The mil­lion who died in the Great Famine were more than just a statistic

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FOOD & DRINK -

he sheer scale of the tragedy that was the Great Famine of­ten ob­scures the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries of those who died. In the open­ing episode of

( RTÉ One, Sun­day), Gráinne Seoige fol­lowed in the foot­steps of the Scot­tish his­to­rian and writer Thomas Car­lyle who toured Ire­land in July 1849. He had no sym­pa­thy for the starv­ing mul­ti­tudes he saw in the work­house or at the side of the road, un­like Seoige who pro­fessed her­self shocked at his cal­lous dis­re­gard. And it was easy to see her point of view.

It was hard not to be up­set at the sight of chil­dren’s skele­tons, which were ex­humed dur­ing an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig at the site of a work­house in Kilkenny. An­other poignant tale was that of a man in Cork who died from ex­haus­tion or hunger while walk­ing home across the fields af­ter hours of back-break­ing work build­ing a road on a re­lief scheme.

Per­haps what was most re­veal­ing about the pro­gramme was the fact that life went on as nor­mal for many dur­ing the Famine years. Be­hind the demesne walls, food and drink were in abun­dance, as Car­lyle found to his de­light dur­ing his stay in Ire­land, while ships con­tain­ing beef and pork con­tin­ued to set sail from Ir­ish ports. For the be­lea­guered Ir­ish tenantry, life or death of­ten de­pended on which town­land you came from and whether your land­lord was will­ing to pay for your pas­sage to the New World.

Just why Car­lyle was so con­temp­tu­ous of dy­ing hu­man be­ings re­mained unan­swered. Un­doubt­edly, a deep anti-Catholi­cism played some part, but the pro­gramme failed to put the man in con­text, be­ing more in­ter­ested in Seoige’s emo­tional re­sponses to the tragedy of the Famine. In­stead of let­ting the viewer make up their own mind, the pro­gram­memak­ers were telling us how to feel. Aside from that quib­ble, this was an in­ter­est­ing take on a sub­ject that is in dan­ger of pass­ing from his­tory into per­ma­nent par­ody (think of the sketches on The Sav­age Eye).

Be­cause of the im­mense so­cial up­heaval that took place in Ire­land as a re­sult of the Famine, we of­ten for­get that those mil­lion or so Ir­ish peo­ple who died were nor­mal fam­i­lies with hopes and as­pi­ra­tions. This pro­gramme ad­dressed that am­ne­sia. Eight celebri­ties get a chance to show off their culi­nary skills, as the cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion re­turns. They are RTÉ news­caster Aen­gus Mac Gri­anna, for­mer model Yvonne Keat­ing, writer and pro­ducer Maia Dun­phy, Après Match’s Gary Cooke, Olympic ath­lete David Gil­lick, jour­nal­ist Conor Pope, RTÉ sports pre­sen­ter Tracy Pig­gott and for­mer Mr World Kamal Ibrahim. On tonight’s open­ing episode, Dy­lan McGrath and Nick Mu­nier will be invit­ing the con­tes­tants to pre­pare a dish that best sums up their per­son­al­i­ties. Then, Dy­lan will be demon­strat­ing how to cook crêpes Suzette, which the con­tes­tants will then be asked to repli­cate against the clock. At the end of the show, one con­tes­tant will be on their way home.

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