I woke up this morning to news that Channel 4 is planning a situation comedy about the Irish Potato Famine or An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), as it is known in Irish.
Briefly, potato blight got to the spuds which were the main source of food for the Irish peasants at the time. There were mass evictions, with people rendered homeless or in workhouses – many believe this is why the Irish have an attachment to owning their own homes – and our population was halved through death and emigration. Please note that it was just the potato crop that failed. Plenty of other crops grew in abundance, but they were grown for export, not the dinner tables of grubby locals, so the Irish didn’t get to taste them.
I’m not sure where the humour in this is, to be honest. I’m also quick to say that I’m not in the camp that blames the famine and colonialism for every Irish ill going. I know plenty of people who firmly believe that our attitudes to many things – like food, and property ownership and emigration – stem from the famine. I tell these people to get over it. Enough decades and generations have passed for the Irish of today to have realised that we’re not being starved by the British any more (we’ve elected governments instead who are well capable of starving our children and making them homeless….but I digress).
Still, though, I can’t deny my discomfort with the notion of an Gorta Mór being turned into something to laugh at.
This evening, I had a brief conversation with my children about it. Ishthara is 12 and Kashmira is 10 and I think they – being the next generation – are even further removed again from the famine than I am. They are well-travelled and certainly more aware of the world around them than I was when I was their age. All of which led me to think that they might be a bit more blasé about it.
I asked the girls what they thought about the idea of Channel 4 making a sitcom about the Famine. They were both shocked, although Ishthara was more moderate. She said that they should make a pilot first and have a focus group look at it and gauge their reactions. She didn’t reject the idea out of hand as a bad one.
‘It might be funny,’ she said. ‘If they do it properly.’
Kashmira was unequivocal:
‘A British channel can’t make a programme like that. If anyone is going to make a comedy about the famine then it has to be us.’
She was adamant that a sitcom about something so huge and horrendous in our history was not in good taste.
‘But if anyone was to make it, then it has to be an Irish company – an Irish station. Like, if you make a joke against yourself, then that’s fine. But if someone else makes a joke against you, then it’s wrong.’
Ishthara was sticking to her view that things could be funny if they were done properly and that she wouldn’t judge the idea until she’d seen a pilot. If the pilot was done well, then there would be no reason (in her view) not to make the rest of the series.
Kashmira had been thinking while Ishthara had been talking:
‘If a country makes a joke against another country, then it’s racism,’ she told us.
Really? Maybe a joke is just a joke and we should take a chill pill, I suggested. Kashmira wasn’t buying it.
‘Maybe,’ I continued. ‘An Gorta Mór was long ago enough that we have enough distance to poke fun at it?’
‘No,’ was her response. ‘There’s just nothing funny about it. And it’s even less funny that a British station is doing it.’
‘What if I told you that the writer is an Irishman? Because he is.’
‘No. That’s still not right. He’s doing it for a British station. They were responsible for all the people who died and they don’t have the right to decide it’s funny.’
I asked the girls if they thought that maybe it was time to make jokes about the famine to help us get over it once and for all. I reminded them that sometimes people laugh at horrible events because black humour helps us to process things.
Is there, I asked, anything that happened that was horrible, but that it would be okay to make a comedy about.
‘Actually, I don’t think so,’ Ishthara said. ‘You wouldn’t make a joke of the Holocaust, or 9/11 or the famine in Ethiopia…’
‘But people do write comedies about things that aren’t funny – like drug addiction or dysfunctional families.’
‘Ah!’ Kashmira piped up. ‘But they are just about one person, or one family – not a whole country. And they’re not being made fun of by the people who harmed them in the first place.’
With that, they took their hot chocolates and their hot water bottles and headed up the wooden hill – leaving me to type the conversation before I forgot it.
I have to admit, I was struck by their opinions on the matter. I honestly didn’t think they would care – and I really didn’t think that someone who was born in 2004 would be so firm in her opinion about how things that happened in the 1840s should be represented in popular culture.