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Address at the National Famine Commemoration 2018

University College Cork, 12 May 2018

A Ardmhéara agus a Mhéara,
A Thánaiste,
A Oirirceasa,
A Theachtaí Dála agus A Sheanadóirí,
A Uachtaráin Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh,
A Chomhairleoirí,
A Chairde,

Is mór an onóir dom bheith i bhur dteannta inniu i gColáiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh chun na daoine dár sinsir a d’fhulaing agus a d’éag le linn an Ghorta Mhóir a thabhairt chun cuimhne.


Lord Mayor and Mayor,
Your Excellencies,
Members of Dáil and Seanad Éireann,
President of University College Cork,
Dear friends,


It is a great honour to be here with you all today in University College Cork, as we recall all those who suffered and perished during that most defining event in the making of modern Ireland, the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mór. 

May I straight away congratulate those scholars at University College Cork who have brought scholarship on An Gorta Mór to a new level and have disseminated their work to an ever-growing number of an interested public at home and abroad.

We meet today in college founded in 1845, the year in which the first great failure of potato crop occurred, a college which opened in 1849, only a year after the fourth devesting visitation of the blight suffered over the preceding five years. 

This college, with its sister Queen’s Colleges, was envisioned as a symbol of recognition for a rising Catholic bourgeoise, newly emboldened by the example of Daniel O’Connell. It represented not only a hard-won and hard-fought concession achieved by Irish parliamentarians and activists, but also a new departure in British policy towards Ireland. It was a policy departure which sought to integrate and include the middle-class in the governance of Ireland.

A significant greater exemplar of this new spirit was the first President of University College Cork, the chemist and social scientist Robert Kane. In 1844, the first edition of his popular book, The Industrial Resources of Ireland, was published to universal acclaim. It could be found in libraries across Ireland, from the emancipatory reading rooms of the Repeal Association, championed by Thomas Davis, to the halls of the Royal Dublin Society. 

Robert Kane catalogued and described the natural wealth of Ireland – the forests and bogs, the mineral deposits and fertile plains, the rivers and the manufactories. He foresaw a hopeful future of limitless possibility in which, if the people were provided with the fruits of a scientific education, Ireland, like the neighbouring island, which had experienced an industrial revolution from 1760 to 1830 and was in the throes of commercial expansion, could, as part of a shared empire, become an industrial nation, and also one in which all forms of human want could be abolished and the needs of its people finally met. 

It was to be a dystopian future rather than Kane’s utopia that came to pass. Robert Kane took up the office of President of this college in December 1845, shortly after the Scientific Commission appointed by Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, reported that over half of the potato crop for that year had failed. 

Despite Robert Kane’s attempts to bring his considerable scientific talents to bear on analysing and combatting the Phytophthora infestans, the blight which afflicted the potato crop, no scientific solution would became available with it was too late to avert a catastrophe. That catastrophe in terms of human impact was, as we now recognise is true of all famines, ultimately political and economic in its origins, how it might be anticipated, what response was appropriate.

Despite all the dashed hopes of 1844 and the disastrous signs that filled the early months of 1845, this college was inaugurated not, as it was hoped, in a spirit of national advancement, but in the midst of the apocalyptic conditions of the fourth year of famine, at a time when the responsibility for public action, for response, had, in effect, been abdicated by the British Government and passed to the indebted Irish Poor Law Unions. 

In 1849, in his first letter home to his sister, one of the first Professors recruited to this university, the distinguished mathematician George Boole, described what he witnessed on his rail journey from Dublin to Cork. He wrote: 

‘there is over the whole country an air of utter destitution and abandonment’.

This was a theme that was recorded earlier in a number of accounts by European travellers, including the 1837 account of the Hungarian Baron József Eötvös. Thus, this great institute of learning, like its sister colleges in Galway and Belfast, was brought into existence at a most grave and terrible time in the history of our country. Its founding President went on to sit on the Relief Commission which co-ordinated the state’s relief programme until the brutal ideological zealotry of senior government and public officials foreclosed its operations in 1847. 

It is perhaps because its origins are steeped in such a history that University College Cork has been to the fore in bringing both a scholarly rigour and a moral engagement to the study of, to a defining period in what was, to use a phrase used by the late Brendan Bradshaw, the ‘catastrophic dimensions of the Irish past’. 

