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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins at the 2023 National Famine Commemoration

Milford, Co. Donegal, Sunday, 21st May 2023

A Aire,
A Ard-Mhéaraí,
Representatives of the National Famine Commemoration Committee,

A cháirde,

Is cúis mhór onóra dom, mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, a bheith i gcómhar le muintir mo thíre féin, cibé áit ina bhfuil siad, is cuma cén cúinsí atá orthu, agus muid ag comóradh eachtraí tubaisteacha ár staire, agus ach go h-áirithe nuair atá muid ag tabhairt chun cuimhne saolta, básanna, agus streachailt na ndaoine a cailleadh i rith na tréimhse tragóidí a leagadh ar mhuintir na hÉireann ar a chuirtear an teideal An Gorta Mór.

[It is my honour and privilege, as President of Ireland, to join with fellow Irish people, wherever they may be, and in whatever circumstances, as we mark the cataclysmic events from our past, and in particular as we recall the lives, deaths and suffering of all of those individuals who perished during that tragic event imposed on Irish people that we refer to as An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, the Irish Famine].

Today, designated as it is National Famine Commemoration Day, is an opportunity for 
the people of this island to reflect on and recall the suffering and loss of that period in our history, to remember those who fled to create new lives abroad, and reflect on the best lessons we might take from such a recall and how it might influence our contemporary lives and the lives of others. 

The salient facts are known. Between 1760 and 1815, the availability of cheap food, in the form of the potato, and cheap fuel, in the form of turf, had permitted the Irish population to expand prodigiously. However, the diet of the labouring poor became ever more potato-dependent and, by the 1830s, one-third of the population (three million people) relied on potatoes for over 90 percent of their calorie intake.

In these circumstances, a failure of the potato crop would precipitate disaster; repeated failures would simply decimate the population. The unprecedented attack of Phytopthora Infestans destroyed one-third of the crop in 1845, three-quarters in 1846 and 1847, and one-third in 1848. Massive mortality and emigration ensued: one million died and two million more emigrated in the next two decades, cruelly paralleling the three million ‘potato people’ who had become totally dependent on the tuber in the pre-Famine period. These deaths were disproportionately concentrated in the south and west of Ireland.

This is the third time the State Commemoration has taken place in Ulster, and may I say how pleased I am to be here today in Milford. The location of this year’s National Famine Commemoration here in Donegal is particularly welcome given the deferral of the hosting of the 2020 event in Donegal due to the pandemic. The setting here at the old site of the Milford workhouse is also so appropriate given the adversity endured by the people of Donegal in the face of poverty, hunger and emigration throughout the 19th century and in particular during the Great Hunger. 

It is indeed a singularly appropriate venue for such a commemoration, as Hugh Dorian of Fánaid, while in the Milford Poor Law Union, wrote a most extensive account of An Gorta Mór and its transformation of his homeplace, an account which has been brought to the public by Breandán Mac Suibhne and David Dickson. This peerless account of the Famine ‘from below’ is so well distilled in the old Irish proverb, “Ní thuigeann an sách an seang” [The satiated will never understand the emaciated].

In a paper entitled ‘The Grey Zone of the Great Famine’, Mac Suibhne refers to Skibbereen dispensary doctor Daniel Donovan’s written account in 1847 of the moral consequences of the Famine: “Another symptom of starvation, and one that accounts for the horrible scenes that usually exhibits, is the total insensibility of the sufferers to every other feeling except supplying their own wants. I have seen mothers snatch food from the hands of their starving children; known a son to engage in a fatal struggle with a father for a potato; and have seen parents look on the putrid bones of their offspring without evincing a symptom of sorrow. Such is the inevitable consequence of starvation; and it is unfair to attribute to inherent faults in our people the moral degradation to which they are at present reduced, and which is inseparable from a state of severe physical privation.”

An Gorta Mór is a watershed in Irish history, constituting as it does the greatest social catastrophe in terms of mortality and suffering, one that has had profound consequences on demographics, politics, culture, religion, agriculture and industry. 

