TIM FANNING MY VIEW
The million who died in the Great Famine were more than just a statistic
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.