sin-
gle most important event in Ireland in the modern period. In European
terms, famine had become an increasingly remote event, and that Ire-
land should suffer a devastating episode was made all the more unusual
in that it then formed part of the richest, most powerful and centralised
state in the world the United Kingdom created by the Act of Union in
1800. The Famine disproportionately impacted on the 3 million potato-
dependent people who comprised the notoriously poverty-stricken base
of Irish society. These effects were compounded by doctrinaire govern-
ment policies, designed as much to appease British opinion and to pro-
mote social engineering as to alleviate poverty or save lives. Over 1 million
people died and 2 million more emigrated within a decade: the pop-
ulation of the island halved by 1900, the result of endemic emigra-
tion by young people, delayed marriages and abnormally high rates of
The Famine therefore marked a watershed in many areas of Irish life
demographics, economics, society, culture. Yet the immediate response
appears sluggish. Indubitably, Ireland remained culturally comatose in
the immediate post-Famine period. The period from the 1880s, when
the post-Famine generation took over, witnessed the creation of a series
of radical responses to the Famine legacy, of which the Irish literary
revival is one. Many other initiatives were also undertaken, inspired
by people themselves born during the Famine. The best-known exam-
ples include Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League in 1879, and
Michael Cusack, founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. They
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138 Kevin Whelan
belonged to a generation that sought to reshape Ireland in fundamen-
tal ways following the Famine and the hollowing-out of indigenous Irish
Inthischapter,Iexplore a sequence of these responses the devotional
revolution, the decline of the caoineadh (keen), dance and hurling and
discuss these in the context of the memory of the Famine. I conclude with
an exploration of the concept of radical memory. The devotional revo-
lution is a term used by historians to describe the startling transforma-
tion within Irish Catholicism that occurred within a generation of the
Famine. An entirely revamped religious practice hardened into a power-
fuland rigid cultural formation that essentially remained intact for overa
century,only slowly dissolving from the 1960s onwards. While most com-
mentators describe this cultural formation as ‘traditional’ Irish Catholi-
cism, it was in fact a new form, which belongs to modernising rather than
archaic forces within Irish society, and which was dependent on the cul-
turalcarnage ofthe Faminefor its emergence. Commentaries that neglect
this deeper history in favour of a foreshortened version run serious risks
of distortion and shallowness.
A more specific account of the cultural changes induced by the Famine
can be provided by looking at the fortunes of the caoineadh (keen), the
demise of which demonstrates the drastically altered status of Irish
women and of oral culture in post-Famine Ireland. Both dance and
sport also witnessed dramatic changes in the last quarter of the nine-
teenth century, changes which could readily be slotted into an ‘invention
of tradition’ model. However, in Ireland these inventions offer radical
rather than conservative possibilities, sharply distinguishing Irish cul-
tural practice at this time from elsewhere in Europe. The concept of rad-
ical memory provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding
these processes. The larger point is that it is dangerous to simply import
models generated from the historical experience of other cultures and to
apply them unmodified to the Irish scene. This is especially the case when
these models originate from metropolitan and imperial cultures.
The devotional revolution
The Famine accelerated the transformation of the Catholic church in Ire-
land. In the pre-Famine period, a vernacular Catholicism had established
deep roots among those social formations that the Famine would deci-
mate. This vernacular inheritance evolved organically within an agrarian
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The cultural effects of the Famine 139
society, its ritual rhythm dominated by calendar custom and inhabit-
ing a numinous landscape of holy wells and pilgrimage sites like Croagh
Patrick and Lough Derg. In this cultural matrix, behaviour was regulated
by custom and tradition: central religious events were the rites of passage
and communal occasions that included the pattern, wake and station.
The trauma of the Famine, the associated decline of vernacular religion
and popular culture and the erosion of the Irish language created a cul-
tural vacuum that was filled by the more ritualistic practices associated
with the devotional revolution the institutionalisation of mass-going,
new devotional practices such as novenas, forty-hour devotions and the
exposition of the host.
Thisdevotionalrevolutionwas made possible by a formidable increase
in plant and personnel and a tightening of internal discipline, which in
turn acted as the basis of a transformation in popular religious practice.
A surge in mass attendance, an increasingly exhibitionist architectural
display and a stricter social discipline were all part of the revolution. Irish
Catholicism became more public, more assertive, more Roman in charac-
ter, as the institutional church eclipsed its vernacular predecessor. The
devotional revolution therefore represented the triumph of a canonical
belief-system over older informalities. Its success was seen in the spread
of churches, convents, schools, orphanages and hospitals. Irish Catholi-
cismbecame a crucial bearer of order and identity in a nineteenth-century
world of unprecedented flux, accelerated by the devastatingimpact of the
Famine and selective emigration. These simultaneously obliterated the
demographic base of vernacular Catholicism in the Irish poor and fatally
weakened the older particularistic cultural formations rooted in the Irish
The devastation wreaked by the Famine strengthened the church’s
hand in imposing its modernising crusade. Catholicism invaded the
vacated cultural space and solved an identity crisis by offering a pow-
erful surrogate language of symbolic identity in which Irishness and
‘Catholicism’ were seen as reciprocal and congruent. The symbiosis of
‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ was strengthened, and religion articulated an artifi-
cial, symbolic language of identity to replace the living one being swept
away by famine, emigration and jolting socio-cultural transformations.
The institutional Catholic church could also take advantage of the more
homogenised post-Famine social structure, as the pre-Famine potato
people the bruscair an bhaile (or trash of the town, as one Catholic
shopkeeper in pre-Famine Ireland put it) with their vigorous popular
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140 Kevin Whelan
culture, were decimated and demoralised. The church injected a new
social discipline of respectability.
