National Famine Commemoration Speech – 17/5/2020

Is onóir mhór domsa bheith anseo inniu thar ceann an Rialtais don chomóradh Stáit seo ar ócáid Chuimhneachán Náisiúnta an Ghorta Mhóir 2020 agus fearaim fíor-chaoin fáilte romhaibh uile.

It is a privilege for me to represent the Government today as we honour the memory of the victims of the Great Famine. I would also like to welcome the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Tom Brabazon and His Excellency, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, who have joined us today.

This year the National Famine Commemoration was to have been held in Buncrana Co. Donegal.  However, due to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, these plans, like so many others, have had to be put on hold for now.  I look forward to Buncrana’s hosting of the Commemoration next year.

As we confront the Covid-19 pandemic, let us recall that the Great Famine was a public health emergency in its own right. The failure of the potato crop 175 years ago, and the widespread hunger that followed, brought with it three destructive diseases: dysentery, smallpox and the dreaded ‘famine fever’. In the years between 1845 and 1849, a million people died, not primarily of hunger, but from the epidemics brought on by hunger and the terrible conditions in the land.

When we look back on those years, our thoughts cannot but turn to those who suffered.  We think of the people who lost their property, their homes, their families and sadly, in so many cases, their own lives.  We gather each year to pay our respects to their memory.  However, we also remember and pay tribute to those who survived and came through those terrible years, either here in Ireland or on foreign shores among the great diaspora spawned by those years.  We also salute their courage and resilience, taking pride in their achievements which echo down the generations.

This year, as we stand before this powerful sculpture by Edward Delaney, we think particularly also of the heroes of the Famine years.  Those individuals and groups who, when faced with the enormity of the disaster enveloping their neighbours, did not turn away, but sought to help.

The Great Famine and its associated legacy of disease and suffering did not respect differences in religion or geography or class. However, as we look back on that terrible time, we can also recognize that the basic human urge to reach out to help those in need, also transcended boundaries.

We think of people like Dr. Daniel Donovan of Skibbereen or the many members of the Quaker community throughout the country who responded to the dire need they saw around them.

We also remember the contributions received from abroad – from Britain, Turkey and diverse communities in the United States including the Jewish Community in New York and the Committee of Coloured Citizens in Philadelphia.

One of the most enduring memories of the international impact of the Great Famine is the contribution to relief by the Choctaw Nation – themselves no strangers to suffering – which has its echo in the contributions by Irish people to recent fund raising initiatives on behalf of Native American communities affected by COVID-19.

Other names that come to mind include the Polish Count Paul Strzelecki who did such important work in so many towns and and Dr. George Robert Grassett in Toronto, and the many doctors and nurses who put themselves at risk to care for the victims who had fled the Famine on the notorious coffin ships.  They will always have our thanks for their courage.

As a people, we have through the generations sought to repay the gift of their generosity of spirit by the contribution of our missionaries and aid workers throughout the Developing World.  As our society has changed and evolved, this commitment to helping others has never wavered and continues to this day.

In her poem Quarantine, the late Eavan Boland movingly evoked the efforts of a loving husband to support his wife with the last of his strength, when she said:

“She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.

He lifted her and put her on his back.”

The heroes of the Famine that we honour today also sought to lift and carry those who fell or could not keep up.  That same spirit of caring and self sacrifice that is embedded in the caring professions, is being seen again today as our health workers embrace the challenge of caring for those affected by Covid-19.

We honour and respect these modern-day heroes and value their courage.  Perhaps we can best show our appreciation for their work, and the efforts of their forebears during the Great Famine, by adhering to those small acts of heroism we are called upon to perform in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and to come though these testing times, just as our ancestors once did.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the work of the Ofice of Public Works, the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána, the staff of my own Department, and all those who have worked on today’s arrangements.

I would particularly like to thank Aimee Banks for her beautiful performance of Brendan Graham’s Crucán na bPáiste which evoked a spirit among all of us that is perhaps best captured by the Irish “Comhbhrón” or shared sorrow.

I would also thank the members of National Famine Commemoration Committee for their ongoing work in fostering the memory of the Famine.  It is also my pleasure today to unveil a plaque marking the establishment of the Committee and first Annual Famine Commemoration held in the Custom house in 2008.  This plaque will be installed at the Custom house later this year.

Finally, I would also like to thank all of you who have joined us for today’s ceremony to ensure that the victims of An Gorta Mór are remembered with respect and dignity.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh.