Asked in the late 1960s what he thought about the French revolution, the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai famously replied, “It is too soon to say.” The same is unquestionably true about the shadow of the Great Hunger, the year zero that the British colonial misadventure in Ireland travels toward and from.
Any effort to address the lessons and legacy of those terrible years is a salutary one, especially since they were shrouded in near silence for far over a century.
In his new play Bishop Maginn, presented at the Irish Consulate in Manhattan last week, author Turlough McConnell explores the life of one remarkable humanitarian of the period, Edward Maginn (1802-1849).
An advocate of Catholic Emancipation and an ardent supporter of Daniel O'Connell, Maginn became coadjutor bishop of Derry after his years spent studying at the prestigious Irish College in Paris.
Based on the writings of his journalist contemporary Thomas D'Arcy McGee, Maginn emerges in his writing and in McConnell's retelling as a cautious, thoughtful and committed reformer, one who takes the long view and who understands how colonial power operates in Ireland.
McGee has a more tempestuous nature as the play and actor Colin Ryan remind us, and when we meet him first he has already been agitating for a revolution to overthrow British rule and secure Irish independence.
These were significant men living in dangerous and momentous times in other words, and it is sobering to realize how almost completely Maginn's life and works were almost lost, given his stature while he lived and given the dramatic political currents that he swam in.
McConnell also reminds us that Maginn worked tirelessly to reconcile the various strands of Irish political opinion from the nonviolent O'Connell approach to the revolutionary Young Irelanders, but he also shows us how the sheer disastrous scope of English misrule during the Great Hunger impacted the country, with Maginn's own efforts to save the local community from starvation repeatedly, stretched to the breaking point.
More than anything, Maginn sought to stave off the disasters that were always looming as a result of the oppression, indifference, or official hostility or neglect of colonialism. Forced to act like tenants in their own country, McConnell reminds us of the danger that Maginn repeatedly put himself in for the greater good.
Aidan Redmond played Maginn as a man shouldering an increasingly impossible burden, to reconcile the opposing aims of British and Irish aspirations in the divided region. He is willing to harbor and even aid the rebels whose aims he shares, if not always their methods, and he is willing to do this at the risk of his own neck and all those he loves.
Orlagh Cassidy plays Brigid, Maginn's canny sister, who deeply understands the local community and the magnitude of challenges they face in order for her brother to undertake his clerical mission. She alternates between anxious housekeeper and fearless agitator with the facility that someone in her impossible situation must.
Aoife Kelly plays Eliza Heron, a young woman from Planter stock who has converted to Catholicism and who understands the claims that both inheritances make on the locals and on herself. She is at once out of her depth and at her ease in a place where allegiance is everything.
McConnell's play understands and celebrates his famous subject's achievements but he creates a portrait of Maginn in full, which shows us the fear as well as the courage that drove him and underlines the impossible situations that British rule in Ireland often created for him.
Part of the pleasure of Bishop Maginn is the sense in which the charterer is being rediscovered and restored to us by a dramatic imagination that understands him and his times and can speak as eloquently to our own.
We still have a great deal to learn from the 19th century, when the murderous theft of British colonialism was exposed to the world in an event that had the impact on Ireland of a low-level nuclear strike. The Great Hunger was the worst social disaster of the 19th century in Europe, killing over a million and displacing over a million more.
McConnell knows that Donegal has not recovered from it yet, nor has Ireland, nor indeed has Britain, and he shows just how far-reaching and how disastrous the colonial project ultimately was for both us and them.