For years, The Great Irish Famine, or an Gorta Mór, was an inappropriate subject for entertainment. But that has changed.
Ingrained in Irish consciousness is The Great Famine or an Gorta Mór.
The intrinsic horror of starvation, a suffering too profound to be packaged as art, has meant the film and TV industries have steered clear of bringing the trauma back to life.
There was seen to be no humane way of excavating a nation’s collective pain.
Channel 4 prompted a backlash in 2015 when it commissioned a television comedy series on the famine called Hungry from Dublin-based writer Hugh Travers.
Some 40,000 people signed a petition condemning the project, leading to its eventual demise before it could see the light of day.
Author Tim Pat Coogan said at the time: “Murder, genocide, people dying, retching with their faces green from eating weeds, their bowels hanging out of them – no passage of time will make that funny.”
That hesitancy to capture the Famine on the big screen ceased with the release of Black 47, the new Lance Daly-directed movie that has quickly earned critical acclaim after a short festival run. It pulled in record-breaking figures at the Irish box office prior to this week’s UK and US release.
Against many expectations, Black 47 is already the top grossing Irish film of the year, and is now also the first Irish film to pass the €1 million mark since The Young Offenders in 2016.
Truthfully, there was only one plausible way of artistically couching the Famine’s enduring psychological weight in 2018: a distinct genre movie.
Daly, from Dublin, dramatises the famine as a western-style revenge thriller.
“The idea of staging a revenge story against the backdrop of the famine struck me as a smart way of dealing with a very difficult subject.
The genre suggests implicit questions that offered opportunities to explore many more complexities of the time than perhaps any other dramatic approach: Revenge by whom? Upon whom? And for what? Revenge for the famine? Was there someone to blame?,” says Daly said of his film.
“All the shades of grey that come into play with human impulses to survive, to compete, to profit, seemed to be represented in this story, which could take a cross section of Ireland and offer portraits of all strata of life and society of that time.”
Triggered by a blight in potato crops, the famine upended and ravaged Ireland from 1845 to 1849, a humanitarian catastrophe that flummoxed the British government even as Quakers, Native American Choctaws, the Ottoman Empire and others sent assistance.
The film stars Australian actor James Frecheville – of Animal Kingdom fame – as an Irish Ranger who returns home in 1847 after fighting for the British Army in Afghanistan only to discover that his mother has died of hunger, his brother has been hanged, and the rest of his family is inhabiting a wasteland of ruined crops in Connemara, Galway.
When the ranger launches a campaign of bloody vengeance against authority, the British draft one of his former comrades, played by Hugo Weaving, to track him down.
Daly adds: “The Great Famine was ultimately the result of hundreds of years of poor governance of Ireland by the British Empire, giving rise to deep resentment and anger that survives to this day.
“An explosive tale of revenge and redemption felt like a fitting expression of that energy.”
Jim Broadbent plays Lord Kilmichael, an aristocrat who exports grain despite corpses piling up in the countryside, and Stephen Rea plays an Irish-to-English interpreter. Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, and Sarah Greene also star.
Daly filmed the exteriors in Wicklow and Connemara and consulted historians on the details.
“Connemara is a spectacular but unforgiving landscape of rocky lowlands, bogs and lakes in the west, where men and women have struggled for centuries to scrape out a living against the elements – the perfect prism through which to imagine an entirely alien world from that in which we live today.”
Another movie about this unspeakable tragedy, Famine, has been in the pipeline for some years now – one from an outside perspective, lesser known than many of the folk legends of the human catastrophe such as the still deeply appreciated famine relief from the Choctaw Nation.
The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Khaleefah Abdul- Majid the First, sent relief to Ireland and is said to have shamed Queen Victoria.
Renowned Turkish film director Omer Sarikay who has had a major hit with Silent Angel, about the Bulgarian ascetic Dobri Dobrev who died earlier this year aged 104 after a lifetime of quietly raising money for good causes by walking 12 miles a day, has been developing Famine for several years despite frequent obstacles.
The critical and commercial success of Black 47, can only augur well for his film of how Khaleefah Abdul-Majid I declared his intention to send £10,000 – the equivalent of £800,000 today – to aid Ireland’s farmers. Queen Victoria, or her government, requested that the Sultan send only £1,000 because she had sent only £2,000 herself.
The Sultan sent only the £1,000, but he also secretly sent five ships full of food. English courts attempted to block the ships, but the food was delivered to Drogheda by Ottoman sailors.
Irish aristocrats sent a letter of gratitude to the Sultan and it can be viewed at Topkapı Palace in Istanbul.
It says: “We, the undersigned Irish noblemen, gentlemen and residents present our gratitude respectfully for the generosity, benevolence and concern and donation that is endowed by your majesty to the suffering Irish public to meet the needs of them and appease their sorrows.”
Black 47 opens in UK cinemas on 28 September.
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