WHY COMMEMORATE THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE? ADDRESS BY MARY ROBINSON TO THE IRISH FELLOWSHIP CLUB
WHY COMMEMORATE THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE? ADDRESS BY PRESIDENT MARY ROBINSON TO THE IRISH FELLOWSHIP CLUB, CHICAGO
It can take a long time for a people to recognise the impact on them of a particular event or defining moment. For many decades afterwards the great potato famine of 1845 to 1850 was simply a dark and even humiliating experience which the survivors, and the survivors of the survivors, had little wish to recall.
I grew up in the County Mayo of the 1950s and '60s. It was an environment where just as certain illnesses - cancer or TB - were rarely referred to openly and sympathetically, but were somehow embarrassing crosses to bear within a family, so a person's background was obliquely shameful if the family had been forced into the workhouse or had had to emigrate during the famine. In the way that you disguised illness, so you disguised abject poverty in your family's past. As the playwright, Tom Murphy, noted in the Introduction to his play `Famine': "A hungry and demoralised people becomes silent." What we should not underestimate is the lasting nature of that demoralisation, that undermining of a collective self-worth.
Now, however, at a distance of 150 years from the suffering and misery of the famine, we feel free to look back and commemorate. Indeed, it is more than a feeling of freedom: there is a shared sense that the process of retrieval of the precise details of the effect and impact of the famine on us as a people is an important component of our modern sense of Irishness.
Why is this so and why did it take so long? These are deep questions for psychologists and social historians. Suffice it to say that the urge to look back and retrieve the small detail of what happened, and why, has touched a deep nerve in Irish people. And significantly that nerve has been touched, that inner chord struck, not just in those living on the island of Ireland, but in those of Irish heritage throughout the world. There were spontaneous announcements of intentions to carry out local research; restore a workhouse; mount a famine exhibition; hold a conference on how famine affected a particular region or how the Irish came to a particular country as a consequence; plan commemorative plaques and famine projects. This early spontaneity was matched by official recognition. The Irish Government established a Famine Commemorative Committee and provided significant funds for authoritative research into the period.
As President of Ireland I have witnessed first-hand a number of commemorative events both in Ireland and internationally. In some cases I have retraced the poignant link between the place of famine and the place of emigration. I recall in May 1994 the official opening of the Famine Museum at Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. As Patron of that project I had observed its development over a number of years, and recognised that a permanent museum based in the property of a landlord whose house and grounds told their own story of that famine, offered a chance not just to retrieve the parts of our history which are the subjects of ballads and stories, the battles won and lost, the bravery and persistence that gave us our independence as a nation, but also the dark and silent time. We could claim the ordinary suffering, the anguish of a past in which men and women who were our ancestors barely survived. They had no strength to join in brave actions. All they could do was move from day to day, overwhelmed by random misfortune, for many the only option being the workhouse or emigration. And what we owe them is to give to their survival and to their suffering and loss, just as much love and respect and honour as we give to any brave action or any other defining moment of our history.
A few months after the opening of the Famine Museum at Strokestown I visited the very place at which so many who had emigrated from that area during the famine landed: Grosse Ile in Quebec, Canada. I saw the small white crosses marking the mass graves where more than 5,000 men, women and children who had died on the voyage or on arrival are buried. I heard the story of the French Canadian families who took in orphan Irish children, keeping their Irish surnames which are still discernable today in modern Quebec.
And a few months after that, in October 1994, I shared in a famine commemorative meal in New York. It was organised by the New York Irish History Roundtable in the undercroft of St. Paul the Apostle Church. There I heard another chapter of the story: a very detailed account by the historian, John Ridge, of the Irish who came to New York at that time. It was a new chapter of a story I never get tired of. It is, for all of us in Ireland, not just history, but family history.
Another relevant link to the famine was made on my next visit to New York, the following May. I participated in an international conference on hunger, which used the 150th commemoration of the Irish famine as a starting point in a major examination of the problem of hunger worldwide. It is this dimension which transforms the process of commemoration into a moral act.
The terrible realities of our past hunger present themselves to us as nightmare images. The bailiff. The famine wall. The eviction. The workhouse. The coffin ship. And yet how willing are we to negotiate those past images into the facts of present-day hunger? How ready are we to realise that what happened to us may have shaped our Irish identity, but is not an experience confined to us as a people? How ready are we to see that the bailiff and the workhouse and the coffin ship have equally terrible equivalents in other countries for other peoples at this very moment?
For every lesson children of Irish heritage learn about the Famine Relief of 1847, they should learn an equal one about the debt burden of the 1990s. For every piece of economic knowledge they gain about the crops exported from Ireland during the famine years, let them come to understand the cruelty of today's markets, which reinforce the poverty and helplessness of those who already experience hunger. As they learn with pride how the Irish as a people clung to education - the folklore of the hedge schools - let them become acquainted with the declining literacy rates of the most vulnerable countries in our modern world. Let them learn, too, from the influence the famine has had on contemporary Irish poets. When Eavan Boland reflects sadly on the limitation of the science of cartography because the famine road does not show up, or the Nobel prizewinner, Seamus Heaney, writes:
"and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore"
they are drawing inspiration from that dark moment of our past. They remind us that famine in our contemporary world also silences the culture of peoples who are portrayed to us all too often as mere statistics.
Here in Chicago your commemorative programme has been reflecting these themes: you have retrieved the detail of the Irish in Illinois, including the vibrant cultural contribution; you have honoured those who suffered in the past, and you have made the connection with hunger and want in our modern world. I think it marks our maturity as a people that remembrance has become an act of self-awareness. Listening to your story here in Chicago has confirmed for me the greatest value of the Irish diaspora: it reminds us that Irishness is not simply territorial, and not necessarily exclusive. It is broad enough to encompass the huge diversity of people who are proud of their Irish heritage. It is like a mirror reflecting back to us on the island of Ireland the values of openness and pluralism as we build a society based on peace and reconciliation.