Agrowing political rapprochement with nationalist politicians
cemented an unusually cohesive marriage of church and nation. These
developments were stiffened by the post-Famine institutionalisation of
the church and by the surge of self-confidence it got from involvement
in the creation of an Irish Catholic spiritual empire overseas. The new
Irish identity was exported to the Irish diaspora, making Irish Catholi-
cism an epiphyte on empire in the English-speaking world. At the First
Vatican Council of 186770, 30 per cent of the 730 bishops were either
Irish or of Irish descent. The novelist, Canon Sheehan, noted in 1881:
Wherever the mightier race has gone, the weaker race has followed and
established a spiritual empire coterminous with that political empire.’1
The College of All Hallows, established to educate missionaries in 1842,
had 1,500 alumni by 1900. By the 1880s, the Christian Brothers operated
in China and in Calcutta and the Loreto Sisters in Madras. The Society of
African Missions was founded in 1877. These global pretensions within
Irish Catholicism intensified markedly after the founding of the Free
State. The Maynooth Mission to China (established in 1911, with its Col-
lege built in 1918) extended to the Philippines in 1929, to Korea in 1933,
and to Burma in 1936. The Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Rosary
(ministering in Nigeria) were founded in 1924, followed by the Medical
Missionaries of Mary (also based in Nigeria) in 1937. By 1964, there were
over 6,000 Irish missionaries. A heroic historiography also allowed Irish
Catholicism to envisage itself as the historical, psychic and functional
core of the Irish experience, thereby seamlessly linking itself with the
national identity.
In Ireland, as population fell, the number of clergy rose. By the early
twentieth century, the Irish priestpeople ratio, at 1:1,100, was the low-
est in the world. Between 1800 and 1900, the number of nuns increased
from 120 to 8,000. This vocational surge also ensured the marginalisa-
tion of the laity within the power structures of the church itself, even at
atime when that laity was becoming more pious. By 1861, only 146 peo-
ple (including deists and atheists) claimed to have no religious affiliation.
In post-Famine Ireland, religious affiliation increasingly became a surro-
gate for national identity as the effective agent of communal solidarity.
Linked to a shared experience of marginalisation, this clerical-nationalist
alliance could also transcend and neutralise class division as a basis of
political action.
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The cultural effects of the Famine 141
The keen
Afurther result of the Famine was to alter the Gaelic tradition of grieving
the dead. The high mortality rate made people callous towards death. In
these appalling circumstances, death itself or at least its social signif-
icance died. Talking about the demise of the caoineadh,anobserver in
Clare noted that ‘especially since the Famine of 1848, the practice has not
been much in use. The innumerable deaths which at that time had daily
taken place, together with the hunger and destitution which prevailed
throughout the country deprived the people in fact of that natural feel-
ing and regard which they were wont to have for the dead.’2
WhileGaelic culture was still vibrant and intact, two styles of caoineadh
coexisted. One was formal and literary, composed retrospectively, utilis-
ing a long line containing a regular number of natural speech stresses.3
These intricate and sophisticated compositions (like the celebrated
eighteenth-century lament poem Caoineadh Airt U´ıLaoghaire)were a val-
ued component of the Gaelic repertoire, with a venerable literary geneal-
ogy. The second style of caoineadh was more informal, improvised and
extempore, using a restricted metre with one stress per line.4By the mid
nineteenth century, the literary tradition had almost entirely collapsed,
and the oral caoineadh was all that survived.
The caoineadh furnished formal and public acknowledgements of
women’s responsibility for the ceremonies of death as well as for birth.
It functioned as a transition ceremony, a cathartic, therapeutic theatreof
death, which explored both the emotional experience of loss and the nec-
essary continuity of the surviving community. The carnival quality of the
wake wasaprecise response to this liminal ambiguity. Far from being the
‘wild and inarticulate uproar’ heard by outsiders, the caoineadh was struc-
tured, rhythmic and orchestrated, utilising iterative procedures drawn
from a rich formulaic repertoire, composed in performance and adhering
to strict metre. While the pre-existing compositional vocabulary struc-
tured it, there was flexibility of improvisation within it.
Because the caoineadh waspre-eminently a woman’s genre, it could
code gendered rhetorics of resistance within the mourning formalities.
It could also give a direct voice to marital strife and conflicts between
kin groups, precisely because the wake brought the two families together
physically, and because the shock of death exposed or released raw emo-
tional states. Exchanges between priests and women-keeners are fre-
quently recorded. While robust exchanges between poets and priests
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142 Kevin Whelan
were frequent in the eighteenth century, there wasa deal of intimacy and
respectbetween thetwo in the Gaelictradition. However,once the church
began to distance itself from the tradition and once the devotional rev-
olution took hold, a new sense of distance between priests and people
emerged. Because it was women’s work and rooted in a vernacular cul-
ture of expression and structure of feeling, the caoineadh wasopposed by
the institutional church.
If the keen was anathema to a modernising, institutional church
determined on obliterating its vernacular competitor, it also occupied a
prominent position in British attacks on Gaelic culture, as a consistent
signifier of Ireland’s cultural and political incivility. In one account, the
keen is compared to ‘the counterfeit and barbarous clamour of howling
savages that would disgrace the funeral of a Hottentot or the obsequies
of a native of Otaheite [Tahiti]’.5The keen was thus assessed as a bar-
baric mark of primitivism, an animal howl inhabiting the ambiguous
borderlands between nature and culture; a sinister sound which embod-
ied the strange danger of Irish emotion in all its raw and violent excess.
Its affront to the canon of polite taste was all the more unsettling in that
it had a formulaic, ritualistic and even professional dimension (in the
case of keening women). This affect was heightened by the keen’s the-
atrical performance of emotion, which signified Gothic Catholic excess
as opposed to Protestant privacy and inwardness in response to grief.