The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, a project led by scholars of this university, represents an important achievement as a piece of inter-disciplinary scholarship and it is without doubt a profound contribution to our understanding of An Gorta Mór. We can all gain so much from drawing on the new research for a deeper understanding of the Great Famine, which was the single most important event in forming, and giving form, to a distinctive form of Irish modernity, one defined by catastrophe and its aftermath, by the determination to survive, whether at home or abroad, and by the drawing forth of some of the very best and worst instincts of humanity – greed and generosity, hope and despair, freedom and servitude.

As a surviving people with an enforced migratory diaspora, Ireland and Irish people would become totally changed by An Gorta Mór. 

We are only now, assisted with this new scholarship, and encouraged by new cultural endeavours, many of them represented here today, taking into ourselves the depth of the complexity of An Gorta Mór and thus feel able to confront the consequences of the events which took place on our island less than one hundred and seventy years ago. Our own past, the dynamics of our own history, and its relationship with our neighbours on both sides of the Atlantic, the changes in social forces in our own country, and how it would inform our politics, cannot by understood without an understanding of the Great Famine. It is of great import then that the Geography Department here in University College Cork, in collaboration with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, have organised for the surviving data from the 1841 and 1851 census to be made available to the public through the Famine Online Project. 

One of the most striking innovations of the 1841 Census was the classification of the housing stock by reference to its quality. In that census of 1841, forty percent of Irish families were recorded by the enumerators as living in nearly half a million of what was called a bothán. These were one room mud-huts described on the Census as ‘fourth-class houses’. On the eve of the Famine, the Devon Commission appointed by the British Government reported of the bothán that ‘it may be assumed that these fourth-class houses are generally unfit for human habitation'.

The families who lived in a bothán were drawn overwhelmingly from either the over 3 million landless agricultural labourers in Ireland at the time, or the nearly one and half million cottiers that were leasing tiny plots of land, often only enough to keep their families alive. They, like the tenant categories above them, had no security of tenure, but were frequently without the means of survival itself, and with nothing to sell were without the means to flee. The English journalist Joseph Kay was appalled to learn that their homes were simply destroyed when they were evicted:

‘If they do not pay their rent at the proper time, they are liable to be turned adrift, even in the middle of the night, into the bleak road, without a shelter, and with their helpless wives and children. No notice is necessary; no notice is given.’

These classes of men, women and children in the lower reaches of a pyramid of class – the labourers and the cottiers – bore the very worst consequences of the Famine. 

They are, in statistical terms, more likely to be found amongst the far more than one million who died. If some were lucky enough to be assisted, they are among the two million who emigrated.

Many too are amongst the countless others who, without the resources to emigrate, gathered in the large towns and cities, for between 1844 and the 1850s many, including pregnant women, took to the roads to survive. The 1851 census records only 135,000 habitations described as bothán, testament not to any programme of assistance but to the obliteration and destruction of any record that these families had even lived their lives on the land. 

The re-created bothán erected by the staff of this university is thus a fitting acknowledgement of the many hundreds of thousands who lived, who died, who fled or were forced from their homes during An Gorta Mór. It is an extraordinary and valuable symbolic act of ethical commemoration and a contribution to our understanding of history. May I today salute all those who volunteered their efforts, their skills, and their energies to build what will be, for the time that it stands, a most fitting monument.

The Great Hunger, though not the sole foundation event in the formation of the Irish diaspora - after all, over a million Irish people had emigrated to North America between 1815-1845 – must yet still be considered the single most important event in the formation of a distinct Irish-American cultural identity, one that anchors the enduring bond between Ireland and the United States that we still treasure today. 

Between 1846 and 1855, 2.1 million people left this island, more than in the previous two and half centuries combined. 1.5 million of those went to the United States. An editorial in The Times of London would later state that it is there the Irish Famine of the 1840s would become a central part of collective memory, with all the difficulties this ensues, and a significant component of American politics. 

Yet the very vastness of these numbers of emigrants, and their vital importance to the course of Irish history, may sometimes obscure the enormity of internal displacement during An Gorta Mór. The population of Cork City expanded greatly during the Famine, as refugees streamed into the city from across the county, causing panic amongst the citizenry. During Black ’47, the Cork Examiner described:

‘[T]he incursion of rustic paupers into the city continues unabated ... they wait on the outskirts of the town till dark, when they may be seen coming in droves … 300 of these miserable creatures come into the city daily, who are walking masses of filth, vermin and sickness.’

