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October 30, 2017


Famine by Tom Murphy Irish Playwright

by NancyElin




  1. Tom Murphy  grew up in Tuam, County Galway, a tough frontier town.
  2. The youngest of 10 children, he saw his family “wiped out” by emigration.
  3. He was religious as a child, but had faith beaten out of him by the Christian Brothers.
  4. “The repressiveness of the Catholic upbringing was extreme,” he shivers
  5. Murphy was inspired to write this play after
  6. ….reading The Great Hunger  by  C. Woodham-Smith.


What is Tom Murphy’s approach to writing a play with a historical background?

  1. Murphy  reads many books about the subject of his play.
  2. Sometimes is takes him 1-2 years to write the script.
  3. He read at least 6 non fiction books
  4. …researched the collections of the Irish Folklore Commission
  5. …and 3 novels about the famine in Ireland.
  6. Novels: all by William Carleton
    Valentine McClutchy: the Irish Agent
    The Emigrants of Ahadarra
    The Black Prophet.
    In each case noting passages of dialogue and colloquial phrases.


What was TM’s biggest challenge?

  1. How to represent the action of more than 100 years ago so as to
  2. …engage audiences in the present time of theater.


What was Murphy’s goal?

  1. Murphy  wanted to voice through the actors the
  2. general effect of famines on the poor.
  3. The neighborhood ties loosen of dissolve.
  4. Theft becomes endemic.
  5. Resistance changes into apathy.
  6. The feeling of a ‘group’ is shattered.



  1. Style:   Brechtian history
  2. the Brechtian style that relies on the audience’s reflective detachment
  3. rather than emotional involvement.
  4. Structure: 12 scenes  (not divided into acts)
  5. Main character: John Connor —- unofficial  leader of the village
  6. Minor characters: 3 women and 15 other male villagers
  7. Timeline: 1846 (Autumn) – 1847 (Spring)
  8. Setting: village of Glanconor – space is ‘charged’ with historical trauma.


What is the problem?

  1. John tells the villagers ‘We must do what is right’.
  2. — restrain violence
  3. — no attacks on convoy of corn-carts
  4. — providing hospitality to others…..even when his own family is starving.


What is the conflict?

  1. Doing ‘what’s right’ and placing  faith in the laws of God and man
  2. get him and the villagers no where.
  3. Passive resistance; pragmatic idealism ( John Connor) VS.
  4. Desperate reality (John’s  wife) and
  5. Militant,  activist, a survivor who favors violent action (Malachy O’ Leary)



  1. Tom Murphy writes with more force and less nostalgia.
  2. Famine is hard edged realism.
  3. Scenes 1-4 introduce the reader to the characters and village.
  4. Scene 5  is powerful.
  5. …and the language indicates the higher-class officials  are speaking.
  6. Landlord, tenant John and the clergy Fr Horan and Fr Daley discuss the political
  7. strategy that has been agreed upon by the government.
  8. The  policy is to offer “..a great number of people an alternative to death.”
  9. The farmers will be given a paid ticket to leave the country…to emigrate to Canada.
  10. Fr Daley explodes when he hears “It is cheaper it clear them away”
  11. Fr Daley  ask: “Who are we saving?”
  12. Scene 6-10   builds the tension…planned assassination, final interview for John Connor.
  13. He must choose to leave or stay in Glanconor
  14. “…I was born here, I’ll die here, I’ll rot here.”
  15. Scene 11 Tom Murphy brings the play to a close introducing unexpected  actions.
  16. John  Connor continues to be defiant, “ what’s right”
  17. We see John as an isolated figure, perhaps he has lost his senses.
  18. Now the reader must decide:  was John a hero or a fool?


Last thoughts:

Tom Murphy does not seek the limelight
…but his plays are ‘beacons’ of insight into
the Irish psyche.
He is considered to be the greatest living Irish playwright.



Read more from Classic, Ireland, plays

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