Cherry Smyth

Famished

Lily Xu

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Cherry Smyth, Irish born poet based in London, is currently touring the UK and Ireland with her Famine inspired poetry project Famished. She is the author of three poetry books published by Lagan Press as well as a debut novel (Hold Still, 2013). She is also known for her anthology of women prisoners’ writing A Strong Voice in a Small Space, 2002. Her current Irish history inspired project is a collaboration with musician Ed Bennet and vocalist Lauren Kinsella. Smyth explores how the emotional project came to fruition, its tragically historical context and the fervour to see it through.

Lily Xu: What inspired you to write Famished in the first place?

Cherry Smyth: One of the first things that struck me when I learnt about the Famine in a rather cursory manner in school, was that the pre-Famine population of 8.5 million has never been reached since. I could see the repercussions of Famine and its forced emigration in my generation, six generations later. Then there were more emotional triggers, such as a deep identification with the ruins in the Irish landscape, wondering why and how and when they had been left. The more I learn of the callousness of the British Empire, the more I need to know the truths behind their treatment of Ireland as a colony. 

LX: Was there a specific moment you can recall where it dawned on you - the importance of it all?

CS: More recently, it was the horrific stories of migrants crossing the Mediterranean that recalled the coffin ships crossing the Atlantic. I realised that if the Famine happened now, we’d be in the boats, stopped from landing in the UK.

LX: How did writing Famished differ from the experience of writing other pieces?

CS: I usually build up a collection from a series of loosely linked poems, whereas this is a sustained book-length poem, which required greater perseverance, self-belief and research. I was dogged by the fear that I wouldn’t be strong enough to keep looking in its terrifying face. A dear friend died the week I started the writing and my partner had cancer that year, so much grief and fear went into my poetic process. 

LX:  How did the collaboration with Bennett and Kinsella form?

CS: I was very lucky that Lauren approached me three years ago to ask if she could set some of my poems from Test, Orange to music. What an amazing request for any poet! We played at the Bray Jazz Festival in 2017 and I loved it. It was as if my poems were children who’d grown up and gone off and done great things in the world. I met Ed at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre and [we] found each other’s work exciting, so this was the perfect opportunity to work together.

LX: What is the reasoning behind the musical components of the performance?

CS: I wanted the musical element of lament to scaffold the poems; I was looking for a more collective response; and I wanted a fuller cultural response to the shamed and shocked silence around the Famine and its aftermath. I see myself as the narrator, Lauren as embodying the emotional resonances through expanded singing and Ed providing the sonic contours.

LX: Why was it important to you that Famished be translated into Irish?

CS: Four million spoke Irish before the Famine which fell to 2 million afterwards. When I learnt that the British government distributed information in English on flyers that fewer than half could read, and that most people who died were Gaelic speakers, it was important to honour that. Irish-speaking poet Aifric MacAodha and writer Aoife Casby have translated a poem each.

LX: I know you’re an Irish born poet currently based in the UK. How important is it for you to bring Famished to your homeland?

CS: It’s paramount to bring Famished to Ireland. I hadn’t realised how little schools, both north and south, still teach about the Famine. I also wanted to speak of empathy towards today’s migrants and our complex relationship to hunger, food and obesity. And of course, this is where the ancestors of survivors who didn’t leave live.

LX: Do you think having connections to both Ireland and the UK has given you a different perspective on the Famine?

CS: It’s certainly given me a perspective on anti-Irish racism. I also think that, like Joyce, Beckett, Bowen and other Irish writers abroad, I needed distance to give me permission.

LX: In the face of movements such as the ‘Me Too’ campaign, did you think it was necessary to write about the woman’s role in the Famine?

CS: Yes, I am indebted to the work of Margaret Kelleher who argues that historical accounts of the Famine until the 1990's largely ignored women’s role and experiences. Women were seen as ‘bearers’ of meaning rather than ‘makers’ of meaning.  Women stole for their children, fought workhouse cruelty, attacked cornmeal stores, organised food relief and were sent to Australia as wives for Australian men.

LX: Why have you decided to go beyond spoken word in this project and to address elements such as nursery rhymes and other social/historical aspects?

CS: Many of us grew up with the counting rhyme ‘One potato, two potato, three potato, four….’ which takes on savage associations when used in the context of Famine. I use a variety of forms and registers from the traditional lyric, autobiography and historical quotation to nursery rhyme and lists. This polyvocal style allows multiple voices to have space and even contradict each other in the narrative. Some of the shockingly dehumanising quotes interrupt the poetic skin of the text. 

LX: Why do you see it fit to address the legacy of British colonialism so many decades after the Famine?

CS: Because of Windrush, because of detention centres, because of growing xenophobia and racism and because, as Brexit shows, the Empire is something many British people idealise and wish to return to. British colonialism has not been digested at all.

LX: What does Famished mean to you on a personal level?

CS: Addressing questions that history had been asking for some time and finding answers that are sharply relevant to today. Also, developing my writing practice to include collaboration has been a joy.


Lily Xu is a recent graduate from Rathmines College. She has a Higher National Diploma in Journalism. She was born in Poland but has been living in Ireland since she was six years old. She is an aspiring feature writer with hopes of becoming an author in the future.