The shocking coexistence within the wake of laughter and lament, of a
wildly oscillating emotional register, came to signal Celtic inconsistency,
the lack of the fully formed, regulated, rational personality of civil Anglo-
Saxon society.
This ethical critique focused obsessively on the mouth, the vector
of oral culture, insistently envisaged as lax and unstable the site of
drunkenness, sedition and the excessive emotion of the keen. Hence
arose the concern to impose the Kantian hierarchy of the sense to
promote the distantiated and objectifying eye and ear in place of the
profligate immediacy, the inferior taste of the mouth. The anglicisation
of Ireland in the nineteenth century required a reordering of the Irish
senses, the acquisition of the stiff upper lip in place of raucous loose talk.
This newly disciplined Irish body could then participate in the forma-
tion of a new ethical subject rational, self-interested and above all con-
sistent. The overlap of the political and emotional economy is nowhere
so transparent as in this discourse. In her convent boarding school at
Bruff in CountyLimerick, Sissy O’Brien was struck by the nuns’ emphasis
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The cultural effects of the Famine 143
on strict silence, believing that she and her classmates would have been
‘lively and joyous, but for incessant repression and the haunting fear of
breaking rules, especially of breaking silence’.6
Dance and its transformations
In a culture of poverty, body language could offer joyous liberation, an
exuberant display of flamboyant theatricality lifting out of the material
world. Dancing became a cultural statement, the somatic and kinetic
intelligence of which blended into a richly expressive vernacular art. The
accomplished traditional dancer rode the rhythm, consummately mas-
tering the movement. But s/he also oscillated along the porous bound-
ary between respect for tradition and an assertive individuality. For the
spectators, the attraction was the expressive tension between tradition
and the individual talent; the dancer, bound to the strictly prescribed
music, could also innovate within and against it. Where male and female
danced together, there was also sexual theatre expressed through the
heavier ‘hit’ of the male dancer (culminating in the ‘batter’, heavy rhyth-
mic drumming with the full foot), counterpoised against the quicker,
buoyant step of the female performer. In the crowded social settings of
pre-Famine Ireland, the challenge and the spectacle was heightened by
the rigid limitations of space. The rich pre-Famine repertoire of Irish
dances involved the creative interplay between indigenous and exoge-
nous forms, resulting in popular hybrids like the ‘sets’ and ‘reels’ (an
Irish adaptation of the continental ‘quadrille’). The itinerant dancing
masters customised these new forms, translating them into a popular
idiom and then propagated them in their newly standardised forms
through their itinerant teaching circuit. Dance was a malleable, inher-
ently portable art form that could easily transfer from one place to
The Catholic church turned against the robust tradition of dance,
becauseit could be free, intoxicating, spontaneousand sexual.It involved
close encounters between male and female and could occur in unregu-
lated spaces, like public houses and at cross-roads. Dance belonged to
the participants without mediators or masters. The church moved to
domesticate its wilder energies and to control the time and places of per-
formance. This occurred simultaneously with the increasing dominance
of industrial time (regulated by the clock) over agrarian time (regulated
by the daily and seasonal cycle). In the post-Famine period, the dance
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144 Kevin Whelan
tradition was leached of its vitality, exuberance and hybridity; like the
hedge schoolmaster, the dancing master was inexorably squeezed out as
the churches increasingly frowned on their activities.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a remarkable transforma-
tion occurred in Irish dance, spearheaded by Fion ´
an MacColuim.7
MacColuim, a clerk in the India Office in London, fitted the classic pro-
file of a nationalist intellectual. Active in the Gaelic League in London,
he was struck by the lack of a social dimension to the language move-
ment, especially as compared with the vigorous Scots c´eilithe nights he
saw in the city. Imitating the Scots model, he organised the first Irish
c´eil´ıat Bloomsbury Hall in London in 1897. MacColuim was perturbed,
however, by the lack of variety in the Irish dances, and by the absence
of large-scale, rapidly moving dances, covering the entire floor space
of a hall that could involve everybody as participants rather than as
spectators. He then met an old Sliabh Luachra dancing master, Patrick
Reidy, who introduced him to a more extensive repertoire of Irish dances.
Thus encouraged, MacColuim accompanied Reidy on a collecting trip to
Ireland drawn inevitably to Reidy’s native ground in Kerry, but also
attracted to the county as a bastion of ‘pure’ or literary Irish (as opposed
to the patois of Connemara, or the deplorably Scots-tainted Donegal
dialect). Thus, the ‘Highlanders’, ‘Lancers’ and ‘Flings’ of Donegal and
the sean-n ´
os (old style) dance style of Connemara were rejected in favour
of a Munster-based canon of Irish dance, just as ‘Munster’ Irish was
promoted as the canonical dialect by the (Munster-dominated) Gaelic
This new canon of Irish dance involved a number of principles.
Invented group dances like ‘The Walls of Limerick’ and ‘The Siege of
Ennis’ were adapted as ideal for large social occasions, because they
involved large numbers and traversed the whole floor (unlike the tradi-
tional style, which valued the ability to ‘dance on a sixpence’ in tightly
restricted domestic space). The stepping style was simplified and rigid-
ified to eliminate the vulgar batter (seen as English clog dancing in dis-
guise) and to curtail flamboyance (as in the theatrical arm-flailing of the
Connemara style). The tempo of the music was also slowed, to create a
more stately, refined style. The distaste for the batter was also because
of its raw male sexual libido, an insistent theatrical performance of mas-
culinity, displayed in covert competition with other males.