The legacy of An Gorta Mór is complex, deep, wide, has many strands that have impacted on the Irish collective psyche as well as at the individual level. Its legacy is one of involuntary emigration, cultural loss, demoralisation and loss of confidence, both in terms of population and in terms of its impact on the Irish language and the marks this would have on the country, and in particular on Irish society, ramifications that still play out today on so many levels.

Although we have established and accepted, particularly through recent historiography and an exposition of local studies, a number of more detailed facts pertaining to its causes and consequences, and it is an event for which an apology has been issued on behalf of the British Government, dating from 1997, the 150th anniversary of “Black ’47”, we can acknowledge the many different elements that make up the story of Ireland’s greatest disaster – its causes, contents and consequences, and accord them levels of importance as to sources and consequences of An Gorta Mór.

Ideological assumptions as to essence and practices of the Irish as inferior are at the root of the economic theory and practices that allowed An Gorta Mór to have the final impacts it had. Ireland was “a nation perishing of political economy” to quote Church of Ireland Clergyman, Richard Townsend, who devoted his time in Skibbereen and Schull to the care of the poor and the sick, where the death rate was over 50 percent.

A sense of moralism pervaded among educated ruling Britons of the time, ascribing fundamental defects from which the native Irish were perceived to suffer as ‘moral’ rather than ‘financial’, defects of the Irish national character, including disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and, worst of all, a lack of self-reliance. This was unambiguous, xenophobic, racial and cultural stereotyping. These are classic misinterpretations, tools of ‘othering’.

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 role of laissez-faire economics must be included in any description as to the causes of An Gorta Mór. Crucially, in response to an escalating loss of life, 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. Even in the brief period when meal was imported, 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.

It failed to do so. Daniel O’Connell visited the building now known as Áras an Uachtaráin (then the Viceregal Lodge) to plead with the Viceroy to stop the export of grain. The nationalist Freeman’s Journal, reporting that the delegation had been received “very coldly”, stated that Lord Heytesbury’s attitude to the Irish poor could be summed up by the phrase, “They may starve”.

Such doctrines of inaction were founded on an ideological and authoritarian tendency of strength that was widely supported, one that was confident of its place among those who held power, to impose a pernicious economic orthodoxy that would allow for the sanctioning of poverty amidst plenty, conspicuous consumption amidst mass starvation – all rationalised by an ideology that felt unchallenged too in elevating a suggested absolute right of property above that of natural law, while consigning any moral duty of humanity, ethical duty of government, or even basic solidarity, to passive, voluntary acts of charity. 

Such voluntary acts, including those of James Hack Tuke and his son, were of heroic nature – they, members of the Society of Friends, dying of fever, as Tuke did, in the service of the poor of the West of Ireland.

Let us not forget, too, that a sense of Providentialism guided the policies of the Government of the time. Charles Trevelyan, the senior British Treasury official in charge of Famine relief, in his 1848 book, The Irish Crisis, offered the following justification for it all: “with 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 lays 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”.

This may indeed be a desperate attempt at rationalisation of one’s abandonment of an earlier and desperate effort at importing meal that was abandoned, to comply with Government-imposed policy, the consequences however are undeniable.

It is when we acknowledge the facts of what has been omitted from the generally accepted narrative of An Gorta Mór, and speculate on the full ideological context and its influence on policy, that we are best prepared to use our own Famine experience in such a way as would generate an appropriately ethical response to the obscenity of recurring famines in our own time in different parts of our shared, vulnerable planet.

The Famine had a devastating effect on the people of Donegal where we are gathered today. During the Great Hunger, Donegal had a population of nearly 300,000 people, more than two-thirds of whom were involved in agriculture using but one-third of the county’s land. 

The diet of the time consisted of potatoes and, where available in some areas, herring, salt, stirabout and milk. Clothing was meagre and wretched; furniture in the hovels was pitiful, and bedding was scarce. Living conditions were overcrowded and smoky. There are many European accounts as well as British ones reporting such conditions in the 1830s. 

