I live now in America, and it just struck me the other day, when I was asked to write this article, that maybe The Hunger is my first American piece, that it’s not just about the Irish famine, but rather about the resurgence of certain nineteenth century approaches to government in American political thought today: domestically, the idea that one should not interfere with the free market (neo-liberalism); and in foreign policy, the idea that America is the world’s policeman, unequivocally a force for good (a kind of neo-colonialism). Maybe the anti-colonial arguments have more resonance, and are more difficult to tolerate here, because the lure of a self-serving neo-colonialism is strongest here. Miller, for example, assumes that the aid given by democracies is entirely altruistic. I’m not so sure. Often, a defense of America’s “world’s policeman” role rests in fact on an argument of enlightened self-interest. However, a normal policeman operates within a shared culture and legal framework. No such homogeneity applies across the world. And in a time when the role of the police is under huge scrutiny, rightly so, especially among the black population, if we can’t even ensure fairness within the same country, how can we assume it in the world at large, especially if the policing is complicated by one’s own agenda? Self-interest can be very dangerous, if we only assume it is enlightened.
I am not convinced for that matter that Europe, which has largely moved beyond a colonialist attitude, has altogether learned from the sins of the past. How much do we discuss what happened in the Belgian Congo? How much does Europe take responsibility for the havoc it wreaked in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia? Most of my otherwise very well-read English friends know very little of the workings of the Raj in India, and almost nothing of the Penal Laws or Famine in Ireland. Until the pioneering work of the historian Christine Kinealy in the 1990s, possibly in response to a well-meaning but misplaced period of revisionism in Irish history, nobody knew that Britain actually increased food exports from Ireland during the famine. While more than a million were starving!
Yes, I suppose I am a bit angry about the fact that we don’t always seem to learn from history, and that blatant inequalities and iniquities are allowed to flourish afresh with each new generation; that often history is forgotten, and simply repeated in different contexts; that we continue to view some people as the “other” in order to dehumanize them. And yes, I suppose that energy, or even that ache, showed in the piece; in fact it may have driven much of the emotion of it.
I readily accept that some forgetting is a necessity from time to time, especially in entrenched conflicts. Forgetting was needed in Northern Ireland in order to advance the peace process of the 1990s. The relationship between the UK and Ireland has now radically changed for the good, and I hope that the seemingly suicidal Brexit vote on the UK side will not interfere with that adversely. On a side note, I hope too that it won’t affect the city of London too much either, one of my absolute favorite cities of the world, whose vitality is so dependent on its multiculturalism as much as anything else.
Mostly though, I am highly aware that history is “contested ground,” as Salman Rushdie said in a recent interview with Paul Holdengraber published online in The Literary Hub:
“History is an act of interpretation. Every age rewrites the history of the past in its own image, in the image of the things that it cares about. So history is an imaginative act. And very often, especially in our time, history is contested ground. For example, in the Middle East, you could say that there are two historical narratives competing for the same space. There is the Israeli and Palestinian narrative, which are both historical narratives, but which have such radically different readings of history that they are just about incompatible. So that idea of history, that it is something that is contested ground, that is fought over, argued over, is something you learn very early on in the study of history.”
The contested ground of The Hunger is not simply reflected in its content: it is evident in its structure. Every source is a firsthand point of view, whether that comes from Asenath Nicholson or Noam Chomsky. There is not actually a unilateral argument espoused by all of the voices in the piece. They are arguing over the history of the famine afresh, creating new narratives from it. In truth, I don’t actually know what views Maureen Murphy or Megan Vaughan hold on income inequality or neo-liberalism. Yes, I have framed it in a way that often relates to the politics of today, but that’s because some of the issues are just as pertinent now. I am not normally such a political composer, but by the same token, I feel passionately that an artist should not fear engaging with the world as they find it. If that makes it awkward and problematic for some, so be it. Life can be problematic. Too much so-called classical music lives in isolation from the world. But we don’t.
Born in Dublin, composer Donnacha Dennehy has had work featured in festivals and venues around the world, including the Edinburgh International Festival, Royal Opera House (London), Carnegie Hall, The Barbican, BAM, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival, ISCM World Music Days, WNYC’s New Sounds Live, Bang On A Can, Ultima Festival (Oslo), Musica Viva (Lisbon), the Saarbrucken Festival, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, and the Gaudeamus Festival (Amsterdam).