These developments were linked to the movement away from
‘house’ and ‘cross-roads’ dances to hall-based c´eilis,amoveapproved and
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The cultural effects of the Famine 145
promoted by the Catholic clergy, and culminating in the Dance Hall Act
of 1935. This effectively outlawed house dances (allegedly on hygiene
grounds, more accurately on moral hygiene grounds). Hall settings could
be much more tightly supervised, as opposed to house dances espe-
cially once the car introduced a new form of mobility for what Cardi-
nal MacRory in 1931 saw as urban sexual predators unsuitables from
adistance’. The Carrigan Commission of 1931 attributed great moral per-
ils to ‘the opportunities afforded by the misuse of motor cars for luring
girls’. The impact of the 1935 Act was draconian, making it practically
impossible to hold dances without the sanction of the trinity of clergy,
police and judiciary. Both the setting as well as the style of the new
Irish dances acted to dampen down sexuality. The invented dance style
waspurposely asexual, involving minimal physical contact, as opposed
to the full-blooded, full-frontal engagement of, for example, the tradi-
tional sets. This evolution from passion to pallor, from erotic to neu-
rotic, almost buried the existing forms. Increasingly, and predictably,the
new form appealed most to pre-pubescent children, a development aided
by the Gaelic League-sponsored dancing schools in the 1920s. This had
three repercussions: insistence on Irish language competence as a prereq-
uisite for teaching excluded the last of the old-style dancing masters; a
competitive element was introduced which increasingly confined danc-
ing to the stage rather than the dance floor; a new costume-culture was
invented, elaborately ‘Celtic’ in style, making the children look as if they
had been ‘bespattered by the Book of Kells’8(while an added refinement
of pinning on medals won in competition gave them the incongruous
look of retired field marshals).
The writing of Irish cultural history has tended to focus excessively on
high culture, usually from a political perspective. Historians mesmerised
by high politics and literary scholars preoccupied by the high deeds of
Yeats and Joyce have spared little time to researching the broader cultural
dynamic of sport within Irish culture. In this section, I take the example
of hurling in an effort to write sport back into cultural history and try to
broaden and deepen the appropriate contexts in which to consider the
role of sport in post-Famine Ireland.
By the eighteenth century, there were two principal and regionally
distinct versions of hurling. ‘Commons’ was akin to the modern Scottish
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146 Kevin Whelan
game of shinty: it did not allow handling of the ball which was wooden
and hard; it used a narrow-bladed crooked stick. A winter game, it was
played by both Presbyterians and Catholics and it was confined to the
northern third of the island, especially Antrim, Derry and Donegal. B´
or iom ´
an, the second version, was by contrast a summer game of south-
ern provenance. The soft animal hair ball (the sliotar) could be handled
or carried on the hurl, which was flat and round headed. Unlike ‘com-
mons’, this version was extensively patronised by the landed gentry as
aspectator and gambling sport. The gentry formed and captained the
teams, issued the challenges, supplied the hurling greens and supervised
the matches. These gentry hurlers were especially active in Cork, Tip-
perary, Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway. This game required level, well-
drained pitches of the type especially found in limestone areas which also
produced abundant ash, the best material for making hurls.
Landlord patronage was essential to the southern game. But the
impact of the French Revolution, which sharpened class and political
divides, and the spread of metropolitan behavioural norms, eroded the
landlords’ local loyalties. The Famine also accelerated the decline of
hurling from its mid-eighteenth-century heyday, when the game had
been sponsored by the landed gentry. Post-1798, the gentry withdrew
their patronage and the game degenerated into crudity. A modernising
Catholic middle class abandoned the game as an embarrassing vestige
of a past from which they wished to distance themselves. This mod-
ernising thrust was also aided by the impact of Fr Matthew’s temper-
ance campaign, whose ‘moral revolution’ (as described by the German
traveller Johan Georg Kohl in 1842) seconded O’Connell’s political one.
Both stressed the utilitarian, progressive strand of the Enlightenment,
and both were hostile to popular culture and to non-respectable forms of
After the Famine, faced with both gentry and Catholic disap-
proval, the game survived precariously in three isolated pockets: in
east Galway (the GortArdrahanKinvara area), around Cork city (the
AglishCarrigaline area) and north of Wexford harbour (the Blackwater
SkreenCastlebridge area). This precipitous collapse had other causes
besides the Famine. In the late 1830s, commentators in Killarney
and Kilkenny recorded the explicit hostility of Catholic priests to the
game. Attacks on the game by anglicising Catholic clergy, by sab-
batudinarians and by magistrates who feared its crowd-gathering and
therefore subversive potential contributed to the sharp decline. This
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The cultural effects of the Famine 147
formed part of the rapid anglicisation of Irish culture in the sec-
ond quarter of the nineteenth century, which saw the Catholic mid-
dle classes engaging in a precipitate retreat from vernacular cultural
forms, a retreat conducted at a break-neck speed unprecedented in
nineteenth-century Europe. Lacking support and controlling influ-
ence, the games disintegrated, allowing priests to demonise them as
immoral and disreputable displays of atavism, occasions of violence,
drunkenness and the promiscuous mingling of the sexes. The oppro-
brious term cail´ın b ´
aire (hurling girl) evolved to mean a girl of loose
morals. Thus, in hurling, as with faction fights, patterns, wakes, the
keen, the priests intervened to quell robust expressions of vernacular
Police and magistrates also intervened. The veteran Fenian Jeremiah
O’Donovan Rossa claimed that magistrates forbade hurling and that he
had personally witnessed police setting out to halt a match.9To this trin-
ity of landlord, parish priest and policeman could be added the figure of
the strong farmer, as the key agent who sounded the death knell of hurl-
ing. The game did not die; it was killed. The Young Irelander Michael
Doheny noted how the game was ‘fast dying away’ and identified cler-
ical distrust as a first cause. But he then identified a second, and more
important factor: ‘the disinclination of the farmers to allow the hurling
ontheir grazing lands’.10 As the socially respectable withdrewthemselves
from participation, the game was kept alive by boys and the very poor.
