I confess, I love British royal dramas. I’ve seen scads of Tudor stuff, and I’ve watched all the episodes so far of PBS’ Victoria, but I have to shut off parts of my brain to do it — the parts that are Irish and Catholic. But the next episode turns them back on.
Victoria Goes to Ireland on Sunday (on TV, Anyway)
I’ll leave Henry VIII and Elizabeth I for another time (but you can click here to see what I had to say about the portrayal of Katherine of Aragon on Showtime’s The Tudors).
As for Victoria, currently airing season three Sunday nights on PBS’ Masterpiece (check local listings), I’ll give the show credit for not shying away completely from the issues the British crown had (has) with the Irish, Catholics and, at the tip of that spear, Irish Catholics.
But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely up front about them, either.
In the episode airing on most PBS channels on Sunday, Feb. 10 (check local listings), Victoria, wearing a dress ironically embroidered with shamrocks (widely associated with Catholic St. Patrick), visits Ireland — just after the worst of the recent famine is over.
What Brits Know — and Don’t Know — About the Irish Famine
Credit goes to series creator and writer Daisy Goodwin for a season-two episode that focused on the staggering holocaust that was the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. Amazingly, British press at the time said that many viewers in the U.K. were unaware of what had happened just across the Irish Sea.
British viewers were truly shocked to discover the brutality of the Great Hunger. Many of them had not previously known of the death of at least one million and emigration of a further million of their closest neighbors in what must be regarded as the darkest and most horrifying seven years in Irish history.
Looks like British history education is about as good as much of ours.
So, What was the Potato Famine?
Forced to be tenant farmers on their own land — with large swaths in the hands of British or British-supported aristocracy — many Irish gave over everything they grew to pay the rent. Much of this food was exported to England, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey and beef. As for the farmers and their families, they ate potatoes, which grew well on the bits of ground they had to feed themselves.
When the blight hit, and the potato crop failed, a million died from disease and starvation (sometimes reduced to cannibalism or eating grass) and a million emigrated (which I suppose was welcome news to British overlords, who then had more land for grazing and fewer troublesome Irish).
The British famine-relief effort was, to use the mildest possible term, inadequate. The harshest assessment is many of the powerful in Britain saw it as opportunity — and it was the fault of the profligate, over-breeding Irish Catholics, anyway.
Click here for a link to the Irish Famine Museum.
Victoria and the Famine
A season-two episode of Victoria, called Skibbereen, dealt with this, through the eyes of one of Goodwin’s ancestors, Church of Ireland (that’s the Crown-approved Irish Protestant church) minister Robert Traill — who had the unheard-of notion that he should try to feed all those in his geographic parish, whether Protestant or Catholic.
The episode also shows Victoria as being deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Irish, and even nice to an Irish-Catholic servant.
From a review in the U.K. Telegraph, which takes a dissenting view:
It was inevitable that the question of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s would present something of a knotty problem for Victoria (ITV). The series’ efforts to promote the young monarch (Jenna Coleman) as woman of supremely, often anachronistically, enlightened attitudes on a wide range of social issues was always going to run slap, bang, wallop into the fact that history has left us with very little evidence that she bothered taking any interest at all in the famine. Much less that she cared in any way deeply about the Biblically proportioned catastrophe that was carrying away more than a million of her beloved subjects right on her doorstep.
Thus the fifth episode of Victoria pretty much had its potato cake and ate it, by painting an imaginative picture of a monarch secretly horrified about a situation that she was well aware of, but hamstrung – and therefore unable to speak out – by a cynical prime minister, Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) who was far more interested in saving votes at home than saving lives in Ireland.
“There is no evidence that she had any real compassion for the Irish people in any way,” said historian Christine Kinealy, founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University.
Kinealy has studied Queen Victoria’s diaries as well as the writings of Prime Ministers Peel and Russell, and she believes that “Victoria” may be overplaying the real queen’s empathy.
“We know that really she had no interest in Ireland and so to imagine she wanted to do more doesn’t really ring true,” Kinealy told IrishCentral.
