Artists, especially Irish ones, often guide us toward places of distress and conflict in their works, the better to explore something fundamental about our character or history.
National traumas like uprisings, civil wars and sectarian conflict have all been explored by classic Irish drama for decades. But in a country as small as Ireland, where our history is embedded into the very landscape, there have always been a significant number of theater and filmgoers who would prefer certain stories remain untold.
There are often good reasons for their reluctance. Sometimes they fear that reviving old stories could revive old animosities. Other times they fear that attacking the past could completely unravel the present.
But when they hesitate like this they’re often allowing their fears to set the agenda. Our great writers knew all about it.
For writers like James Joyce the failure to act was itself a kind of action. Paralysis was the word he used over and over to describe life in late 19th century Ireland, because for him the country was enveloped in the kind of enervating calm that often follows an outbreak of hysteria.
Joyce knew and wrote about the interior life of his people better than almost any writer before or since, in other words. Within his parents’ lifetime Ireland had been the location for a tragedy so far reaching it could hardly be expressed in language, never mind on the screen or stage.
The Great Hunger hit the country with the scope of a low level nuclear attack. Even now in 2015 our population has still not recovered from it.
Almost as devastating as the event itself was the huge silence that followed it. For generations afterward the trauma was considered literally unspeakable. It was a reluctance he shared himself.
So are there events that are so cataclysmic that they should never be explored in art? Clearly not. The Great Hunger has been a subject for Irish artists almost from the moment its reality became undeniable.
If paralysis and silence were Joyce’s considered responses, his successors have been much less circumspect. This week, thanks to an erupting controversy, we have to ask ourselves if the Great Hunger is now a suitable subject for satire and comedy?
But how exactly do you take the reality of the millions of men, women and children, dead or displaced by hunger and disease, and turn that into an opportunity for a good guffaw?
Writer Hugh Travers first came to fame for "Lambo," his well-received play about a notorious sheep-killing incident in the life of Irish radio personality Gerry Ryan that turned him from a late night DJ into an overnight national star.
Now, with his proposed television comedy show "Hungry," Travers is suddenly watching the scenario of his debut play come to life, only this time he may be the sacrificial lamb himself.
The public uproar over the idea that the Great Hunger could ever be the subject for a comedy show is being matched by the outrage that Channel Four, a British television channel, will helm the production. In some quarters that’s pouring petrol on the fire.
Defenders of "Hungry" cite Jonathan Swift’s majestic "A Modest Proposal" to make the case that satire was once forensically employed by an Irish writer to shame England for its colonial exploitation.
On its surface this is a disingenuous argument. Swift wrote his proposal long before the Great Hunger and would have been horrified by its pitiless savagery, if not by its inevitability.
Others argued this week that when it comes to outrage, Ireland has issues far more pressing to address before it addresses this one. That’s certainly true, but that’s also an obvious dodge, because we can countenance one without injury to another.
No one has seen the scripts that Travers has produced yet and thanks to the public outcry no one may ever, if risk averse U.K. production companies decide that the tipping point is reached this week.
Meanwhile, Irish playwriting itself has been pursuing a discernable Quentin Tarantino moment for almost two decades now (can that still be called a moment?) where the national issues once discussed in classic dramas have been repackaged for the modern age as demagogic pantomimes by a new generation of much more aloof and cynical playwrights, who have been warmly embraced by the U.K. stage.
But to my surprise back home in Ireland we appear to be concluding that there are some Irish stories that are just not going to be available for knockabout laddish foolery, now or ever.
Whilst I personally don't need to see a "Shameless" or "Father Ted"-style Famine comedy series, I wouldn’t stand in Travers’s way. Truthfully I can’t see his show surviving the non-stop barrage directed at it, but you never know.
For two decades the Tarantino approach has gone over big in the U.K. and on Broadway, with multiple award-winning productions confirming generations of unthinking prejudices about the Irish: that we’re ground zero for alcoholism, insanity, intrigue, homicide, unending fraternal disputes and so on.
Joyce wrote affectingly about the paralysis, silence and enervating calm of Ireland in the late 19th century. It was the calm that follows on from hysteria. It’s everywhere in his books.
No one knew Ireland or the Irish (or the disaster that befell them) so well. So I think we intuitively resist lampooning the Great Hunger because it has become a foundational text.
What’s fascinating is that so many people have finally said this week that the Great Hunger narrative will not be available for this "Pulp Fiction" treatment. That’s the real news here.