Because meadows were increasingly unavailable, the game was literally
squeezed out into the roadside (where it assumed the dangerous form
of road hurling) or into the coarse countryside (where it declined into
scuaib´ın,arough and tumble cross-country scramble, devoid of the grace,
skill and discipline of its elegant predecessor).
It is against this vacuum that the work of Michael Cusack and the
Gaelic Athletic Association should be set. It fits the scenario envis-
aged by Miroslav Hroch for the development of risorgimento national-
ism. This involveda tripartite sequence: initially recuperation of national
identity (history, language, folklore); then, the progressive reworking
of this by ideologists of nationalism and; finally, the transition from
cultural revival to political demands.11 A national community must be
nurtured, its identity carefully recuperated out of the shards of his-
tory, language and folklore. This new cultural vocabulary had then to
be inserted into a grammar of political action. In its redefined form,
national culture could be harnessed to political demands. This sequence
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148 Kevin Whelan
required a number of social processes to underpin it: an increase in
the number of educated people (facilitated in Ireland by the National
School system); a dislocation in the settled sedentary culture (in Ireland,
the Famine and a traumatic language shift); a rise in mass commu-
nications (the penetration of print culture is a logistical imperative);
and cheap transport which made popular mobilisation possible (in Ire-
land, the railway system and the newspaper). If these social processes
combined with a political tendency towards the eclipse of empire, then
cultural nationalism is empowered. Janus-headed, it simultaneously
homogenised (stressing the unity of the Irish people) and differentiated
(stressing their distinctiveness from the British people). Nationalism
became a classifying protocol, which reordered relationships between
While cultural nationalism underpinned the GAA at a macro-level, a
more pragmatic concern with codification did so at a micro-level. The
Victorian period was the great era of sports codification, both in the reg-
ulation of existing sports (Australian rules football in 1858, the English
FootballAssociation in 1863, the Queensberry rules in boxing in 1865) and
in the creation of new ones (Lawn Tennis in 1873, basketball in 1891). Ini-
tially, an English phenomenon based around the public schools, codifi-
cation was rapidly exported to the empire and to the anglophone world.
Codification eased the transition in sporting forms from rural to urban,
participating to spectating, and recreational to competitive. The rise of
mass spectator sports for urban consumption was facilitated by enhanced
spending power, the associated commercialisation of leisure, improved
communication networks and the invention of the weekend. Codifica-
tion also linked to a new rhetoric of high moral purpose of character
building, the cult of masculinity and of racial stereotyping. This led to
asustained effort to organise and then control working-class sport and
to develop ‘national’ games. Baseball in the USA, rugby in New Zealand,
soccer in England and Australian Rules football in Australia emerged
almost simultaneously as national games.
Cusack explicitly visualised Gaelic games as a disciplined perfor-
mance of Irish masculinity, a calculated corrective to the Victorian car-
icature of the Irishman as a slouched simian brute, comic caperer or
childlike innocent. The robust physicality of the games symbolised and
performed a fully-developed masculine character, a recovery of the male
body from its emasculated and emaciated Famine forms. Cusack believed
that the post-Famine Irish male had internalised ‘degeneracy’. The body
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The cultural effects of the Famine 149
itself was now reinscribed politically and made explicit as a site of
renewal and rectification. The Gaelic male specifically rejected corpo-
real colonialism, reshaping an Irish body politic as an antidote to dehu-
manisation, degeneracy and depoliticisation. The concepts of discipline,
organisation, tactics and self-control associated with the games strength-
ened military potential as powerful enactments of tactical solidarities,
patriotism and political muscle.
Cusack’s organisation of Gaelic games fits neatly into the wider evo-
lution of European cultural nationalism and of the sports codification
movement. The genius of Cusack was the welding of these two strands
together in an Irish context. He realised that the initial momentum
behind sports codification in Ireland was emanating from Trinity Col-
lege and the Dublin public schools, and infiltrating the boat clubs, rugby,
hurling, athletics and cricket. In an era of the six-day working week,
the refusal to sanction games on Sunday was inevitably construed as an
anti-Catholic and anti-working-class manoeuvre, as was the insistence
on the ‘gentleman amateur’ ethos (patently modelled on English prece-
dents) which refused participationto ‘mechanics’ and ‘labourers’. Cusack
realised the need for a game for the Irish rural poor and especially the
labourer class; hurling and football could emancipate the small man
from the tyranny of the existing athletic clubs and thereby help in erod-
ing paternalism.
The shrewd application of the principle of territoriality was a crucial
element in the GAA’s success. The GAA met national and social needs
while retaining the territorial allegiances which imparted cohesion and
emotional solidarity to Irish rural life. Similar forces of territoriality have
been identified behind the success of rugby in the Welsh villages, cricket
in the West Indies,12 and rugby league in Yorkshire and Lancashire. In
Ireland, the games spread with astonishing rapidity. There were over
1,000 clubs by 1890 and the GAA is acknowledged by sports historians as
the most speedily and extensively established sporting organisation in
the world. In the absence of Cusack’s intervention, hurling might now
be an antiquarian footnote or a furtive survivor, like road bowls or cock
From its inception in 1884, the GAA found itself in an intensely com-
petitive relationship with other sports, notably rugby and athletics. Cod-
ificationwas deployed on an inter-sport, competitive principle.The 1880s
wasthe pre-eminent decade of codification of cricket, golf and ten-
nis, for example, when permanent sporting organisations and grounds
052182009Xc08.xml CU1842B-Cleary August 27, 2004 14:15
150 Kevin Whelan
were established. The notorious GAA ‘Ban’ on participating in other
sportsevolvedin this context.13 Initially non-political, its aim was to force
players to declare their sole allegiance to the GAA for affiliation fees,
strengthening the fragile financial base of the game. It was only later and
secondarily that the ‘Ban’ acquired its political purposes, before it was
finally rescinded in 1971.