Despite the 1838 Poor Relief Act providing some assistance for the poor, very little impact was felt by the starving and diseased population. The workhouses failed to provide reasonable living conditions, were substandard and in a poor state.  

James Hack Tuke, a young Quaker from England and a sympathetic witness who would later distribute relief on behalf of the Society of Friends, was appalled by what he witnessed. He described the destitute in Donegal as “crying from hunger”. When he visited the Glenties Workhouse, he realised that the condition of people in receipt of official relief was little better, reporting:

“Their bedding consisted of dirty straw, in which they were laid in rows on the floor. […] The living and the dying were stretched side by side beneath the same miserable covering, […] disease and pestilence are filling the infirmary. […] The pale, haggard countenance of the poor boys and girls told of sufferings which it was impossible to contemplate without pity”. 

As the decade wore on, the workhouses reported outbreaks of typhus among their inmates and as a result could not admit more in need.  

Destitution reigned in Donegal during the harsh winter of 1846/47, despite some relief from a Belfast charitable association. The parish of Glencolmcille lost 17 percent of its population through disease, starvation and emigration.  Conditions on Arranmore were described by an American visitor in 1847: “no food, apart from bits of turnip and seaweed. And still the blight continues to spread”. 

With workhouses full to capacity, fever and pestilence stretching from Ballyshannon to Moville, high unemployment, and relief slow in coming owing to primitive transportation and the distance from Dublin which was the centre of famine relief, emigration to Canada, America and Scotland was desperately sought, seen as the best route out of the misery for those who could manage to find the fare.

Emigration from the region was principally through the port of Derry, creating communities such as the ‘Stranorlar Diaspora’ in places such as Greenock in Scotland, Brunswick in Canada, and elsewhere in Australia and the United States. Owing to this widespread emigration, communities such as Stranorlar grew in strength abroad, and at the height of the Famine emigrants embarking from the port of Derry numbered over 12,000.

Of the 80,000 Irish who settled in Scotland between 1846 and 1851, most of whom left from Derry, many landed in Glasgow, but more than half (41,275) were repatriated back to Ireland by the civic authorities in the subsequent five years. In an article entitled ‘Irish Destitution and Disease in Glasgow’ the Glasgow Courier newspaper declared:

“Without the slightest exaggeration, this city is now in as bad a condition as respects Irish pauperism and disease as any city or town in the most afflicted districts of Ireland itself. Independent of the Infirmary and every other customary receptacle for fever patients being quite filled with these persons, they are to be seen every day squatting in swarms on the river banks beside the bridges, and individuals are often found stretched in a state of suffering, and covered with rags and filth, in the public thoroughfares”.

By 1850, the death toll of An Gorta Mór in County Donegal was in excess of 13,000 people. The death toll across Ulster was approximately 111,000 people. The toll is likely to be higher still given that baptismal records are an insufficient means of tracking deaths, as many infants perished before they were baptised, some in transit as they, along with their families, flocked to new lands. 

The legacy of the famine in Donegal is seen today in the so-called paupers’ graveyards, in heritage items that include the huge iron boiling pots for soup scattered around the county, in the abandoned 19th-century villages.

In districts where the landlords were absent or uncaring, the poor were especially vulnerable. Captain Jones, an agent of the British Relief Association, described the condition of poor in Dunglow and Mullaghderg as “wretched”, remarking that, “they belong to nobody and nobody seems to take much interest in their welfare. They are, therefore, in the hands of the British Relief Association to keep them alive”. 

His statements give an insight into the importance of private charity in assisting the poor, especially in marginalised or peripheral areas where government relief was totally inadequate and the local landowners were absentee.

Evictions, as historian Christine Kinealy has noted, which had commenced before the Famine, added homelessness to the problem of hunger. Of all of the Ulster counties, Donegal witnessed some of the highest eviction rates – standing at almost 16 percent.

Approximately 40,000 people died or emigrated from County Donegal alone between the years 1846 and 1851. However, it was not simply the demographic loss that made the Great Hunger so devastating. Evictions, which were followed by the destruction of the houses of the poor, together with the gradual move to pastoral farming, would change the landscape forever.

