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Speech at the National Famine Commemoration 2021

Glasnevin Cemetery, Sunday, 16th May, 2021

Representatives of the National Famine Commemoration Committee,
Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,
A chairde,

Is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo libh, agus muid ag smaoineamh agus ag tabhairt ómos dóibh siúd d’ár muintir a d’fhulaing agus a bhfuair bás le linn na tragóide is mó tábhacht i scéal na hÉireann sa nua-aois: An Gorta Mór, An Drochshaol.

It is always 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 of those of our people who perished during that tragic, and never to be forgotten, event imposed on Irish people in the history of modern Ireland, that is An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, The Irish Famine.

Famine as defining moment in history

The Famine of the 1840s that we are recalling today released a cataclysmic period in our nation’s history far beyond the deaths themselves, the emigrations, losses in every experience of the intimacies of life. For that reason it is an event that must be acknowledged in its fullness, horror, grief, sadness and consequences, given due recognition as to what its sources were, the responses to it, and what lay behind them, understood in all its complexity if we are to be enabled to move beyond it, in time, to ever nurture such a process of healing such as will assist us in our dealing with it, including our meetings with those who recognise that they constitute the successors of those responsible. While it is we and they who have to deal with the challenges of the present and future, it is best perhaps without the burden of an unaddressed tragedy, achieved with a mutual acknowledgement of what is accepted as fact as to An Gorta Mór, The Famine. This is a necessary prelude to the understanding we must, however difficult it is, seek to achieve together. 

The changes in agricultural practice that were taking place in Ireland in the late 19th century, for example, those in response to external demand, for agricultural product, the changes, for example, from labour-intensive tillage to grazing which was less labour intensive – many of these changes were brought about by clearances, eviction in so many instances. Such clearances and evictions had a devastating effect on the poorest who were dependent on a single food source. 

When, during the Famine, that single food source having failed, they starved, what followed remains the single most important event in forming, and giving form to, for Irish people a distinctive form of relationship to the land, to emigration and to politics, in the decades that followed, one defined by the Famine catastrophe and its human aftermath. The Irish people, not all of them survived, but the determination to survive, whether at home or abroad, was endured at a terrible cost. 

The Famine resulted in apocalyptic conditions across Ireland. It was at a time of course when the responsibility for public action, for response, had, in effect, been abdicated by the Government responsible. Ireland was then part of the British Empire, and the responsibility to respond was passed at the midpoint of the Famine to the heavily indebted Irish Poor Law Unions. 

An Gorta Mór, the Famine of the 1840s, was not needed to discover the grinding poverty to which so many of the Irish had been reduced. A great number of external, European visitors, Government reports, all had given the facts, and written in detail, in many cases years earlier.

“There is over the whole country an air of utter destitution and abandonment”. 

So wrote a distinguished Hungarian Baron in his 1837 account surveying pre-Famine Ireland. Such accounts as his existed in their hundreds. 

The willingness to accept, allow for a rationalisation of, and make a response to, the Famine at the time is distinguished by the fact that those ruling in Britain had, through their policies, created the economic and food dependency conditions of such dismal hopelessness, of desperate dependence on the potato crop. The Act of Union had laid the ground for a limited version of the Irish economy, and the consequences of its restrictions, all of which was premeditated, had of course been preceded in earlier times by what were barbarous Penal Laws, laws which were deliberate and methodical in their intent to force a lesser existence for perceived inferiors, calculated to reduce, exclude, forbid, 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 civil society. When blight struck in the 1840s, the people of the country were an utterly vulnerable people, dependent on what would be decided for them.

We are fortunate now to have further detailed scholarly historical work from which to draw in helping us to understand the full context of the ideas that held sway at the time of the Famine. They help us to reflect ever deeper on Famine – its causes, impacts and long-term consequences on Ireland, Irish society and culture, our neighbourhood. 

Famine and migration

Supported with such new scholarship, and encouraged by new, more inclusive cultural endeavours, we are now well resourced to return to An Gorta Mór, to internalise its depth and complexity, to confront the wider contributory factors, engage with the full consequences of catastrophe that it constitutes and which took place on our island approximately 170 years ago. 

There is much merit in returning to such deeper analysis. 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 have informed our outlooks and politics, without engagement with the Great Famine. An affected amnesia serves nobody. Rather it emphasises the hurt, retains the old rationalisations that can no longer suffice, that serve to distort.