Cusack and his GAA backers also used the game as a nationalising
idiom, a symbolic language of identity filling the void created by angli-
cisation. It had therefore to be sharply fenced off in organisational terms
from competing ‘anglicised’ sports like cricket, soccer and rugby. Thus,
from the beginning, the revived game had a nationalist veneer, its rules
bristling like a porcupine with protective nationalist quills on which
its perceived opponents would have to impale themselves. Its principal
backers were those already active in the nationalist political culture of the
time.Its spread depended on the active support of an increasingly nation-
alist Catholic middle class. Gaelic games received their greatest support
from those active in nationalist politics, especially the Irish Republican
Brotherhood (the Fenians). Gaelic games were a crucial conduit to that
mass backing which increasingly gave cultural nationalism its demo-
cratic mandate.
The spread of the new game also depended on the active support
of an increasingly nationalist Catholic middle class. The GAA’s social
base came especially from journalists, schoolteachers, clerks, priests and
publicans, the social constituency behind cultural nationalism across
nineteenth-century Europe. Thus hurling’s early success was in south
Leinster and east Munster, the same region which powered popular
nationalistmovements like DanielO’Connell’s campaign, the Devotional
Revolution in Irish Catholicism, Fr Matthew’s temperance campaign, the
Fenians, and the take-over of local government. The GAA was a classic
example of the radical conservatism of this region conservative in its
ethos and ideology, radical in its techniques of organisation and mobil-
isation. The spread of hurling can be closely matched to the spread of
other radical conservative movements of this period, notably the diffu-
sion of the indigenous Catholic teaching orders and the spread of coop-
erative dairying.
Framed in a longer time perspective which embraces the eighteenth
century, the game of hurling represents a textbook example of Peter
Burke’s model of the relationship between European ´
elites and vernac-
ular cultures. The model of ´
elite participation in popular culture is a
052182009Xc08.xml CU1842B-Cleary August 27, 2004 14:15
The cultural effects of the Famine 151
threefold process: first immersion, then withdrawal and finally rediscov-
ery, invariably by an educated ´
elite, and often with a nationalist agenda.
‘Rediscovery’ involved an invention of tradition, creating a packaged,
homogenised and idealised popular culture. The relationship of hurling
and the newly established GAA in the 1880s shows this third phase with
textbook clarity. Looked at in this way, hurling can be envisaged as a clas-
sic example of ‘the invention of tradition’, but with the crucial distinc-
tion that its invention was deployed for radical rather than conservative
purposes, in constructing the nation as an imagined community. That
national consciousness itself had to be imagined, or constructed, and
then disseminated. In Ireland, it has been fashionable to denigrate the
fabricating impulse in that construction; it is equally valid to celebrate
its creativity and emancipatory potential, a creativity evident in Cusack’s
magnificent obsession. Joyce’s focus in Ulysses on Cusack’s Cyclopean fix-
ity relates to the later and embittered man when the initial creativity had
hardened into the sclerotic institutional structures of the GAA, overseen
by its first generation of professional administrators.
In this achievement, hurling became a resonant symbolic language,
speaking from the space voided by the brutal dissolution inflicted on ver-
nacular forms by the Famine. If the games became a classic example of the
invention of tradition, the really significant question becomes not how,
but against what was it invented? In the Irish case, the invention of tra-
dition was also an inversion, seeking to redress the bruising encounter
with colonialism, with its persistent hollowing effect on indigenous cul-
ture. In contrast to the conservative orientation of arguments centred on
the invention of tradition in Victorian Britain, memory in Ireland was
deployed for radical political purposes: a spur to agency, rather than a
prop to passivity.
Conclusion: radical memory
As we can see in all of these case studies, the recourse to the past in Ire-
land was deployed for radical political purposes. This stands in contrast
to the conservative orientation of arguments centred on the invention of
tradition in Victorian Britain. Cultural memory in the hands of activists
like Cusack and Davitt acted as a spur to agency rather than a prop to
passivity; they deployed the past in a radical way to challenge the present
andreshape the future, to restore into possibility historical moments that
had been blocked or unfulfilled earlier.14 There is more in the past than
052182009Xc08.xml CU1842B-Cleary August 27, 2004 14:15
152 Kevin Whelan
simply what happened; at any given point in time, multiple trajectories
towards the future are open. Radical memory in the post-Famine period
deployeda prospective rather than anelegiac nostalgia, a nostalgia for the
future, not the past. This dialogue of cultural memory and expectation
keeps alive the memory of suffering and defeat against the obliterative
force of the victors’ narrative. Radical memory opens a space for a coun-
terpoint history. These post-Famine projects in their diverse ways treat
history as rememorative, seeking to write back in that which had been
erased or submerged. ‘Rememoration’, a term invented by Toni Morri-
son, displays an acute awareness that ‘the act of imagination is bound up
with memory’ and that individual memory and social memory are inex-
tricably linked.
