In the long recorded history of our island there is no more traumatic and devastating event than the Great Famine.
In a few short years Ireland saw an unimaginable loss of life and a dramatic escalation of emigration. An Gorta Mór changed who we were – who we are. Its indelible marks are still there in our culture, our society, our politics and our place in the wider world.
As those terrible days become more distant from us they have receded as a defining part of our family stories, but their centrality to our national story remains as important as ever.
A rapid and profoundly radical series of changes began to an extend which was impossible for people to understand at the time and which are still difficult to comprehend given their scale and brutality.
Famines had always been an irregular but still significant part of European and Irish history. It had been the case that wherever a population lived on small holding with limited food sources and no other resources crop failures or wars could lead to famines.
However, the Nineteenth Century was supposed to be the age of new technology in transport, communications and agriculture. Widespread famines were supposed to be a thing of the past – here we were to witness the most devastating and widespread death through starvation and illness ever recorded.
The bare statistics do scant justice to the suffering and the devastation of their way of life as experienced by the people of Ireland during An Drochshaol, but they still have the power to shock. One quarter of the population of this island dies or were driven to emigrate.
And of course it was poorer communities which felt the full force of the Famine. Places which had been filled by unique stories, music and dialects were pushed to or beyond the edge of extinction. In the face of dispossession and pushed to the margins of colonial society, they had survived and retained a spirit and energy which shines through when you look at the collections of poetry, music and tales gathered in the century before the Famine.
It was a spirit and energy which was increasingly challenging the elite effort to dismiss popular culture and ignore the creativity of a people who bore many burdens but showed incredible strength.
But after those darks years of famine our national language entered a rapid decline – both because of lost speakers and the desperate desire of survivors to leave behind what they felt were marks of the poverty which had exposed them. So, while in the rest of Europe national language revivals were built on a foundation of expanding communities, we lacked that here.
The clearance of large areas continued at a pace, justified by the stated objective of having more sustainable holdings. What was missing was any attempt to build manufacturing or processing employment which would have provided an alternative to emigration.
It reinforced the fact that Ireland and its people were not seen as full members of the state which governed them.
As you look Irish culture in the years afterwards, in many ways it becomes more closed, defined by a trauma often unspoken, but always understood.
Irish language writing has continued to be a unique place to express the sorrow and anger of how this terrible, avoidable, loss of life and community has left so many scars.
As Máire Ní Dhroma from Ring in Co. Waterford put it in her poem Amhrán na Prátaí Dubha
Ní hé Dia a cheap riamh an obair seo,
Daoine bochta a chur le fuacht is le fán,
Iad a chur sa phoorhouse go dubhach is glas orthu,
Lánúineacha pósta is iad scartha go bás.
Nach trua móruaisle go bhfuil mórán coda acu
Ag íoc as an obair seo le Rí na nGrás;
Fearaibh bochta an tsaoil seo ná fuair riamh aon saibhreas
Ach ag síorobair dóibh ó aois go bás.
Written in recent years, this is a poem which reminds us that with and sorrow should also come determination.
The rising nationalist and then republican politics which followed in the decades which ultimately led to independence was absolutely shaped by the Famine and public understanding of what had been allowed to happen.
It was their belief that a self-governing Ireland would have acted to save lives and address the core issue of access to sustainable food supplies.
This belief rested on a lot more than rationalising events after the fact or just bashing the British government – their underlying principles have been consistently backed up by modern research.
One of the greatest economists of the last fifty years is the Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen.
He devoted his early career to studying why famines happen. Looking at evidence in all parts of the world and through history he reached a conclusion we should always remember: Famines do not happen in democracies. In fact, there is no recorded account of a famine in a country where the government is freely elected and there is free speech.
I think if you want to know why Ireland never again had a famine, you will find it in our commitment to self-determination and building a democratic state. Our refusal to follow the extreme ideologies of the 20th century was driven by this commitment.
As we mark 100 years of this state, that is a powerful lesson for us to remember.
Yet now in 2022, 175 years after Black ’47, we see a world where the spectre of Famine still haunts millions.
In Somalia alone, 6 million people are again affected by food insecurity only 10 years after 250,000 people, many of them children, died from hunger. Just as in the 1840’s, the effects of drought are exacerbated by human action and inaction. Politics and ideology once again combine to increase the suffering of the poorest among us.
As a people we know from our own bitter past that this is not just. The Irish people continue to be leaders in sending not just thoughts and prayers, but money, expertise and most importantly our people, be they missionaries, peacekeepers or the staff of our many NGO’s to assist those experiencing the darkest of times.
Through our participation in International bodies, such as the United Nations, we have sought to raise our voice in defence of the victims.
And of course, we are steadfast in our solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they defend themselves against a brutal and unjust war waged against them by a neo-imperial power.
One of the many reasons why the people of Ukraine prize their freedom so dearly is that they too bear deep scars from a Famine which destroyed millions of lives. The Holodomor of 1932-33 was a crime against humanity – a famine imposed on what is one of the largest food producing countries in the world.
When the people of Ukraine voted for independence they did so in a spirit of self-reliance and without rancour. They chose for themselves a simple flag of a clear sky over fields of wheat.
It was not an aggressive and exclusionary nationalism, but a nationalism which we and so many others can relate to.
Ireland has opened its doors to the people of Ukraine at their time of need and that crisis has brought home the importance of those who can help others, doing whatever they can to aid those in dire straits.
This too is reflective of what we know about those compassionate and generous individuals who did what they could to help the people of Ireland during the Great Famine. Those contributions and acts of kindness must never be forgotten.
If we are to honour the victims of our Great Famine, if we are to be true to the spirit of trying to rid the curse of famine from our world, then we must be resolute in standing for cooperation between nations on the basis of humanitarian and democratic values.
As we are reminded in the Famine Museum, we too saw such values. We remember the doctors, the clergy, the Quaker community, and further afield, the members of groups such as the British Relief Association, the Choctaw Nation, the Jewish Community of New York, the Coloured Citizens of Philadelphia and the people of Toronto and countless others who opened their hearts.
In closing, I would like to acknowledge the work all those who have worked on today’s arrangements and to voice my thanks to 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.
Ní dhéanfaimid dearmad go deo.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.