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The Famine Road

By Eavan Boland

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The Famine Road is from Eavan Boland's first collection of poems The War Horse (1975). In this poem she dramatically recreates a tragic period of starvation, disease and death in Irish history. At the same time the poet links it with another tragic incident, the unhappy story of a woman diagnosed by her doctor as suffering from infertility. This complex structure makes ' The Famine Road 'in effect two poems in one, with alternating verses ironically contrasting and highlighting each other. Distinctly different voices are heard in each section of the poem. In the first we hear that of Lord Trevelyan (through his letter to Colonel Jones); then the collective voice of the Relief Committee; thirdly that of the poet herself as third-person narrator; and finally that of Colonel Jones (through his letter to Trevelyan). In the second section we hear the voice of the doctor, and finally that of the poet herself, apostrophising the infertile woman and linking her plight to that of the helpless famine victims.

The Great Famine (1845-9) resulted from the failure, in three years out four, of the potato crop, then the basic diet of the Irish people. From 1847 there was a related epidemic of typhoid. In all approximately one million Irish men, women and children died of hunger and disease. The British Government's response to the crisis was dictated by the prevailing economic policy of laissez-faire which held that any interference with market-forces would bankrupt Irish landlords and seriously damage trade. From a religious point of view many Christians regarded the Famine as the working of Divine Providence as a corrective to the Irish problem of over-population. The British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, established a Relief Commission under the control of Sir Charles Trevelyan, First Lord of the Treasury. As part of the relief programme the Irish Board of Works (established by the British Government in 1831 to promote the economic development of Ireland), under the chairmanship of Colonel Jones, was to provide paid relief work for famine victims through the construction of new roads. These roads often led to nowhere - up the sides of mountains, through bogs. The authorities regarded any kind of employment as preferable to giving the starving people hand-outs. At local level Relief Committees were set up - constituted from the landlord, magistrates, clergymen, dignitaries.

In an essay entitled 'Outside History' Eavan Boland explained how she first became aware of the Great Famine and of those who starved to death or died of disease during that horrific four-year period. On a visit to Achill Island in her student days the poet met an old woman who, she claims, was

The first person to talk to me about the famine. The first person, in fact, to speak to me with any force about the terrible parish of survival and death which the event had been in those regions. She kept repeating to me that they were great people, the people of the famine. Great people, I had never heard that before.

(There is a stretch of disused road in Achill which to this day is still known as the famine road by the islanders).

In the opening verse we learn (through his letter) of Lord Trevelyan's callous, dismissive attitude towards these Irish the tragic victims of starvation. He dismisses them as lazy, Idle as trout in light (the image also suggests their vulnerability as trout are clearly visible when they come to the surface of a river on a sunny day), their bones need toil, and also as morally degenerate, their characters no less (need toil). The brutal image, Trevelyan's seal blooded the deal table, ominously foreshadowed the real bloodshed that is to come and for which he is responsible. The document bearing the red seal-wax becomes a metaphorical death-warrant. The Relief Committee tentatively suggests to Colonel Jones that the building of roads, roads...from nowhere, going nowhere, might provide the character building toil advocated by Trevelyan in his letter. Tragically a small powerful group (consisting of a British army officer and members of the Protestant Ascendancy Class) sitting around a table dispassionately decide the fate of countless thousands of the powerless native Irish population. Verbal repetition and assonance of doleful 'o' sounds hammer home the utter futility of pointless relief work which only further weakens an already starving people.

roads, roads to force
from nowhere, going nowhere

The second verse begins abruptly in mid-sentence. Once more a person in a position of power, here a doctor, is unsympathetically evaluating the medical history, the case, of a helpless woman who is reduced to the level of a statistic and so robbed of her identity as an individual, like the famine victims. As yet we do not know the nature of her medical problem and so an element of suspense is introduced.

In the third verse the poet speaks in her own voice, vividly describing the awful reality of the Famine through a sequence of horrific images. The opening adjectives Sick, directionless emphatically highlight the physical plight of the relief workers and the utterly pointless nature of their toil. There is also a suggestion of hopelessness in directionless. It is not only the road which is going nowhere, but their lives as well. Worse still, their tools are the most basic-their own bloodied hands-and they work without any physical nourishment to sustain them. By means of an utterly insensitive rhetorical question attributed to the British authorities Eavan Boland is herself exposing and questioning their dismissive, callous attitude towards the starving Irish people, as expressed earlier by Trevelyan in his letter

they not blood their knuckles on rock, suck
April hailstones for water and for food?

The real blood being shed recalls the blood-red seal on the First Lord`s letter. Through a grotesque, bizarre image the poet also attributes to these same authorities the view that the starving Irish are so primitive and barbaric that they would even cannibalise one another in order to survive the Famine,

cunning as housewives, each eyed-
as if at a corner butcher-the other's buttock.