The most alert and engaged cultural thinkers of the postFamine gen-
eration differentiated between two modes of memory: an individualist,
self-obsessed, disabling one, which internalises damage as melancholia,
and a culturally induced enabling form, which seeks wider explanations
and political strategies. The second approach allows for legitimate trans-
lation from the personal to the public sphere, while avoiding the inter-
nalisation of damaging notions of fate, destiny and providence, all of
which had wreaked enormous damage during the Famine, by encourag-
ing political passivity. The second form of public memory accepts respon-
sibility for the past and historicises memory; by doing so, it restores
agency and prevents the slide of memory into nationalist nostalgia. In
that way, it radicalises historicism.
This redemptive model of radical memory must also continue to
acknowledge the irredeemable losses that lie at the core of historical
injustice, loss so absolute as to be beyond redemption, as has been power-
fully argued in the case of the slave trade, the Shoah or the Irish Famine.
Ahistorical negative space of absolute loss exists, a limit that theory can-
not transgress, that ethics cannot redeem, a disconsolate future that has
lost its past. This is also the realm of contingency and necessity, of Marx’s
piercing aphorism that people make their own history but not in condi-
tions of their own choosing.
1. Patrick Sheehan, ‘The effect of emigration on the Irish church’, Irish Ecclesiastical
Record 3, 3 (1882), 611.
2. Royal Irish Academy, MS 12, Q 13, p. 10.
052182009Xc08.xml CU1842B-Cleary August 27, 2004 14:15
The cultural effects of the Famine 153
3. Breandan ´
O Buachalla, An Caoine agus an Chaointeoireacht (Dublin: Cois Life, 1995);
Breandan ´
OMadag ´
ain (ed.), Gn´eithe den Chaointeoireacht (Dublin: An Cl ´
1978); Sean ´
O Coil ´
ean, ‘The Irish lament. An oral genre’, Studia Hibernica 24 (1984
88), 97117.
4. Angela Bourke, ‘The Irish traditional lament and the grieving process’, Women Stud-
ies International Forum 11 (1988), 28791; Angela Bourke, ‘Performing, not writing’,
Graph 11 (1991), 2831; Angela Bourke, ‘Caoineadh na marbh’, Oghma 4(1992), 311.
5. WexfordHerald,29November 1792.
6. Mary Carbery, The Farm by Lough Gur: The Story of Mary Fogarty (Sissy O’Brien) (London:
Longmans, 1937), p. 100.
7. See Diarmuid Breathnach and Maire N´ıMhurch ´
u, Beathaisneis: 18821982 (Dublin:
An Cl ´
ochomhar, 1986), pp. 379.
8. Iowe this phrase to Eileen Battersby.
9. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Rossa’s Recollections: 1838 to 1898 (New York: Mariner’s
Harbour 1898), p. 203.
10. Michael Doheny, ‘The autobiography of an agitator’, Irish American, 19 February
11. Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditionsof National Revivalin Europe:A ComparativeAnalysis
of theSocial Compositionof PatrioticGroups amongthe Smaller EuropeanNations,trans.Ben
Fowkes (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 6183
12. C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993).
13. The Ban’, as it became known, prevented GAA members on pain of expulsionfrom
participating as players or spectators in ‘foreign games’, notably soccer, rugby and
14. Kevin Whelan, ‘The memories of “The Dead”’, Yale Journal of Criticism 15, 1 (2002),
Further reading
Angela Bourke, ‘More in Anger than in Sorrow: Irish Women’sLament Poetry’ , in Femi-
nist Messages: Codings in Women’s FolkCulture,ed. Joan Radner (Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 16082
Helen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance (Dingle: Brandon, 1999)
Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Temple Smith, 1978)
James Donnelly, The GreatIrish Potato Famine (Sutton: Stroud, 2001)
Tom Hayden (ed.), Irish Hunger: Personal Reflections on the Legacy of the Famine (Dublin:
Wolfhound, 1997)
Kerwin Lee Klein, ‘On the emergence of memory in historical discourse’, in Representa-
tions 69 (2000), 12750
Emmet Larkin, The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism (Washington, DC and Dublin:
Catholic University of America Press and Four Courts Press, 1997)
David Lloyd, ‘Colonial trauma/postcolonial recovery?’, Interventions 2, 2 (2000), 218
David Miller, ‘Mass attendance in Ireland in 1834’, in Piety and Powerin Ireland, 17601960,
ed. Stephen Brown and David Miller (Notre Dame, IN: Universityof Notre Dame
Press, 2000), pp. 15879
Liam O’Caithnia, Sc ´
eal na h-Iom ´
ana ´
OThosachAma go 1884 (Dublin: An Chl ´
052182009Xc08.xml CU1842B-Cleary August 27, 2004 14:15
154 Kevin Whelan
Cormac ´
ada, Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Faminein History, Economy and Memory
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999)
Robert Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine and Emigration (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1995)
Kevin Whelan, ‘The geography of hurling’, History Ireland 1(1993), 27-31
‘The memories of “The Dead”’, Yale Journal of Criticism 15,1(2002),5997
... Different types of travel, ranging from forced emigration to happy holidays, have been a defining part of life in Ireland, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, for centuries. One such momentous global mobility was the emigration in the mid-nineteenth century when two million people had to leave the island because of the Great Famine (Whelan 2005). In the twentieth century this was followed by emigration waves set forth by unemployment (Brown 1985). ...
With its large diaspora, Ireland has a long tradition of travel ranging from emigration to return migration, expatriate visits as well as tourism. Although Irish tourism increased substantially with the climax of the so-called Celtic Tiger in the early 1990s, Ireland was a major tourist destination even before that. This article explores emotions, memory, and nature in images (in travel catalogues and on the internet) advertising Ireland in a global context. The images target Irish expatriates, indigenous tourists, and non-Irish tourists in Europe, the United States, and Australia. Images featuring pastoral landscapes, rural harmony, and dramatic cliffs can be emotionally evocative in different ways, exemplifying people's social relationships to their environment. Central themes in the images are expatriate emotions of displacement, longing, and nostalgia often connected with Irish nationalism while at the same time managing to include non-Irish people. This confirms the notion of images as ambiguous, yet points at the possibility of steering the viewer's attention through captions featuring the concepts of “home” and “our land.” The article also focuses on expatriate emotions that recur in the narrative of Irish travel advertisements in an increasingly globalized world.