Less easy to quantify or capture in a tangible way is the cultural loss that was experienced, and remains with us. Perhaps most stark was the damage to the Irish language. 

In the early part of the 1800s, approximately 40 percent of the population of Ireland spoke Irish. Those who died or emigrated in the Famine were disproportionately Irish speakers, mainly because the Famine hit rural areas hardest, areas which had the highest rates of Irish speakers. 

By 1861, a decade after An Gorta Mór, the number of Irish speakers had almost halved to 24 percent. This decline continued for some years, reaching a low of 18 percent around 1926, when attempts at its revival were initiated by the new Irish government following an excellent report with maps on the state of the language known as The Mulcahy Report. 

However, as Cormac Ó Gráda has remarked: “Neither O’Connellite nor Fenian brands of nationalism did anything to foster Irish, and by the time a more advanced nationalist ideology adopted the old tongue, it was too late”.

As a descendant of a Great Hunger survivor from the Rosses in West Donegal put it, reflecting on the wider cultural impact of the years of suffering on her community: “Recreation and leisure ceased, poetry, music and dancing died. These things were lost and completely forgotten. When life improved in other ways, these pursuits never returned as they had been. The Famine killed everything”.

An Gorta Mór forced a people to abandon many of the informing cultural and collective impacts from their past, both physically and culturally. It permeated all aspects of life, as Desmond Egan’s poem puts it so well:

“The stink of famine
Hangs in the bushes still 
In the sad Celtic hedges

You can catch it
Down the line of our landscape
Get its taste on every meal

Listen – 
There is famine in our music
Famine behind our faces

It is only a field away
Has made us all immigrants
Guilty for having survived

Has separated us from language
Cut us from our culture
Built blocks around belief
Left us on our own

Ashamed to be seen
Walking out beauty so
Honoured by our ancestors”

One of the most obvious and devastating effects of the Famine was emigration. Although the Famine itself resulted in about 1 million deaths, the resultant post-Famine emigration caused the population to drop by a further 3 million. About 1 million of these are estimated to have emigrated in the immediate Famine period, with the depression that followed continuing the decline until the second half of the 20th century. These migrants largely ended up in North America, with some in Australia and in Britain.

Census data show that, between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million people left for good. In 1845, emigration was at the pre-Famine rate of 50,000 per year. In 1846 some 100,000 left. Emigration peaked in 1847, when 250,000 left. Over the next 5 years emigration averaged 200,000 per year, before the numbers declined. By 1855, the rate was down to 70,000 per year.

In the period of the Famine decade, 1841-1850, when 1.3 million people emigrated overseas, of these 70 percent went to the United States, 28 percent to Canada and 2 percent to Australia. Most people paid their own fares to make the trip, although perhaps a small number had their fares paid by their landlords. The cheapest fares were to Canada, priced around 55 shillings on what was the most dangerous route with poor vessels and seamanship, resulting in the highest losses at sea. A fare to the United States cost between 70-100 shillings depending on ticket class.

With many of the emigrants suffering from fever, coupled with the cramped and insanitary conditions on board, disease was rampant. It is estimated that perhaps on some routes as many as 40 percent of steerage passengers – the lowest category of passenger accommodation on the ships – died either en route or immediately after arrival. One witness commented on a voyage: “This vessel left with 476 passengers, of whom 158 died before arrival.”

A striking feature of the missing Famine narrative is perhaps our insufficient recognition of the fact that An Gorta Mór and its associated emigration impacted differently on various social classes among the Irish population. 

For example, when the potato crop failed in 1845, huge numbers were ‘at risk’, but some more than others. Perhaps a million and a half landless labourers were virtually totally dependent on the potato, while it was a major component of the diet of a further three million (mainly cottiers and smallholders) of the rural poor.

