Famines in Mnemohistory and National Narratives in Finland and Ireland, c. 1850-1970

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


    This thesis analyses famines and their afterlives in national contexts. The major famines in Ireland and Finland from 1845-52 and in the late 1860s, respectively, are used as case studies, to explore how issues of famine, memory, and history take symbolic and narrative shape. The chronology encompasses the mnemohistorical period for each famine, i.e. the period of coexistence between those who can remember an event and those who were born after it, and therefore cannot remember it. In other words, this period of about approximately one hundred years for each country incorporates the perspectives of both memory and history.

    The thesis consists of three published articles, two article drafts, and an extensive introduction-discussion into the main overlapping fields of the research topic: famine studies, collective memory studies, and nationalism studies. The dissertation argues for a more clinical definition of memory, and the adoption of the analytical concept of mnemohistory in collective memory studies. Mnemohistory acknowledges that memory and historical representations of the past are in a dynamic relationship, for as long as the generation that experienced the event still lives. Over time, as the proportion of the group that can remember an event diminishes and its influence on society transforms, i.e. the mnemohistorical progression, historical representations becomes dominant. However, memory is still evoked in a metaphorical sense, even by people who cannot remember the famine themselves. This is especially the case when the famine in question is incorporated as a significant event in a national narrative. Evoking memory in this way carries a different function, a function of identity politics, in contrast to the memories of those who can remember their own experiences, for whom memory was essentially a subjective perspective embedded in their own life course.

    This study is based upon insights gained from reading sources from a comparative perspective. The sources, in both Ireland and Finland, have been interpreted through a discourse analysis of national history textbooks, national academic, public, and popular historiographies of the famine, historical novels and plays, contemporary newspapers, population and trade statistics, local histories, and folklore testimonies. The benefit of studying two countries instead of just one has been that it enables the discovery of multiple new research problems that previous, and mainly nationally framed, research has either not noticed or addressed. This research setting questions the definitions of what could or should be considered as a “normal” famine story in a “normal” national narrative.

    The three main findings of this study are as follows. Firstly, in order to analyse the aftermath of a famine it is vital to identify the historical context wherein the narrative is being voiced: the target audience and the different ways in which different societal groups or generations give meaning to the past. It is neither society nor nations that remember the past, but individuals who try to make sense of it. This study has not been able to identify a common blueprint for how a major famine could be, or even should be, narrated. Every narrative possesses different aims and purposes; the promotion of ideological, national, or local identities sets the boundaries for the potential utility of how a famine may be incorporated into the narrative, if it is incorporated at all. Local commemorations may share a wider similarity, but they respond to locally identified needs for commemorative activity, which reflects politics on a local level, and may - although perhaps in only a limited sense - conform to broader national narratives, depending on the context. National narratives, like those articulated in educational textbooks, aim to indoctrinate pupils with a shared identity, and a historical famine is nothing more than a potential narrative device to fulfil that goal.

    Secondly, in both countries the public and popular interest in topics concerning the famine began to be increasingly articulated publicly around twenty to fifty years after the event. It was during this period that those who could remember the famine were reduced from a majority to a minority of the population, approximately thirty years after the events; thus, in an increasingly literary society, there was an increasing need for representations of the famines in print. Hence, historical representations began to be published, with rhetorically legitimizing references to the author’s memory as evidence for the narrator’s authority and accuracy. This is one manifestation of the embeddedness of memory and history. However, in the Irish context the political constellation of antagonism between Ireland and Britain provided the Irish Famine with greater currency within their national narrative than was the case in the Finnish context. In the Finnish case, the famine became muted politically, especially after the Civil War in 1918, but resurfaced in local commemorative activity by the end of the mnemohistorical period. Throughout the mnemohistorical period in both countries, it was typical for narrators in public discourses to obfuscate the differences in perspective between witnesses and survivors, with the direct result of strengthening transgenerational collective identity.

    Thirdly, as this is a pioneering study in terms of its scope, scale, and multitude of perspectives, it raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Essentially, it demonstrates that despite the rich source material and extensive research traditions on these famines, we know quite little about them. There remains plenty work to be done to better understand what famines are, and what kind of meaning and legacy can be attributed to them. There is no shortage of sources, in both Ireland and Finland; rather, there is more of a shortage of innovative and meaningful methods of interpretation, and of framing famines and famine research, as well as taking care to include the wide variety of perspectives embedded in famines.

    Keywords: Famine, mnemohistory, national narratives, nation-building, Finland, Ireland, textbooks, historiography, commemoration, representation
    Original languageEnglish
    • Häkkinen, Antti, Supervisor
    • Fewster, Derek, Supervisor
    • Newby, Andrew G. , Advisor
    Thesis sponsors
    Place of PublicationHelsinki
    Print ISBNs978-951-51-3418-9
    Electronic ISBNs978-951-51-3417-2
    Publication statusPublished - 2020
    MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

    Fields of Science

    • 615 History and Archaeology
    • 517 Political science

    Cite this