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Why the Great Famine should not be off limits to comedy.

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Last week reports that Channel 4 were considering commissioning a comedy based on the Great Famine caused outrage. It is without doubt a controversial subject. Over 800,000 people died from starvation and related diseases. The horrors of 1845 – 51 triggered mass-emigration from the island that only came to an end in the late 20th century.

Personally I am not convinced the proposed comedy entitled Hungry will go ahead. Based on the news reports the proposed sitcom is still very far from production. Channel 4 might well balk at the idea when the script writer Hugh Travers completes Hungry.

Rowan Atkinson in Black Adder goes forth a comedy that dealt with a very conrtoversial subject - The Western front in World War I.

Rowan Atkinson in ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, a widely acclaimed comedy that dealt with a very controversial subject – The Western Front in World War I.

However, for me the reaction to the story is far more problematic than the idea itself. A common response across the internet and wider media has been to brand the very concept as sacrilege. The famine appears to be completely off limits to comedy.

Historian, Tim Pat Coogan, whose most recent offering was ‘The Famine Plot’ stated “We could be all pleasantly surprised, but my initial reaction is one of dismay. Would they make a comedy series about the holocaust? It really does defeat your powers of comprehension”. Irish Central, the Irish-American news organisation branded it an “abomination.

There is no doubt that “Hungry” has the potential to be disastrous if it’s based on Irish people drinking and moaning about spuds. This is already a stale stereotype and a backdrop of the famine won’t make it funny. However this doesn’t mean the famine should be off-limits.

The Limerick duo The Rubberbandits hit the nail on the head when they stated “Its the context and intent of the result that matters”. Obviously if Channel 4 commissioned the notoriously racist Roy Chubby Brown it would not be appropriate. However to dismiss the idea out of hand is another matter entirely. What if Graham Linehan or Gerry Stembridge the team behind Father Ted were the writers?

In the case of “Hungry” little appears to be known about the scriptwriter Hugh Travers aside from a perhaps foolish and glib statement that “comedy equals tragedy plus time”. This is not enough to condemn the man out of hand. Time will tell.

In terms of history I find the idea that the famine is off-limits deeply problematic. It certainly does not bode well for the future of Irish history. The implications of saying the famine is off limits to comedy is that it should remain the preserve of historians.

Historians (and I say this as one) are struggling to make history relevant. It is still regarded by many as niche, even an elite topic. We need more not less approaches to our past. Historical comedy if done well, while obviously not a substitute for historical research, would certainly change how people view and engage with their past. This is to be welcomed. Irish history might become more relevant to many.

There are also those who have argued that it’s too soon and Ireland has not dealt with the famine yet. While understandable, I think this is an argument for more approaches. If we haven’t dealt with the subject by this stage, I am not sure yet another history book will change that. Other perspectives including comedy might.

This current Channel 4 proposal may be a disaster but that is not a reason to say comedy has no role in telling our past. Given the plethora of poor histories out there, such an argument would imply historians should have no role if that was the case.

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