Graphic Representations Of The Irish Potato Famine

2543 words - 11 pages

A critical time in Irish History, the Great Irish Potato Famine in known in history books around the world, Europe’s last famine. Between 1845 and 1852 in Ireland was a period of excessive starvation, sickness and exile, known as the great Irish potato famine. During this time The Isle of Ireland lost between twenty and thirty per cent of its people. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s the impact and human cost in Ireland, where a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food, was intensified by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of Irish historical discussion. The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects lastingly changed the islands demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine entered folk memory and became a rallying point for various nationalist movements.

Currently, we are marking the hundred-and-sixty-ninth anniversary of the single most catastrophic event in the history of nineteenth-century Europe, the Irish Famine. In saying this however, memorials of this catastrophe are clouded by the lack of visual material. As a matter of fact, this problem applies to much of the history of Ireland before the turn of the twentieth century and is something that has been commented upon by art historians, but never made explicit. All in all, it was the Famine that most likely got the most responsiveness from the contemporary artist, as opposed to other events in Irish history in that period. Most people are aware of the graphic representations in the Illustrated London News and similar periodicals of the time. One must ask the question, with a preoccupation with history and social realism, why there is a lack of painted and sculpted images.

There is a major inconsistency between the verbal description of the ravenous Irish and the actual pictorial image. Though the people being depicted are extremely poor, they somehow retain a healthy appearance. The education of art during this period is responsible for this. The artists, when working on the human body, received a demanding training which was based on observation of Greek and Roman models which had been athletically sculpted. They also trained and studied from live models. In their attempt to arrive at perfection, idealisation and ennoblement of the human form was where the emphases was placed, thus juxtaposing the best parts. For the artist is was not easy to simply abandon their rigorous training along with the authority conferred on them by tradition, regardless of their interests in correctness. The artist may have very well been reluctant in painting the indignity of death by famine on the grounds of natural sensitivity coupled with a desire to show their fellow Irish men in the least unattractive light as possible. Thomas Davis, a few years beforehand, wrote in The Nation¸ calling on the artist to paint...

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