It is worth recalling, too, that many different streams of emigration that constitute 19th-century or post-Famine families, reflected different types of migrants with different capacities – not only in terms of their source or motivation, but in terms of their human and technical disposition. The 1.5 million who had earlier emigrated from Ireland, between 1815 and 1845 were, as Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh puts it, “Protestant and prudential”. 

While the emigrants of that period drew strongly from the northern half of the country, and included a sizable Protestant element, towards the end of the period the number of Catholics and the shared counties involved were increasing. 

Always standing behind our Famine experience and the adjustment to it, is the issue of land, an omnipresent theme in Irish history. The massive expansion in Ireland’s population of 75 percent between 1780 and 1821 was assisted by the phenomenon of “partible inheritance” – that is, with a low life expectancy, unions were formed, and children born, on tiny parcels, as fields gave way to families. In the post-Famine adjustment, the families would give way to fields with one male inheriting, one female marrying, and the rest of the females having to travel, as Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball would put it, a century later. 

Land hunger went on to dominate Irish society after the Famine, influencing Irish politics for all of the remaining century and the early decades of the twentieth.    
Given this foundational part of our near historical experience, it is easy to understand how the continuing issues of food security and food sovereignty in our contemporary world of course resonate profoundly with us as a people and must feature in our ethical reflections and our responses as we commemorate the period of An Gorta Mór. The strong commitment of the Irish people to humanitarian aid and relief is of course strongly related to our own past struggle with hunger, engrained in our collective memory. We make this commitment, however, not only urged by memory as we may be, but because it is the right and moral thing to do. It is an example of the Irishness we wish to be known by, one grounded in decency, in ethical principles, taking our share of global responsibility.

Many, including Amartya Sen, have correctly insisted that famine is almost always a predictable and preventable occurrence if only there is the political will to prevent it. Yet, we live in a time that still allows extreme hunger and famine to exist. The Horn of Africa has entered its sixth consecutive failed rainy season resulting in displacement of millions in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya who struggle to survive amid scarce water sources, hunger, insecurity and conflict. 

The dependence on the potato as staple in the 19th-century Irish diet has been replicated in contemporary Eastern Africa where entire populations are perilously reliant on three basic food staples: wheat, rice and maize – and these are imported to a dangerous level of dependency. Such dependency with a range of local food sources being threatened by the consequences of climate change has led to mass hunger and starvation.

Earlier this year I travelled to Senegal to address the second African Food Security Conference. I highlighted that there is an urgent need to tackle hunger in Africa through proper security in the basic necessities of life, delivering universal basic services, and creating a lasting, sustainable future built on security in its most inclusive sense, one grounded on a food security informed by indigenous wisdom.

We have a moral and ethical responsibility to support our global family in dire need, to help with sustainable solutions to ending all famines, wherever they occur on our shared, vulnerable planet, and to provide a decisive response to climate change which itself is leading to an increased incidence of famines globally. 
Failure to act to prevent famines worldwide does not merely make an echo. It repeats and merely replicates the doctrines of inaction, moralism and laissez-faire policies that precipitated the Irish Famine, contributing to mass displacement such as that which we see now in Africa. 

Our migration too has parallels that are contemporary. In the five years between 2018 and 2022, according to a recent report by Caminando Fronteras, 11,286 people died trying to enter Spanish territory from Africa, almost all of them at sea. This excludes the many who die before they make it to the coast. The UN migration agency believes that two people die in the Sahara for every one who drowns at sea. 

The parallels with An Gorta Mór and the mass displacement it caused 175 years ago must not be lost on us. We have a moral duty to continue to honour our commitments to those vulnerable and displaced who seek asylum and refuge on our shores.

As we mark An Gorta Mór – that horrific period of starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1852 that constituted the country’s greatest social disaster, a defining calamity that became part of the long story of betrayal and exploitation as part of a powerful empire and which led to the growing movement in Ireland for land reform and independence from the United Kingdom – let us do so within the prism of an ethical recall, in a manner that enables healing so that the painful scars of An Gorta Mór can be acknowledged, and in a lasting way, with painful and manifold legacies in time transacted for the benefit of us all, and in the name of an unbroken humanity.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh uilig.