But, says Goodwin herself to the U.K. RadioTimes:
In the episode about the Irish potato famine, I have Victoria meet the Irish clergyman Robert Traill (my great-great-great-grandfather), even though it never happened in real life, because I wanted to show how affected she was by the suffering in Ireland. She has been called the Famine Queen, but in fact Victoria herself gave £2,000 (more like £150,000 in today’s money), to Irish relief – it was her government who let the Irish starve, not their Queen.
Victoria Makes a Carefully Planned Irish TripIn 1849 (two years after the worst year of the famine, nicknamed “Black ’47), the British queen went to the east of Ireland (less ravaged by the famine than the west). The episode, which I saw through an online screener, shows her as being again, very concerned, about the Irish people, even though history indicates she met very few dissenters to her reign.
The dissenters, though, were there and continued to try to be heard.
In fact, it wasn’t until her fourth and final visit to Ireland as an old lady in 1900, just a year before her death, that the well-known nickname of The Famine Queen came to be. The almost blind, wheelchair-using monarch was branded as such by Maud Gonne, Irish revolutionary, suffragette and muse of W. B. Yeats, who worked alongside Irish labor leader and 1916 Easter Rising revolutionary James Connolly to protest the arrival of the British Queen in Ireland.
In a scathing article titled “The Famine Queen” Gonne accused Queen Victoria of failing to help “the survivors of sixty years of organized famine.” Although quickly banned by the British authorities, the article’s damning nickname for Queen Victoria stuck. The queen found herself shouldering some of the blame for the approximately one million deaths.
One can argue how much Victoria could have done, or would have done, for Ireland, but in the sense that she stands in for England, her reputation can’t remain unstained.
Was Queen Victoria Anti-Catholic?
Anti-Catholic attitudes are sprinkled throughout Victoria, coming from the mouths of aristocrats, royalty and cabinet ministers — and frequently from the queen’s butler. The queen is shown as being above it all, but …
The Queen demonstrated only a few of the prejudices of her people. She was hostile toward the Papacy, and feared Roman Catholic inroads in Britain as threatening disequilibrium.
So, did she dislike Catholics or merely that the pope (Catholics are frequently called “papists” in the series) was a rival to her position as being one step below God? Indeed, as a state-sponsored church, the Church of England has disapproved of any threats to its hegemony, whether they be Catholic or Protestant (just ask the Puritans and Pilgrims).
(NOTE: Recent news reports, though, suggest the Archbishop of Canterbury is pretty chill with Anglicans becoming Catholic. What would Queen V think?)
Apparently Queen Victoria leaned more toward the stripped-down services of the Presbyterian-ish Church of Scotland than High Church Anglicanism. From the text accompanying a podcast at the U.K. Spectator:
Our guest on today’s Holy Smoke podcast is A.N. Wilson, author of a hugely admired biography of Queen Victoria and – as you’ll hear – the most mischievous intellectual in the land.
Cristina Odone and I started out by asking about Victoria’s vigorous (and possibly whisky-fuelled) persecution of Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England: the Queen lobbied hard for the legislation that sent several of them to jail for popish “ritualism.”
Victoria Is Historical Drama, But It Frequently Isn’t History
Victoria often plays fast and loose with history, wildly changing people’s ages (octogenarian Diana Rigg’s elderly Duchess of Buccleuch was actually only a few years older than the young Victoria), or inventing a gay romance where there wasn’t one.
Also, Victoria was a woman of her time and place, so there’s that.
But, as someone who’s ethnically about three-quarters Irish and a quarter French (French-Canadian, actually, Je Me Souviens!), along with being American and Catholic, it’s impossible not to have deeply mixed feelings about the British monarchy.
So, while I enjoy a good costume drama, I remember that, when it comes to Britain and Catholicism, especially Catholic Ireland, you’re only going to hear one side of the story, and probably not all of that.
And since pro-abortion Ireland seems determined to kick off the traces of anything Catholic and join the “modern” world, Victoria probably needn’t have worried. The Irish have themselves done what the British Crown couldn’t — driving the Faith from Roman Briton Patrick’s mission field.