The Irish Famine as Comedy Material

It was with great surprise that I learned yesterday that Channel 4 have commissioned a sitcom by Dubliner Hugh Travers entitled Hungry which is said to centre on the Irish famine. Reported in the Irish Times alongside other New Year aspirations relating to music, body painting, catering and running, the section devoted to a sitcom billed as “Shameless in famine Ireland” by its writer jarred to say the least.

Travers is taking for his comedic subject matter a period in Irish history between 1845 and 1852 which proves controversial to this day, and saw the population fall by a quarter due to a combination of the death of a million people and emigration. Memorials can be found, not only in Ireland, but as far afield as America, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, the main destination countries for émigrés. Famine related poetry and song are a part of our culture and to this day make for haunting listening. It is clear therefore that some may not be quite ready, if ever, to laugh at the Great Famine.

It’s a known and accepted fact that humour is entirely subjective. What one person finds funny may not remotely amuse another, and they may similarly disagree concerning the acceptability of sources for comedy material. Debating what is considered funny and what isn’t, and even why, is one thing, but negotiating the tricky landscape of sources of material is quite another, and this is where issues of taste generally come into play, and offence can arise.

Comedy’s subjective nature means that some feel certain topics should be off limits, while others feel that nothing should be off the table and are of the belief that offence cannot be given, only received. With something as personal and innate as humour, it’s nigh on impossible to bring someone with an opposing view around to your way of thinking, and some might say that any attempt to do so would be unacceptable and unreasonable. It is also worth remembering that perceived unreasonable levels of offence and unreasonable levels of tastelessness can co-exist when it comes to humour.

The worrying thing I suppose is that the day we begin censoring what people can and cannot find funny or laugh at, we are in undesirable territory. However, this doesn’t mean that I subscribe to the belief that either everything is open to be laughed at, or nothing is.

Let’s look at some reactions to this news.

The Irish Times themselves don’t express an opinion but rather deliver the information and move swiftly on to the next entrepreneur like the transition between disparate segments on The One Show.

Despite the semi-daring headline of Chortle’s piece ‘Hungry for laughs?’ its question mark is notable, and the article itself remains cautiously neutral in its reportage, even acknowledging therein that the famine is a tragedy which claimed an estimated million lives.

The angriest and most unequivocal response comes from the Irish Central website where laughing at the famine is considered akin to finding humour in the holocaust and ebola. Similar comments are made online by those who object to the idea with the Ethiopian famine, 9/11 and other such tragedies cited for the case against the appropriateness of the Irish famine for sitcom material.

As far as those reserving judgement are concerned, Limerick comedians The Rubberbandits have gone so far as to credit the offence being taken with causing James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to leave Ireland, and they declare that no subject should be off limits to comedy and art. Most people would agree that there should be nothing which cannot be realised in art, but offering a blank canvas for comedic treatment is sure to invoke divided opinion. Others who take no issue with it cite Blackadder and Dad’s Army as sitcoms dealing acceptably with war. These examples support The Rubberbandits’ assertion via a tweet that “what matters is the context and intent of the result” and, I would add, the manner in which it is done.

Before setting out my stall on the issue, I’d like to relay my personal experience of famine jokes. My first came a number of years back in the UK where American comedian Des Bishop during a stand up routine relayed the tale of a foreign national working in Ireland whose response to an ignorant customer was to hope the ‘paddy’ would ‘die in a famine’. I simply couldn’t see the humour in this, however, it was greeted with uproarious laughter by the majority present. Maybe it was simply a matter of taste, but when some turned around to gauge my reaction and sneer at me having, amongst others, identified myself as Irish at the comedian’s request early in the show, the laughter took on an unsettling dimension. For me, this raised questions about how famine jokes are received.

The second occasion came a few years later when I was in a fast food restaurant in the UK in the early hours and, having heard me order, a number of drunken revellers proceeded to shout ‘potato’ quite aggressively in my face leading them to be removed from the restaurant, and not at my request either. This demonstrated how seriously both the staff and security saw the issue and I welcomed their response. I relayed the story to some English friends who were horrified and saw fit to apologise to me, which while good of them was entirely unnecessary, but showed how unacceptable they too saw the incident to be.

I have been to the UK countless times. I love to go there, and it feels like a home away from home where I have many fond memories. I have received warm welcomes on each occasion, and I have met many wonderful people from there who I count among my friends. I relay the two isolated incidents above to highlight the fact that, while we cannot legislate for it, I feel that both Channel 4 as a UK station, and Hugh Travers as an Irish writer, must be sensitive to how a sitcom on this topic might be received.

Tasteless, lazy potato ‘gags’ aside, I sincerely cannot see how the Great Famine can be considered a viable source of humour, and the very mention of Shameless has me dubious as to how it will be treated. Travers is quoted in the Times as saying, “Well, they say ‘comedy equals tragedy plus time’…I don’t want to do anything that denies the suffering that people went through, but Ireland has always been good at black humour.”

In a way, it feels like not enough time will ever pass between the famine and now as to make it humorous. Nor has it ever offered an inkling of possibility for a comedic dimension. Yes, tragedy is at the heart of a number of the greatest sitcoms, and lends a wonderfully heart rending pathos to the funniest of them. However, the tragedies portrayed are generally personal, and there does not appear to me to be any humour which could be juxtaposed with the tragedy of the famine to create that synthesis; I will be amazed to know where it is to be found.

While it’s important to bear in mind that we have yet to see the finished product, my initial reaction to the idea is that it is ill judged. At the same time, I would be concerned at deciding what can and cannot be found funny, and am not supportive of the censorship of comedic taste; an essentially innate instinct. However, I do question the famine as a source of comedy material, and I am doubtful at the capacity for it to be done well. Further, while we cannot legislate for how something will be received, if the programme makers are intent on proceeding with this project, they have a responsibility to bear this in mind considering the sensitive nature of the subject matter, and out of respect for those who suffered.

By Emma Hynes
Twitter: @ELHynes

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