Ireland of the late 1840s had not experienced the impact of the public health reforms championed by Edwin Chadwick. Sanitation and water supplies were compromised, leading to a huge incidence of diseases such as typhus, yellow fever and in 1849, the dreaded cholera, was recorded amongst the refugees. In his testimony to a House of Lords Committee in 1847, Father Theobald Mathew, whose statue adorns St. Patrick’s Street, described his efforts to bury the dead:

‘Each Day there was a large Pit dug, and all that died that Day were put down; the Pit was covered up; I had four Men employed. Some Days there were Sixty or Seventy a Day buried, and some Days more.’

He went on to chastise the civic authorities for their actions:

‘those poor Creatures, the Country Poor, are now houseless and without lodgings ; no one will take them in ; they sleep out at Night. The Citizens of Cork have adopted what I consider a very unchristian and inhuman Line of Conduct. They have determined to get rid of them. Under the Authority of an Act of Parliament they take up sturdy Beggars and Vagrants, they confine them at Night in a Market Place, and the next Morning send them out in a Cart Five Miles from the Town, and there they are left, and a great Part of them perish, for they have no Homes to go to. When they fled from the Country their Houses were thrown down or consumed for Fuel by the Neighbours who remained, and those poor Creatures have no Places to lay their Heads.

They have no Place to go to. We have no Settlement Act in Ireland, and they have no Claim upon any Union. There is a Cordon of Special Constables round the City to keep them out; still they contrive at Night to get into the City again, and the same Process goes on.’

Accounts such as this, which lay bare not only an absence of heroism but an absence of, as Father Mathew suggested, solidarity and empathy for human suffering should be grounds for our reflection. We have also to place such an account alongside the extraordinary accounts of the visit of Queen Victoria to Cobh and Cork, in the midst of jubilant crowds of prosperous citizens, whilst unseen to the visiting monarch, those whom contemporaries termed ‘shadows and spectres’, ‘ghastly skeletons’ and ‘phantoms’ wandered the streets of the city. 

Science in time did address and conquer the Blight, but the economic theory which guided or misguided the response, and its sustaining ideology, is another matter. There is great truth to that most powerful of statements, that Ireland was ‘a nation perishing of political economy’. The phrase is often attributed to John Mitchel, and while he did utter it, the phrase was first spoken by a Church of Ireland Clergyman, Richard Townsend, who devoted his time in Skibbereen to the care of the poor and the sick, and who toiled tirelessly in that town that, with Schull, was given the title of one of the ‘Two Famine Slain Sisters of the South’. Of the 43,266 souls in Skibbereen in the Spring of 1847, many of whom had fled the countryside, 22,241 died and 997 emigrated.

Only a pernicious and dangerous economic orthodoxy could morally sanction poverty amidst plenty, conspicuous consumption amidst mass slaughter – an ideology that elevated the right of property to that of a natural law, even while it relegated the duty of humanity and of solidarity to the arena of charity. 

We must acknowledge how pervasive that ideology was amongst many with authority and economic and social power in Britain, and it had its adherents also in Ireland. It sourced and sanctioned, not only the withdrawal of Government support in the midst of Black ’47, but also, as Amartya Sen and Mike Davis have reminded us, would be invoked to rationalise the monumental catastrophes suffered by the Indian people and the inaction of the British Raj during the Indian Famines of 1876-1878, 1896-97, and 1899-1900.

Historical geography is a great strength of University College Cork. A new historiography, inspired by the pioneering work carried out in this University, is now beginning to confront the nature of the broken country which emerged from the Famine. 

In a landscape denuded by hunger and disease, survivors lived side by side with those who profited from the economy, as a new pastoral agricultural economy and society emerged, one that was characterised above all by a constant stream of surplus population faced with emigration to Britain and to North America. As Conrad Arensberg and Sol Kimball would put it – with one inheriting, one dowry available, others ‘must travel’.

Those in the new adjusted holdings, lived within sight of outlines of famine villages and the ruins of botháin, in what Breandán Mac Suibhne - adopting a usage first employed by Primo Levi - has termed a ‘grey zone’: a liminal space which Levi used to describe the distinction between those who committed moral outrages and those subject to them was blurred for the purpose of survival in the present, even as all remained in the shadow of the past. Coming to terms with An Gorta Mór would be a slow process in collective Irish consciousness, and indeed in historiography.

