In 1968 Tom Murphy's play Famine was staged in Dublin's Peacock Theatre. It was an audacious act of theatrical imagination to represent, in the Irish national theatre's tiny studio space, Ireland's greatest historical disaster. In Murphy's play one family, one village, stand in for the experience of the nation. Famine opens with a split scene. The community is mourning the death of a young daughter of the Connor family with the formal rituals of the wake and the keen. At the same time, on the edge of that scene, the men exchange uneasy, disconnected remarks about the potatoes:
Mark (nervous staccato voice). But – but – but, ye see, last year the first crop failed but the main crop was good, and this year the first crop failed, but the main crop will be – will be – will be . . .
Brian. Oh, you could be right.
The fear of a second year of failure frays their conversation into broken gestures of talk.
This scene preenacts the movement of the play as a whole. A community which has expressed the rhythms of its being in inherited forms – the wake and the keen – has its capacity for utterance and understanding shattered by the magnitude of the calamity which overtakes it.
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