In February 2018, I watched the feature film Black 47 (2018) directed by Lance Daly. As I sat at the Opening Gala night of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, in a filled-to-capacity Screen 17 at the top of Cineworld on Parnell Street in Dublin, I was thrilled. I was thrilled to see the director and some of the actors discuss the film; thrilled that the Irish first night of a film centred on Ireland’s mid-nineteenth-century Famine was also the launch vehicle for the ADIFF but above all, I was thrilled to see, at long last, a compelling representation in popular visual culture of the most impacting and horrific demographic game-changer in modern Irish history.
To see on the big screen a fictionalised interpretation of this catastrophic part of Ireland’s past was an endorsement of the imperative necessity of the creative arts in general and the power of visual culture in particular. The historic period of the Famine has reached across geographies of modern history to shape an Irish diaspora and their present-day communities across the globe while leaving, in its terrible wake, a socially complex post-Famine Irish landscape that was fraught with tense economic and territorial adjustments for survival for a long time afterwards.
The imperative necessity of creative arts for society arises in tandem with the wide-ranging significance of the field of humanities. While creative arts in general broadly underpin expressions of identity, in all its glorious complexities, arts practices also point to the need to constantly rethink representations of the range of human experiences that might foster modes of empathic living. The ways in which we conceive of history, for example, is not only through the mainstay of history books, but is also re-produced where the past is witnessed in a secondary sense through cultural forms. Visual and material manifestations of these forms, such as art, exhibitions, the material and environmental cultures of museums, monuments and heritage sites, are not merely commemorative, but have an illustrative power of persuasion to actively construct understandings of what happened before now and so inevitably contribute to societal values today and all that that might suggest and offer for the future.
Visual representations of the Famine across commemorative culture has been a central focus of study for me, for many years. This interdisciplinary research path fostered my engagement with material from across humanities’ disciplines including histories of art, museology, history, philosophy while rooted in a methodology of cultural analysis. My objects of study then have encompassed a selection of contemporaneous news illustrations and subsequent imaging in art, artefacts and at other sites of memory inscribed on the landscape of Ireland during and following the Famine period up to today. While there have been some TV documentaries and mini-series devised on this historic theme, serious popular filmic representations of the Famine are surprisingly rare and so, Black 47 was indeed, for me, a thrill to see.
In Black 47, the Great Irish Famine is not just a backdrop for the film’s action played out along the fast-paced genre lines of a violent revenge western: rather, the social and cultural devastation wreaked by Famine experiences is a key driver of the film’s action. Multiple aspects of the narrative arise in the context of or are caused by either the effects of the Famine or its socio-political background. The acting is enthralling and vignettes depicting a range of Famine-defined experiences are convincingly evocative. For example, in a scene-setting burial sequence the deadening thud of a corpse dropped to earth from a hinged coffin conveys with force the degradation that came hand in hand with, as eminent historian Christine Kinealy has termed it, seven years of food shortages.
Spoken Irish Gaelic was central to a number of scenes in the film, thus geographically rooting the film’s historic reference point in a culturally specific ‘grievous history’, to borrow Susie Linfield’s term. To hear and see the switch between languages - to have English subtitles over Gaelic speech within a mainstream English language film - was profoundly affecting: this is arts in action. The synesthetic immersion of cinema offers within a broader sphere of cultural representations of histories another space for realising the critical role of visual forms in the evolving outlook of contemporary historiography.
In the course of my research it became evident the extent to which the pioneering and heritage of the visual culture of Ireland are too often left to the unappreciated efforts on the parts of individuals, lobby-groups and volunteers. Consistently poorly funded and overlooked at a national level, the underplayed role of visual culture in Ireland was the revelatory subtext of an altogether different recent cinema-release feature film that focusses on events at the turn of the twentieth century. The fascinating docu-drama, Citizen Lane (2018), produced by Thaddeus O’Sullivan and written by Mark O’Halloran, portrays the contribution of Sir Hugh Lane to Ireland’s visual heritage and highlights his steadfast persistence against the prevailing political mood he encountered, to provide for Ireland an art resource of ongoing cultural importance.
The abiding social utility of visual culture was clear to Lane: hopefully, sometime soon, greater academic recognition of the breadth and depth of its study generated by properly supported, inclusive and expansive research cultures will make this visible to more.