Emigration from Ireland did not start with the Famine, but a new form of involuntary emigration followed the Famine, An Gorta Mór. While not the sole founding event in the formation of the Irish diaspora – after all, over a million Irish people had already emigrated to North America between 1815-1845 – it can still be viewed as perhaps the single most defining factor in the creation of what would come to be a distinct Irish-American cultural identity, one that would continue, and continues, to have an important influence from the Famine to today. It is an identity that anchors an enduring bond between Ireland and the United States that not only those who claim Irish heritage, but all friends of Ireland, value. 

The population figures of the late nineteenth century in Ireland make stark reading. Between 1846 and 1855, 2.1 million people left Ireland, more people than in the previous 250 years. Over 70 percent of those who emigrated would go on to settle in the United States. This would have consequences that would be noted. The Times of London, a newspaper hostile to the efforts to relieve the Irish Famine at the time, now editorialised in the 1880’s as what the significance of a growing proportion of the Irish in an emerging powerful nation would be. It was there in the US, they felt, in one of the strongest countries of the future, the Irish would ensure that the Irish Famine of the 1840s would become and remain a central part of collective memory, and would become a significant element of American politics. “They will never let us forget it”, The Times editorialised.

Famine and displacement

Yet, the very vastness of these numbers of emigrants, and even allowing for their vital importance to the course of Irish history, may sometimes help obscure the enormity of the internal displacement, dispossession and forced migration during An Gorta Mór, and that of not only the decades but the centuries which preceded it. The ‘plantations’, ‘dispossessions’ and ‘exclusions’ of the previous periods had created a particular congested dispersal and disposal of population on to impossible holdings of land with the poorest living in near serf-like conditions on a potato patch.

No people are thus better equipped to understand the impact of the term ‘eviction’ from this period than the Irish people and their friends in the United States, or elsewhere who are aware of the Irish experience. Irish people can understand so well the contemporary events that tragically are unfolding with ever such devastation elsewhere as I speak. 

Evictions from previous, stable or contested settings are provoking conflicts in States that are, yes, entitled to their security, but who are violating the basic laws that are the tools of internationally-recognised protection against illegal eviction and destruction of homes of those whose rights are generations’ embedded and which they should acknowledge. I have the personal experience of witnessing this in the past in previous illegal actions, be it in East Jerusalem or Hebron.

Solidarity at home in Ireland could not be taken for granted and was tested by An Gorta Mór. There was a run for survival to the cities and the coast. The population of Cork City, for example, expanded greatly during the Famine, as refugees streamed into the city from across the county, causing moral panics based on the threats to and need for self-survival, such sentiments prevailed among some of those not affected yet. It was that which got news coverage rather than any overwhelming sympathy amongst the citizenry. During Black ’47, the Cork Examiner described:

“[The] 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.”


Reports such as this, and the many others from the time, lay bare not just an absence of, as Father Mathew suggested at the time, basic solidarity and empathy for human suffering, but also they constitute an ‘othering’ of people that should be grounds for our reflection, the ease with which ‘othering’ can occur. 

Ireland can surely easily accept then that it has the moral obligation of not merely remembering for itself and its people, but also that of asking its friends, of then and now, not to surrender in our time to any indifference to conflicts having being ignored, defined as, or allowed to continue as ‘intractable’, when it is clear that such conflicts have not been approached with consistency, with continuity, or with the commitment to compromise, or such resolution as might make possible an enduring peace and mutual experience in peace of peoples. Such initiatives are so urgent now and their pursuit is a matter of moral significance in international diplomacy, are its basic raison d’etre. 

“A nation perishing of political economy”

Was it three years, or five? It took some time, but science did tackle and conquer the Blight. However, the economic theory which guided or, more correctly, misguided the response, and its sustaining ideology, was to be another matter. 

Ireland was “a nation perishing of political economy” to quote 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 which, along with Schull, was given the title of one of the ‘Two Famine-Slain Sisters of the South’, with a death rate of over 50 percent. 

It would take quite some time later for it to be argued that in both Parliament, and between hedges, at rallies of tenants and others, that a political economy suitable for Irish circumstances and values – one that was, for example, more hospitable to state intervention and small-scale agriculture, that tended to question and be opposed to the crude commodification of land, and to the asserted, unquestioned hegemonic position of the market – an alternative that might sustain an impoverished people.

It was a debate that would continue to century’s end and beyond. The ‘scientificity’ claimed for economics would be at the centre of the discourse. This was the subject of a famous confrontation, for example, between the new and old political economies. It occurred in the House of Commons in 1868 in a debate about Irish land in which Robert Lowe argued that political economy as a universally applicable science “belongs to no nation; it is of no country'”, to which John Stuart Mill replied:

“My Right Honourable Friend thinks that a maxim of political economy, if good in England, must be good in Ireland. [...] I am sure that no one is at all capable of determining what is the right political economy for any country until he knows the circumstances.”

