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Speech of An Taoiseach, National Famine Memorial Day, Sligo

Published: 19 May 2019
From: Department of the Taoiseach

Issued by the Government Press Office

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Minister, distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen.

Reflecting on the devastation wrought by the Great Irish Famine, I am reminded of the words of W.B. Yeats inscribed on a memorial nearby:

‘The dead are not far from us…They cling in some strange way to what is most still and deep within us’.

The Famine was the single most traumatic event in Irish history. It destroyed lives and wiped out families. It made a million people refugees, forced to flee their country for survival. It left a bitter legacy for future generations – those who had to come to terms with the trauma and memory, and perhaps even suffered guilt for having survived.

It is an honour to be with you today as we pay tribute to the memory of all those who suffered and all those who perished during An Gorta Mór.

Every county has its own story, and the story in Sligo was terrible and tragic.

The workhouse here was built in 1841 to accommodate 800 people. It had to be extended twice during the Famine, with rooms reallocated to meet the demand. In 1848 over 4,000 people were taking shelter in it.

As we know, the crowded conditions were a breeding ground for the spread of fever and the Workhouse hospitals were simply inadequate to the task. A fever ward was erected on the grounds of the workhouse and fever hospitals had to be opened across the county in an effort to control the spread of disease.

We usually date the arrival of the potato blight to 1845, but the first reports in Co. Sligo were from October 1844, when it hit Ballymote.

It spread across the country in the late summer and autumn of 1845 with devastating consequences.

These Famine years saw our landscape, our people, and our society, change forever. It is a period surrounded by controversy, silence and shame.

In Connacht and Munster entire villages disappeared and there was a surge in migration from rural to urban areas as families sought relief and assistance.

The worst effects of the Famine were on rural communities, but the towns and cities were also badly hit.

The Famine was a horror story for those who experienced it. But despite all the despair, people still clung to hope.

It is fitting that today’s commemoration overlooks the Garavogue River, which many emigrants would have travelled on as they departed for their new lives. Niall Bruton’s sculpture on the quayside captures the overwhelming horror and the flickering sense of hope. We see a family huddled together in the cold, a starving father, a broken-hearted mother, and a courageous daughter, waiting for the ship to take them away to the new world.

There were 162 sailings from the Port of Sligo, between 1847 and 1851, the majority of them to Canada and the United States. 13,000 people left in Black ‘47 alone.

440 people set off from here in the ‘Bark Larch’ to Quebec, but an estimated 180 died along the way, and a further 150 were too sick to land. Many of these died without ever setting foot on shore. The few who did land on Grosse Ile received comfort from Fr. Bernard McGauran, himself from Sligo.

The descendants of those who survived are now scattered around the globe. Today 70 million people claim Irish ancestry and a large number of these date back to the Famine and its aftermath. Today we honour that relationship and it is enshrined in the revised Article 2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann: ‘the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage’.

I believe the best way we can honour those who suffered and died during the Great Famine is by showing empathy with those who are experiencing similar problems today, whether through natural disaster or oppression.

Our country has a longstanding commitment to working for the eradication of poverty and hunger in the world. We were refugees once and we recall the great compassion and the open doors shown around the world. It is seared on our collective memories as we work to assist today’s refugees.

It has shaped how we view the world and our responsibilities as global citizens.

In areas such as peacekeeping, disarmament, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian assistance we have always sought to match our words with our actions.

This year, our Oversees Development Aid will reach over €800 million. By 2030 we will be spending 0.7% of our Gross National Income on official development assistance.

We are honouring our history and the memory of the dead by working to help those who are suffering around the world today.

Gabhaim buíochas ó chroí le gach éinne a chabhraigh leis an ócáid seo a eagrú – go háirithe an tAire Madigan agus baill an Choiste Cuimhniúcháin Náisiúnta an Ghorta, na chomhaltaí tofa agus foireann Chomhairle Contae Shligigh, an coiste áitiúil anseo i Sligeach, gach éinnne a ghlac páirt sna himeachtaí féin, na daoine óga ach go háirithe; na Fórsaí Cosanta; Na Gardaí; Cosaint Shibhialta; agus Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí. Níl amhras orm ach go raibh páirt shuntasach le himirt agaibh uile, agus ag mórán daoine eile, chun a chinntiú gur éirigh chomh maith sin leis an searmanas anseo inniu.

My thanks to all who helped organize this event - in particular Minister Madigan and the members of the National Famine Commemoration Committee; the elected members and staff of Sligo County Council, and the County Sligo Famine Commemoration Committee.

I want to give a special mention to everyone who has participated in these events, people from all generations.

I also want to thank the Defence Forces, our Gardaí, Civil Defence, and the Office of Public Works. You have helped ensure that today’s ceremony is a fitting tribute and memorial.

It is an honour to join with you today to honour those who died in the Great Famine and also those who left our shores never to return. We cannot ease their suffering, but we can ensure that they are never forgotten.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad.