Irish-American Gothic: Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘Great Hunger’

Irish-American Gothic: Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘Great Hunger’
© Photograph by Dorota Górecka

For very good reason, hunger is not often associated with humour. Leave it to Fitz- James O’Brien, a “Literary Bohemian” and Irish-American patriot, to link the two.

As the initial epigraph above demonstrates, O’Brien was an active, provocative character in his own right, but his death during the Civil War prematurely ended his promising career. Even though his own expectation of posthumous fame — “after I’m dead I may turn out a bigger man than when living” (qtd. in Winter, xliv) — was not realised, O’Brien’s “works have a claim upon the American people” (Stephens, lxii).

While some of his poetry “has been dismissed as ‘mere tinkle,’” O’Brien’s fiction “assured him of an important place in the development of the American short story” (Hayes 11), earning him the nickname “The Celtic Poe.” O’Brien undoubtedly saw much suffering in his Irish environs.

Born in Cork in 1828, O’Brien lived relatively well there and in Limerick for most of his childhood. Whatever Famine-related horrors O’Brien internalised (before moving to England in 1849) certainly piqued his social conscience and impacted his literary development.

As Terry Eagleton claims, the Famine’s “atavistic nature” results in a process of “unmaking the nation,” and O’Brien was part of the generation whose history was thus scattered by the Famine’s impact. While there remains, in Eagleton’s words, “some ‘real’ which stubbornly refuses to be symbolised” about the Famine, O’Brien’s socially conscious poetry and Gothic short stories make the process of symbolism possible.

His work should be classified as “literature of the famine” that, in the words of Christopher Morash, “exists as a series of tangents to the elusive event itself” (Writing the Irish Famine 187). By using images of hunger as markers of injustice, O’Brien contributed to the Irish-American cultural memory of the Famine. His work shows both the physical victimisation and psychological manipulation of Famine hunger.

One of this chapter’s primary aims is to reconsider the Famine as a central event within Irish-American cultural history. In addition to his Gothic tales of starvation, O’Brien wrote poetry representing the lives of poor labourers and other urban dwellers, many of whom emigrated from Ireland during and after the Famine. Such works show how profoundly the Famine impacted the production of literary culture beyond Ireland.

Although O’Brien came of age during the Famine years, only his poetry was published during that time while his works of fiction took longer to materialise. O’Brien produces images of hunger and starvation that remind us how, in Morash’s words, “the metaphors through which the Famine appear to us are sometimes blatantly ahistorical, […] reminding us that we are not confronting the Famine itself, but something which performs the function of ‘standing for’ the Famine” (“Afterword” 305).

O’Brien’s encounter with the Famine helps him to reshape the discourse of silence that had surrounded it for so long. Although his poetry sits in the second tier among world-class writers like Whitman and Poe, O’Brien’s Gothic short stories, several employing images of hunger associated with the Famine, stand out as “extraordinary creations of imagination” (qtd. in Winter, xxxix).

O’Brien was keenly aware of the Famine’s alienating effects, both upon individuals and upon Irish culture at large. Although what we call the Famine remains difficult to locate and define precisely, O’Brien’s writing makes it possible to witness the Famine’s particular impact on Irish-American culture. O’Brien is thus able to sympathise with the Famine Irish while making room for their hunger to be digested by the broader American public.

To understand Irish assimilation into American society during the nineteenth-century (and even into the twentieth) requires recognition of the Famine’s complex effects, both on those who barely survived it and on those who prospered after it.

As Mary C. Kelly claims, “The brutal effects of the Famine on the immigrant mentalité include social, political, and cultural ramifications still virtually untapped” (“The Famine” 124). For most American readers in the nineteenth-century — even for many Irish Americans themselves — the Famine may have seemed like a distant event, separate from their experiences. “The squalor of the Great Famine,” writes Jack Morgan, “manifested nature in brute form, the very thing Americans were determined to overcome” (47).

This clash of cultures clearly concerns O’Brien, whose socially-conscious poetry and romantic fiction take on these very same forms of “abjection brought to the fore by the Famine,” which “embarrassingly clashed with the ideology of a quaint rural Ireland to which the American Irish themselves often clung, and which they wished to perpetuate” (Morgan 47).

For many Irish Americans, the Famine did not fit comfortably within their worldview. It was often couched in anger directed towards the role of British policy in perpetuating Irish suffering. Although memories of the Famine were passed on through song and story, it was often considered a subject best left in the past: “Not all those who could bear witness did so […] Some sought to banish the memories, fleeing from even any shadow that invaded their minds” (Lee 19).

In contrast to many of his fellow Irish-Americans, O’Brien admirably sought to represent the Famine in ways that allowed for the ambiguity of the event — as well as the silence surrounding it — to be acknowledged and understood.

The remainder of this chapter is broken into two distinct sections: the first, subtitled “A Hungry Bohemian Poet,” considers selected poems by O’Brien and places them in the context of the Famine, the event from which the poems’ subject matter explicitly derives. Likewise, this section considers other details of O’Brien’s biography, particularly his struggles with shame about his Irish identity and, more specifically, his witnessing of the Famine.

The final section, subtitled “The Celtic Poe,” analyses three of O’Brien’s Gothic short stories — “The Diamond Lens,” “The Pot of Tulips,” and “What Was It?” — for their more subtle, yet ultimately more meaningful and engaging representations of hunger and the related hardships of emigration associated with the Famine Irish.

From O’Brien’s short fiction emerge the most profound representations of hunger’s impact upon its witnesses.

The chapter concludes by linking the impersonal melancholy of O’Brien’s narrators to the relatable experience of witnessing the trauma of the Famine. O’Brien, whose “sympathies were naturally with the weaker side” (Stephens, lxi), was clearly concerned with his Irish brethren, who were often seen as dependent and weak. “[O]n [some] occasions,” contends Thomas E. Davis, “[O’Brien] would become subdued to such exquisite softness by the deep pathos of his words, — arousing the delicate, womanly sensibility which formed a large part of his hidden character” (xxxiii).

Clearly, O’Brien was a man affected by feelings of sympathy that he kept secret from others and perhaps even repressed from his own consciousness. Whatever shame O’Brien felt for being Irish must have been mixed together with compassion for them as a people long oppressed and downtrodden.

Ultimately, O’Brien’s curious ambivalence about the Irish — a strange feeling not unlike that mentioned by Melville — expresses itself explicitly in his socially conscious poetry and serves as the fuel for his Gothic fiction.

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