Those such as Tenants’ Rights Campaigner Thomas Kettle saw this historicising project as a 
“revolt of the small nations against the Czardom, scientific and political, of the great”. 

Yet it should not be forgotten that those who fell in the struggle for survival in An Gorta Mór played with their lost lives, exiles and poverty, constitute a crucial, if unchosen, part in demonstrating from this most tragic part of our history now a perverse version of political economy had, then, and can usually nearly always enlist, a supporting community of scholarly, political and indeed religious supporters.

Doctrines of inaction

Yes, we have had a terrible lesson imposed upon our people, one which should since then and now carry its own warning for us all, into the present, of the dangers of living uncritically under the sway of ideological assumptions untested.

It took an ideological tendency of strength and authoritarian tendency and support, one that was confident of its place among those who hold power, to impose a pernicious and dangerous economic orthodoxy that would sanction poverty amidst plenty, conspicuous consumption amidst mass starvation – all justified by an ideology that felt unchallenged in elevating a suggested absolute right of property to that of a natural law, while consigning any moral duty of humanity and of solidarity to passive, voluntary acts of charity. 

While it is important to acknowledge how pervasive that ideology was amongst many with authority and economic and social power in Britain, is important, let us not forget, too, that in relation to placing abstract market theories above life itself, non-interventionist ideology had its zealots here in Ireland, including some notables of the churches.

Such support sanctioned not only the withdrawal of Government support in the midst of Black ’47, but also, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Mike Davis have reminded us, would also be available for invocation in other, later, but similar, circumstances to rationalise, for example, the monumental catastrophes suffered by the Indian people and the action and inaction of the British Raj during the Indian Famines of the late 19th century. 

Amartya Sen has, of course, correctly insisted that famine is almost always a predictable and preventable occurrence if only the government in question has the political will to prevent it.

James Donnelly in his book, The Great Irish Potato Famine, wrote of how the response, or lack thereof to famine, was part of a prevailing ideology among the political élite and the middle classes which strongly militated against sustained relief. The sources of the doctrines of inaction were many, all equally disastrous. They included the economic doctrine of laissez-faire, a Protestant evangelical belief in divine providence, and the pervasive ethnic prejudice directed against the Catholic Irish to which historians have recently given the name of ‘moralism’.

Responding to some of these suggestions that the Irish Famine was ‘God’s Will’ in New York on the 20th March 1847, the Right Rev Dr Hughes, Bishop of New York, could say: 

“I plea there is a blasphemy in charging on the Almighty the result of our own doings”. 

He went on to say,

“there is no law in nature that forbids a starving man to seize on bread, wherever he can find it, even though it should be the loaves of proposition on the altar of God’s temple”.

His words were greeted with cheers at the Church.


Moralism – the notion that the fundamental defects from which the native Irish suffered were ‘moral’ rather than ‘financial’ – was widespread among educated Britons of this era who ascribed serious defects to the Irish national character, including disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and, worst of all, a lack of self-reliance, as the cause of the Famine. This was unambiguous xenophobic, racial and cultural stereotyping. In distancing themselves from the Famine and its consequences, it was suggested, the Irish could be taught to ‘stand on their own feet’, to wean themselves from their dependence on British support.

This ‘moralism’ manifested itself very clearly, and with cruelty, in the various tests of destitution that were associated with the administration of the Poor Laws. Thus, labourers employed on public works were widely required to perform task labour, their wages being measured by the amount of their work, rather than they being paid a fixed daily wage. 

Similarly, there was the requirement that in order to be eligible for public assistance, those in distress must be willing to enter a Workhouse and to submit to its harsh disciplines, including endless days of breaking stones, or performing some other equally punishing labour. As James Donnelly noted, 

“Such work was motivated by the notion that the perceived Irish national characteristic of sloth could be eradicated or at least reduced”.

All those who speak of The Great Irish Famine, must face up to the uncomfortable truth that the Famine was of course avoidable. In fact, there were numerous interventions that Britain could have made to mitigate its devastating consequences. 

Laissez faire

Britain could have prohibited the export of grain from Ireland, especially during the winter of 1846-47 and early in the following spring, when there was little food in the country and before large supplies of foreign grain began to arrive. Once there was sufficient food in the country, the government could have taken steps to ensure that this imported food was distributed to those in greatest need. 