The image is Homeric in its surprising introduction of ordinary, everyday life into a scene of appalling historical misery and suffering.

In the fourth verse the scene shifts again to the surgery where the doctor continues his off-hand, callous diagnosis. He disclaims any personal, professional responsibility for his patient's condition which he describes as a mystery defying medical explanation. She is dismissed as just another victim of fate.

In the fifth verse the story of the Famine Road is resumed. Boland graphically describes how hunger and fever have eroded the basic human feeling of compassion among the suffering Irish peasants. The end of the day, Dusk, brings the end of a life. The road-builders walk away from, and so reject, one of their own who has contracted typhoid. The tragic breakdown of social rituals caused by the fear of fever is seen in the denial of blood ties, in the absence of mourning, in the failure to recite the prayers for the dead. And this breakdown is powerfully conveyed through a nature image which also highlights the fragility of human life, while at the same time suggesting the huge numbers of dead

No more than snow
attends its own flakes where they settle
and melt, will they pray by his death rattle.

The reference to blood tainted echoes blood their knuckles and Trevelyan's seal blooded the deal table.

In the sixth verse the doctor's attitude becomes less sympathetic. He addresses his patient as woman, not even dignifying her with a name. Much worse, he heartlessly emphasises the utter finality of her loss

You never will, never you know

Finally with a total lack of understanding and compassion, he urges her to find consolation in her role as homemaker

your garden, keep house, good-bye.

For the heartbroken woman tending her garden and keeping house will be as unfulfilling and meaningless as building a famine road to nowhere was for the starving Irish. Thus the doctor's neglect of his desperate patient's emotional needs mirrors the heartless lack of concern of the British ruling class for the feelings of the Irish famine victims.

The opening statement of the seventh verse is bitterly ironic in view of the dreadful suffering described in the third and fifth verses

It has gone better than we expected

In his reply to Lord Trevelyan's earlier letter Colonel Jones smugly reports that his political master's policy has been successfully implemented. The wretches have been so exhausted by toiling at the building of the famine roads that they have no strength left to rebel. At the same time the problem of their idleness has been solved. Here the voice of Jones is the voice of heartless British imperialism. Ironically the famine-workers' bodies rot and their bones lie beside the very roads they helped to build and which stand as their grim memorials. The metaphorical bones of the opening verse have become real bones; the process of dehumanisation is complete. Jones' triumphalist statement

we march the corn
to the ships in peace.

serves as a reminder that the British government continued to export corn from Ireland during the years 1845-9. The final rhyming couplet, bones....Jones, indirectly links the English Colonel with moral responsibility for the Famine victims. The poem opened with Trevelyan's letter to Colonel Jones advocating a political strategy to deal with the Famine crisis. It concludes with Jones' reply to Trevelyan, reporting on the successful implementation of that policy. The two letters act as a frame for the dramatised historical event.

In the eight verse we are finally made aware of the exact nature of the nameless woman's medical problem - she is infertile. But just as the starving people are not allowed to express their feelings directly, neither does the poet give the woman her own voice. However, just as the Irish in the poet responds instinctively to the suffering of her ancestors, in the same way the woman in Eavan Boland responds sympathetically and identifies with the plight of another woman. The utter finality of never, the plaintive 'o' sounds, and the poignant rhetorical question all emphasise the overwhelming weight of the woman's grief

Barren, never to know the load
of his child in you, what is your body
now if not a famine road?

The pessimistic conclusion here is that a woman's body is useless if it does not produce a child, just as a road is useless if it leads nowhere.

In The Famine Road the poet links a whole people's experience, physical and psychological, of defeat and failure with one woman's experience of physical failure and psychological suffering. A further analogy is that the infertility of mother Ireland, her failure to produce a potato crop, led to terrible suffering, physical and mental for her children. Similarly the woman's failure to produce a child will cause her terrible mental suffering. Moreover, both the starving Irish people and the barren woman can be seen as victims of an inscrutable Divine Power. A helpless sense of defeat is also common to both experiences.

The two strands of The Famine Road are concerned with the abuse of power, on a political level and on an individual professional level. The British government actively abuse their political power by inflicting further unnecessary suffering on an already starving, powerless people. On an individual level the doctor abuses his power by neglecting to do his duty by the woman and failing to respond sympathetically to her plight.

When she was asked in an interview what being Irish meant to her, Eavan Boland explained:

Apart from the fact that connects me with a past, I find it a perspective on my womanhood as well. Womanhood and Irishness are metaphors for one another. There are resonances of humiliation, oppression and silence in both of them and I think you can understand one better by experiencing the other.

In The Famine Road the links between Irishness and womanhood are many - lack of understanding, callous treatment, a sense of failure and uselessness, silent suffering.

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