THE President of Ireland has called for full acknowledgement of the Famine which devastated the nation in the 1840s – describing it as a “cataclysmic” period in Irish history.
President Michael D Higgins laid a wreath at Glasnevin Cemetery today, marking the National Famine Commemoration 2021.
The ceremony included military honours as those gathered remembered all who suffered or perished during the Great Hunger, between 1845- 1852.
“It is an honour and a privilege to be asked to join with fellow Irish people wherever they may be, and in whatever circumstances, as we recall the lives, deaths and suffering of all those of our people who perished during that tragic, imposed and never to be forgotten event in the history of modern Ireland, that is the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór,” President Higgins said.
“The Famine of the 1840’s that we today recall released a cataclysmic period in our nation’s history, beyond the deaths, the emigrations, losses in every experience of life,” he explained.
“It is an event that must be acknowledged in its fullness, horror, sadness and consequences, given due recognition as to what its sources were, the responses to it, understood in all its complexity if we are to be enabled to move beyond it in time to ever nurture a process of healing such as will assist us in our dealing with those who recognise that they constitute the successors of those responsible.”
He added: “We, and they have to deal with the challenges of the present and future, without the burden of an unaddressed tragedy, an acknowledgement of what is accepted as fact as to An Gorta Mór, The Famine is a necessary prelude to the understanding we must, however difficult it is, achieve together.”
In a lengthy and emotional speech, President Higgins recalled the factors which led the Famine as well as its impact on Ireland – as a defining moment in the nation’s history as well as a precursor to the decades of emigration that followed.
“The Famine, when that single food source failed, remains the single most important event in forming, and giving form to, a distinctive form of Irish people’s relationship to the land, emigration and politics, in the decades to follow, ones defined by the Famine, its catastrophe and its human aftermath,” he explained.
“The determination to survive, whether at home or abroad, was endured at a terrible cost.”
He added: “The Famine resulted in apocalyptic conditions across Ireland at a time, of course, when the responsibility for public action, for response, had, in effect, been abdicated by the British Government and passed, at the midpoint of the Famine, to the heavily indebted Irish Poor Law Unions.”
Mr Higgins spoke at length of the devastating impact the British Government’s treatment of the Irish people had at that time.
“The source of acceptance, rationalisation of and response to the Famine is distinguished by the fact that those ruling in Britain had created the economic and food-dependency conditions of such dismal hopelessness, of desperate dependence on the potato crop,” he explained.
“The Act of Union had laid the ground and the consequences of its restrictions, all of which was premeditated and preceded in earlier times by what were barbarous Penal Laws, laws which were deliberate and methodical in their intent to lessen, exclude, reduce, deprive the vast majority of the Irish population of some of the most basic of human freedoms including religious practice or participation in the representative aspects of society. When blight struck in the 1840s, the people of the country were utterly vulnerable, dependent on what would be decided for them.”
He added: “The British government should have been willing to treat the Famine in Ireland as a humanitarian crisis, an imperial responsibility, and a responsibility to bear the costs of relief after the summer of 1847.
“In an atmosphere of rising ‘Famine fatigue’ in Britain, Ireland at that point and for the remainder of the Famine was left to survive on its own woefully inadequate resources in a misguided effort to promote greater self-reliance and self-exertion among the poor.”
President Higgins also claimed that full understanding of Irish history cannot be achieved without acknowledging the Famine.
“We cannot adequately understand our history, and its relationship with our neighbours on both sides of the Atlantic, the subsequent changes in social forces in our own country, and how these would inform our outlooks and politics, without engagement with the Great Famine,” he said.
“An affected amnesia serves nobody, rather emphasises the hurt, retains the old rationalisations that can no longer suffice.”
For the future, and how the nation might attempt to heal the painful legacies of the Famine, President Higgins concluded his speech by suggesting Irish singer Sineád O'Connor has some good advice.
“As to a healing then, as to how the scars of An Gorta Mór and so much else might be healed, and in a lasting way, with painful legacies in time translated, Sineád O’Connor’s remarkable song “Famine” puts it well," he said.
He recited the following part of the song: “And if there ever is going to be healing, there has to be remembering. And then grieving. So that there then can be forgiving. There has to be knowledge and understanding.”