In understanding and confronting old evasive myths, neutralising amnesia in relation to the Great Hunger, we are assisted not only by the new historiography, but by renewed and powerful cultural interventions. Shortly, we shall hear a number of new compositions by Sean Doherty, one of which is inspired by the letter of Professor Boole that I referred to earlier. In July, a magnificent new exhibition of art, Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, will move, most appropriately, from Dublin Castle, the old seat of British power in Ireland, to Skibbereen, ground zero of the Great Famine.

English was now in an ever more urgent sense, the language of transaction. We are also now beginning to come to a fuller understanding of the effects of the Great Hunger on the decline of the Irish language. In the third decade of the nineteenth century up to four million people on this island spoke our native language, and it was used in courtrooms, in churches and in political life.[1]

The 1851 census records only 1.5 million Irish speakers – though the long-term causes of what scholars call ‘the language shift’, through which monoglot English-speaking displaced monoglot Irish-speaking and bilingualism, are complex, the death and emigration of the principal body of Irish speakers must be considered a primary contribution to the dramatic decline in the use of the Irish language in the nineteenth century, even while it would become more common on the streets of the United States than at any time in the history of that country, before or since. In post-Famine Ireland our native language carried, in the words of Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, ‘little transactional value’. 

I am so pleased that we shall shortly hear Professor O’Shea recite a poem collected by my predecessor as Uachtarán na hÉireann, Dubhghlas de hÍde, An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, as part of his efforts to revive our language. In his book, Mise agus an Conradh, An Craoibhín wrote of how weak the language had become in 1884. 11,344 people in Cork had Irish but only 4 percent of such speakers were under 20. In Waterford, 2,4746 had Irish but only 52 people speaking Irish were under 20 years old. English had been imposed, those who spoke it banished. It was teanga an bhochtanais, teanga an bháid bán. We owe so much to Dubhghlas de hÍde too and his supporters for effectively rescuing the language for later generations.

Dear friends,

This century will be defined by three great global challenges, all products of the interaction of politics, economics and the natural world: anthropogenic climate change, the urgent requirement to welcome those fleeing famine, war, persecution and natural disaster; and the necessity for just and sustainable development, a new symmetry of ecological economics, capable of providing food security and robust rural communities throughout our world.

Given the catastrophic dimension of our history – a history with which we are still wrestling – we cannot be indifferent to these new challenges, we are called to demonstrate, drawing on the possibilities of science and technology, not only generosity but solidarity. We must deliver not only charity but justice. This can and will only be achieved if we collectively pursue new forms of thought, and imagine new possibilities for action. 

Our efforts have been focussed for us by those two remarkable demonstrations of a vital global solidarity, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord.

In our efforts to fulfil the promise of these landmark global agreements, we shall face a profound struggle to meet the social, economic and cultural needs of a rapidly expanding human population within the constraints imposed by the ecology of our planet. 

This struggle cannot be met without new modes of thought, capable of integrating a range of academic disciplines, but it must not be met by such an indifference as would mean simply abandoning and jettisoning millions of our fellow human beings.

Scholars such as Professor Ian Gough with his, what I believe to be a seminal work Heat, Greed and Human Need, have begun to venture potential new frameworks of thought and action – ones capable of integrating economics, ecology and ethics – but more is required from publics, their governments, and their institutions, a plan of action integrating these themes is required and so may I thank all the participants in the international conference, Global Hunger Today: Challenges and Solutions, held these past two days for their contributions.

We require today a movement, an informed, scientifically aware movement, towards a civilisation of sufficiency, one which eschews the insatiability of boundless consumption whilst ensuring that the needs of all are met.

Our practical solidarity with migrants and refugees, borne of our historic experience, has been given a remarkable contemporary expression by the decision of this university to become a University of Sanctuary. 

That practical solidarity has also been displayed, with unwavering courage and devotion to duty, by the officers and sailors of the L.E. William Butler Yeats, in the course of their humanitarian mission to the Mediterranean. As President of Ireland, may I commend and salute you for your service.

I asked early how we should now reckon with the Famine. Let us do so with new histories, new intellectual work to inform policy, filled with moral purpose and dedicated to telling the story of the people; let us do so with so bold new aesthetically powerful artistic endeavours, pragmatic, in the best sense of the word; but above all, let us do so through a renewed commitment to solidarity, in a spirit of hope and possibility, with all those who still now suffer as our ancestors, at home and over the seas, once did.



[1] Nicholas Wolf, An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Linguistic Landscape in Ireland, 1770–1870, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.