The government could have continued its soup-kitchen scheme for a longer time which was effective for just six months, from March to September 1847, despite it providing food for up to three million people, and proving to be both effective and inexpensive. Its decision to end it prematurely was again a policy of non-interventionism, supporting the Whigs’ beliefs as to how government and society should function.

The remuneration that the government provided on its vast but short-lived public works in the winter of 1846-47 should have been much higher if those toiling were ever to be able to afford the greatly inflated price of food. The Poor Laws providing relief, either within workhouses or outside them, a system that served as virtually the only form of public assistance from the autumn of 1847 onwards, should have been far less restrictive. A variety of obstacles were placed in the way of relief to those in dire need of food. 

The government could have restrained the ruthless mass eviction of 500,000 people from their homes, as landlords sought to rid their estates of pauperised farmers and labourers.

Above all, the British government should have been willing to treat the Famine in Ireland as, yes, a humanitarian crisis that carried the responsibility, an imperial 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. All of this in a misguided effort to promote the ideology of a neighbour regarded not as equals but as lesser, responsible for their own misery. 


The leading exponent of this Providentialist perspective, 
Charles Trevelyan, the British civil servant chiefly responsible for administering Irish relief policy throughout the Famine years, in his 1848 book, The Irish Crisis, offered a justification for it all, describing the Famine as:

“a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence […], the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected, [... one which laid bare] the deep and inveterate root of social evil. God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part.” 

In the dock of Irish history, such remarks must surely rank as among the most callous, dismissive of the Other, one’s neighbour after all, as lesser, even sub-human. Trevelyan was among the most influential also in persuading the government to avoid intervening in even restraining mass evictions which would result in a radically restructured Irish rural society along the lines of the model ardently preferred by British policymakers of the day.

Let us have these facts acknowledged, these options not taken, debated, reviewed. Then, of course, we must move on, drawing on what our experience has taught us. Surely it has taught us that we must not be indifferent, have the courage to challenge our friends and opponents alike to reject indifference. The multilateral order itself has to reject impunity and indifference if it is to have legitimacy.

Contemporary famine

Mar focail scoir – to finish: As we meet, the threat of famine affects 34 million of our fellow global citizens today. Yemen, the United Nations informs us, is in imminent danger of enduring the worst famine the world has seen in decades. A quarter of a million Yemenis have died from violence, starvation and preventable illness over the past six years. At least 20 million of 28 million Yemenis are in desperate need of food and healthcare, four million are homeless, and millions more are threatened by ongoing military operations. Nearly 400,000 children currently suffer from acute malnutrition and could die or contract cholera, diphtheria and measles without prompt treatment. These shocking figures stand as an indictment, not only on the protagonists of this proxy-conflict and their supporters, but on all of an international community who must not, suffering from what Pope Francis has called the virus of indifference, look on, avert their gaze and refuse to act. 

Muidne in Éirinn, ba chóir go mbeadh sé níos éasca dúinn tuiscint a bheith againn, níos mó ná pobail áirithe eile an Domhain mhor, céard iad na torthaí ó thaobh daonnachta de, nuair a chaitear i dtraipisí, an daonnacht agus nuair a ardaítear teagasc fuarchroíoch féinchúiseach, sainnt, agus braon iomaíocht míleaca gheopholaitiúil.

[We in Ireland should understand, better than many, the bitter residue that persists for generations when human beings, consciously or unconsciously, abandon our behaviour as the core values of our most basic humanity give way to a callous doctrine, dispossession of the vulnerable, of self-interest at any cost, a dangerous greed for land, and militeristic geo-political jostling.] 

Let us recognise then, all of us today, that a renewed moral consciousness such as will produce a global movement across borders, of an informed, committed, scientifically aware, generous and kind, employing all the necessary courtesies for disclosure, working towards a civilisation of sufficiency, societies of care, compassion, kindness and solidarity, societies which will eschew the insatiability of boundless consumption, societies which reject war and conflict as ever being inevitable, societies that will ensure that the needs of all can be met. 

The Covid pandemic has surely shown us that there is not only need for a better paradigm of existence, but that it is achievable, with a harmonious, sustainable connection of economy, ecology and ethical society, whose movements combined make a new force for a better world, one in which the private and public sectors are not pitted against each other, but where the great strengths of both, in co-operation, are utilised for the betterment of the citizens and the delivery of universal services.


As to a healing then, as to how the scars of An Gorta Mór and so much else can be healed, and in a lasting way, with painful legacies in time translated, Sineád O’Connor’s remarkable song “Famine” puts it well:

“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.”

Go raibh mile maith agaibh uilig.

Beir beannacht.