Celtic Junction Arts Review
A Blank Canvas
When you think of significant historical events that have occurred over time – even centuries ago – you’re likely to find visual art created at that time depicting the occurrence. That is not the case with Irish history, particularly relative to the famines of the 19th century. What you will find are sketches that were published in newspapers; lacking are paintings and sculptures that depict Irish people in the throes of hunger and despair.
Several reasons exist for this dearth of famine art. A glaring one is that Irish artists’ main clientele were British (who in Ireland could afford artwork?) and had no interest in purchasing paintings depicting agonizing scenes of starvation and death, especially when it came at the hands of the British.
In addition, art education at the time took on a formal nature that viewed the human body in an idealized form. Irish artists were loath to abandon this approach even if it meant inaccurate depiction of the consequences of the famine.
In his book, “The Truth Behind the Irish Famine 1845-1852,” Jerry Mulvihill explained, “Artists of the time could not have known the extreme scale of the disaster that was to unfold around them or for that matter the resounding impact it would have on generations to come.”1
Of those 19th century artists who attempted to capture the various famines, many focused solely on the consequences of the potato blight, specifically the eviction of Irish tenant farmers.
Noted famine artists
Daniel Macdonald, however, stands out as perhaps the lone artist whose painting, “Discovery of the Potato Blight” focused on the famine while it was ravaging Ireland. The work depicts a family uncovering the hay and earth protecting their coveted potato harvest only to discover all that remains is rot. This painting, which today resides at University College, Dublin, reveals the absolute hopelessness of a family upon realizing their food supply is destroyed.
This painting, with its dark sky and ominous tone, was unveiled at the British Institution in London in 1847. While it was selected to be included in the gallery’s exhibition, the painting received little comment even though it portrayed in real-time the starvation and death occurring in Ireland. One critic described the painting as having “much power,” but he focused more attention on the fact one of the female subjects “is not in an Irish dress.”
Born in Cork, Macdonald completed the blight painting when he was a youthful 27 and went on to receive high praise during his short life for his artistic talent. Sadly, he passed away at age 32 and today is considered “undeservedly forgotten.”2
Scenes of despairing Irish families provided a common theme among the limited paintings created during and following the Great Famine. Erskine Nicol, a Scottish painter, was known for his depictions of everyday Irish scenes. His work, “An Evicted Family,” illustrates a family confronting its eviction for not being able to pay rent on their cottage and land. The distressed faces captured the despair and despondency not only of the portrayed subjects but underscore the desperation that haunted all of Ireland.
While paintings depicting the mid-nineteenth century famine were sparse, one medium that was coming onto vogue was wood-engraved illustrations, adopted by the Illustrated London News (ILN) in 1842. The paper became hugely successful as it employed this new technique of capturing images that were first drawn by reporters gathering news on the spot. From the drawn images, the ILN and other newspapers of the time were able to bring high quality images to the masses at minimal cost.
It was these iconic images from papers like the ILN, Punch, and the Pictorial Times that helped tell the story of the famine in Ireland. Even though the Pictorial Times declared in print, “That justice may be done to Ireland – Ireland must be known as she really is,”3 the images ultimately depicted the country similarly to what was portrayed in the English press – emphasizing people living in poor housing conditions, often with livestock, and looking appalling.
In 1847, the ILN dispatched Cork artist James Mahony to Skibbereen and Clonakilty in Ireland to report on the famine conditions. One of the famine victims Mahony supposedly met was Bridget O’Donnell. Mahoney drew her image which became iconic because her story was seen as an authentic account of the famine and her face, as well as her children’s, revealed more than any words could express.
Said Alan Riordan about artist Mahony’s work: “His stark, immediate, drawings of gaunt beggars and starving children are like precursors to photojournalism.”4 While journalists and artists like Mahoney attempted to capture the human element of the famine, to convey an accurate account to readers, newspapers like those published in Britain struggled to strike a balance to contain the atrocity for its native audience.
Preserving the past
Despite the shortage of visual arts produced during the famines of the 19th century, the devastation and suffering of the era continue to be studied and depicted by more contemporary artists.
For example, an iconic image that was produced in 1946 was the painting by Lilian Lucy Davidson titled, “Gorta” or “Burying the Child.” The haunting image offers no identifiable time or location; there is no need for explanation.
Today, as more descendants discover their Irish ancestors and the often-untold connection to the famine, there is heightened interest to find remnants of the past, agonizing though they are.
Author Mulvihill spent several years researching the famine hoping to find images that told the story. He discovered very little, and that frustrating experience prompted Mulvihill to take matters into his own hands.
“After thorough research into illustrations and paintings of the time it became very clear to me that the harrowing and true events of the mid-1800s in Ireland had actually in effect never been depicted at all,” explained Mulvihill.5 He set out to commission paintings for his book, employing six artists who produced 72 paintings. The inspiration for the artists were eyewitness historical quotes that in some cases were so evocative that the artists questioned the need for such explicitness.
“I wanted to portray in my book what had never been seen,” said Mulvihill. “The images that exist on the famine are romanticized and softened and do not show the reality.”6 His book is filled with captivating images and quotations that tell a history that previously had been nearly silenced.
Also filling in the blanks of Irish history are contemporary artists who are employing a variety of visual art forms. Their work can be found in Camden, CT at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum* which opened in 2012. “Dedicated to the values of social responsibility and justice while educating students and the public about Ireland’s Great Hunger,”7 it is the only museum in the world to offer such an extensive collection. Many of the items in the exhibit were created in the 1990s to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Black ’47.
A nationally and internationally known destination, the museum is home to many interesting works that commemorate the famine. Robert Ballagh’s stained glass window titled An Gorta Mór features prominently at the museum. He explained that it’s fitting to have Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in the United States versus Ireland, suggesting that it would be controversial to have this kind of museum in Ireland where descendants of those who may have profited from the Irish emigration, such as landlords, still live. Ballagh explained, “People here (in the U.S.) understand better than the people at home. It’s complicated.”8
Ultimately, the Great Famine was a tragedy that resulted in a million people dead and an equal number fleeing their homeland. This was literally an unspeakable event that took the Irish and its descendants almost a century to come to terms with. Through visual art and the artists that create it, we have something tangible to remind us not just of our history but of our obligation to prevent this catastrophe from reoccurring in contemporary times.
1Mulvihill, Jerry. “An Unvarnished Portrayal of the Irish Famine,” The Irish Times, March 19, 2021.
2Barry, Dan. “The Artist Who Dared to Paint Ireland’s Great Famine,” The New York Times, Feb. 18, 2016.
3Boyce, Charlotte. “Representing the ‘Hungry Forties’ in Image and Verse: The Politics of Hunger in Early-Victorian Illustrated Periodicals.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 40, no. 2, 2012, p. 432.
4Riordan, Alan, “New exhibition represents the horror of the Great Famine.” Irish Examiner, Feb.9, 2018.
6Mulvihill. Interview. By Jane Kennedy, Jun3 25, 2021.
7McConnell, Turlough. @Irish Central. August 25, 2021.
8Waldman, Janet. Quinnipiac Magazine, Fall 2012, pp. 14-19.
*In August 2021, it was announced that the museum is planning to close; partners are being sought to move the museum to another location.
Jane Kennedy lives in St. Paul, MN. Her interest in exploring Irish famines is linked to her family’s emigration in the 1880s from County Mayo, Ireland. You can take Jane’s online class “Irish Famines in Art” through CJAC’s Irish College of Minnesota on Thursdays 6:30 – 7:45 pm. November 4 & 11, 2021.