Full-text available
The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.1 (2002) 59-97 —Denis Ireland The Great Irish Famine (1845-52) was the single most important event in Ireland in the modern period. Uniquely, a European country suffered a catastrophe which the continent had not endured for centuries. Over one million people died and two million more emigrated within a decade, sending the country into a spiral of demographic decline which it has only recently arrested. Yet it is a commonplace of Irish cultural history to claim that if one looks for a representation of this terrible and defining event, it is impossible to find one adequate to the scale of the catastrophe. It has also often been observed that the Famine is rarely (and then only obliquely) represented in the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, this reading may be superficial, as this essay seeks to demonstrate through a sustained excavation of the historical layers—biographical, literary, historical, geographical, musical—of James Joyce's short story of 1907, "The Dead." One of the chief discoveries of this excavation is the buried history of the Famine embedded at its center. The resonance of "The Dead" and its peculiarly charged language derives from this depth of historical layering, all the more evocative because it is hidden. This story is also set in the period of the Irish Literary Revival, whose origins are conventionally dated to Douglas Hyde's manifesto "On the necessity for de-anglicising the Irish people." "The Dead" may therefore be taken as a work of strategic importance in a consideration of what the Revival was and why modernism was its pre-eminent style. Indubitably, Ireland remained culturally traumatized in the immediate post-Famine period. It is possible to see the cultural revival as a delayed, second-generation effect, inspired by people born during the Famine. The best known examples would be Michael Davitt (1846-1906), founder of the Land League in 1879, and Michael Cusack (1847-1906), founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. Joyce's father, John Stanislaus Joyce, was born in 1849. Joyce himself, born in 1882, belonged to a generation that sought to reshape Ireland in fundamental ways. This reshaping took place in the aftermath of the Famine, which accelerated the hollowing-out of Irish culture. The period from the 1880s, when the post-Famine generation took over, witnessed the creation of an Irish radical memory that sought to escape the baneful binary of modernisation and tradition—the Hegelian view that all that is lost to history is well lost, the Scottish Enlightenment paradigm in which what is sacrificed to progress is retrieved imaginatively as nostalgia. This attitude generated a wistful, rear-mirror view of history where the past stayed firmly in the past, drained of politics and available merely as sentiment. Modernity's nostalgia for its past became a political placebo, sweetening the bitter pill of history and establishing the comfort of distance between past and present. By contrast, radical memory deployed the past to challenge the present, to restore into possibility historical moments that had been blocked or unfulfilled earlier. Violence, not tranquillity, sustained the distinction between modernisation and tradition: "tradition" was not a site of atavism and violence but a defence against a deliberately torn culture, fully exposed to, and unprotected against, the modernist blast. In the Irish case, as in other colonial situations, "tradition" and "custom" were rooted in violence, instability and discontinuity, not anterior or antecedent to modernity, but absolutely implicated in and sustained by it. The "levelled lawns and gravelled clay" of W. B. Yeats were laid over blood: the high monuments of Anglo-Irish culture were brutal petrifications of violence. Davitt used his personal Famine experiences as the spur to undermine that landlordism which he blamed for his predicament:
This book is a revised translation of two works by Miroslav Hroch, which together form a pioneering comparative analysis of the various struggles for national identity in nineteenth-century Europe. It is concerned with the decisive phase of 'national renaissance', when small groups of committed patriots successfully generated mass support. When and why was their propaganda effective? The author attempts to answer this fundamental question by locating the patriots within the contemporary social structure, and uses data derived from many different nationalisms. The work is divided into three sections; a theoretical examination of the origins of nationalism and nation-hood, a quantitative survey of the social and territorial structure of the patriots of eight representative national movements, and a comparative analysis of the social and professional groups that formed the milieu of patriotism. Numerous statistical tables and maps illuminate the text, which forms one of the most significant studies of the nationalist phenomenon to be published in recent years.
“Keening” in English suggests a high-pitched, inarticulate moaning, but the Irish word caoineadh, from which it derives signifies among other things, a highly articulate tradition of women's oral poetry. The lamenting woman led the community in a public display of grief. Acting out in her appearance and behaviour the disorder brought about by death, she was often barefoot and dishevelled. Her caoineadh or lament was a series of breathless utterances of rhymed, rhythmic praise of the dead person (usually a man), and invective against his enemies. In the 20th century Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and others have identified the sequence of emotions which are the necessary components of the grieving process: notably denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. In this paper, texts of caoineadh, mostly from the 18th century, are examined and it is suggested that they embody a disciplined and powerful expression of these stages of mourning.
Performing, not writing
  • Angela Bourke
Angela Bourke, 'Performing, not writing', Graph 11 (1991), 28-31;
The Farm by Lough Gur: The Story of Mary Fogarty
  • Mary Carbery
Mary Carbery, The Farm by Lough Gur: The Story of Mary Fogarty (Sissy O'Brien) (London: Longmans, 1937), p. 100.
Rossa's Recollections: 1838 to 1898
  • O'donovan Jeremiah
  • Rossa
Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, Rossa's Recollections: 1838 to 1898 (New York: Mariner's Harbour 1898), p. 203.
The autobiography of an agitator
  • Michael Doheny
Michael Doheny, 'The autobiography of an agitator', Irish American, 19 February 1859.