As the date approaches for this year’s Great Hunger Commemoration, set to take place in Glasnevin Cemetery on Sunday, September 11, calls are increasing for the setting of a fixed date on which Irish people can remember one of the most monumental periods of Irish history, a period which has shaped not just Ireland but the history of countries such as the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
Starting in 2008, the National Famine Commemorations have moved from county to county each year, taking place last year in Co. Armagh and this year in Dublin. However, the date on which the famine Irish have been remembered has also varied, drastically delayed this year from May until September so events would not be overshadowed by the massive efforts shown for those who took part in 1916.
As influential an event as the Easter Rising was, however, why is it that we don’t specify a time to commemorate the lost lives of one million Irish people and the loss to the country of one and a half million other poor souls who ventured overseas to evade the tortuous conditions at home?
Fine Gael TD Colm Brophy and Sinn Féin TD Sean Crowe, in particular, have been vocal on the subject of a fixed date for a Great Hunger commemoration, calling on the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Culture, Heather Humphreys, to change the current terms of remembrance, something the Minister has declined to do.
“We have a fixed date to commemorate Easter 1916 and one to commemorate all those who died in other wars on behalf of our country,” said Brophy.
“However, when it comes to what is, perhaps, our country’s greatest tragedy, it is somehow deemed not important enough to be marked by a permanent date in our calendar. This is no longer acceptable.”
As heartbreaking as it is to remember the loss of so many during the Great Hunger, Brophy argues that it would be a positive step towards honoring them by allowing schools and the Irish diaspora more time to plan in the lead up.
“There needs to be a change in our mentality when it comes to commemorating this momentous and terrible moment in our history” he continued.
“I feel that setting a fixed and permanent date in our diaries to remember and honour all those lost their lives would be a very positive step.”
There are many valid and interesting arguments for the setting of a fixed date for Great Hunger commemorations and the arguments of Minister Humphreys—that it would be difficult to schedule with the Taoiseach and President’s busy diaries and that it would have meant clashes with the 2016 commemorations this year—are flimsy in comparison.
Ireland and its people were permanently changed by the years of the Great Hunger, with a loss of 20 percent of our population through starvation and immigration, and years of recovery for those who survived. Having a fixed day of commemoration will allow us to reflect on this pain, this suffering, on the hardship of recovery for the whole population and each year encourage us to end hunger worldwide so no other nation should continue to endure famine. The fight against mass poverty and hunger should, of course, not be limited to one day but a rallying cry on the same day every year could help to increase a drive of fundraising or volunteering that will make a positive impact throughout the year, in the spirit of the Choctaw Indians who raised money for the hungry Irish just years after their own pain along the Trail of Tears.
As loath as I am to say there was any positive in the Great Hunger, I believe there is one to be found in the stories of the people who traveled overseas. The young orphan girls sent from workhouses to Australia, the orphans who arrived in Canada to stay or to make their way down through the States, the thousands who passed through Ellis Island quarantine station, and the thousands who went in the opposite direction to the UK, these people and their descendants sowed the seeds of the Irish diaspora we celebrate today.
There are ten of thousands who will attribute their heritage to those who left Ireland during the famine years and they deserve to be included in the remembrance. One date will allow this to happen, and even if the location changes each year, those wishing to return to Irish soil, or hold their own event in the new country, will be able to set concrete plans for each year. The sense of solidarity and community this will create holds exciting possibilities for the ways in which we can strengthen the connections across the waves and continue to embrace the diaspora as we have begun to do this centenary year.
With that strengthened connection comes not only the benefits of boosting Irish tourism but also the opportunity to reclaim Irish culture from the claws of the less traditional manners of celebration that have cropped up on St. Patrick’s Day. Our national holiday should certainly not be replaced but having a separate day on which we can celebrate Irish history in a different way, through debate, through storytelling, and through a more solemn manner, could act as a good alternative for those Irish who wish to celebrate our past without the mass revelry that comes with March 17.
Minster Humphrey's arguments that the Commemoration committee felt it would be logistically impossible to organize a National Famine Commemoration Day just don’t sit right, especially when Ireland’s major event in the decade of centenaries, the Easter Rising, is pretty much behind us.
“I do not consider it desirable to fix the same date each year, given the factors that may need to be considered, such as the site selection process, the availability of the lead person to officiate at the ceremony and the general arrangements at community level,” she said.
Calls for a fixed date 84% poll agreement all the opposition parties and Independent TDs who have been asked Lab is silent. Gov out of step— C.C.I.F.V (@CCIFV1845) July 8, 2016
Surely holding the commemoration on the same date each year would be easier for planning purposes, as long as a site is told a year in advance that the commemorations will be held there the following year. A set date will allow for the commemorations to be scheduled into school curriculums and plans, into the plans and events of history societies nationwide, and allow for the creation on a national day of recognition.
As for the President’s and Taoiseach’s schedules, I presume they are extremely packed but if an annual date is picked then it’s just one less day of the year on which other meetings can be organized. The Taoiseach knows he always has to be in Washington D.C. on St. Patrick’s Day, and things are worked out.
As Brophy stated: “It is a matter of how one prioritises this… This is the greatest tragedy to have befallen the people and I do not think it is too difficult for us to put a date in our diary to mark it every year.”
Do you think Ireland should have a set day to remember the Great Hunger? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, below.