The Great Hunger remembered


“A million a decade of human wrecks. Corpses lying in fever sheds. Corpses huddled on floundering decks, and shroudless dead on their rocky beds. Nerve and muscle and heart and brain, lost to Ireland – lost in vain.”

- Inscription on memorial in Skibbereen, County Cork
This year, over a century and a half past the end of An Ghorta Mór (the great starvation) that claimed over one million lives between 1845 and 1851, Ireland at long last declared May 17, 2009 the first National Famine Memorial Day.

During that six-year span some two million people left Ireland to escape the hunger, while those left at home were vulnerable to death by starvation and famine-induced ailments including malnutrition, measles, tuberculosis, whooping cough and cholera. 

Skibbereen, County Cork, one of the areas affected the worst, was chosen as the host town for the inaugural National Famine Memorial Day.

On May 17, after a week of lectures, memorial walks and performances, remembrances began at O’Donovan Rossa Park, followed by a walk led by Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív to Skibbereen’s Abbeystrowry Cemetery, where between 8,000 to 10,000 victims are buried in a mass grave. That night, the Skibbereen Theatre Society presented Jim Minogue’s award-winning play Flight to Grosse Île at the Town Hall.

In the days prior to the Skibbereen commemoration, Ó Cuív traveled to Canada to unveil a plaque on Grosse Île. The island, in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City, served as a quarantine station during the worst years of the Famine years. Known locally as “L’Île des Irlandais”— The Island of the Irish— it was the first port of call for many of the Famine immigrants who survived the Atlantic crossing only to succumb to “ship’s fever.” Several thousand are buried in mass graves on the island.

Minister Ó Cuív said, “The instinct for survival, the will to live, which had seen the famine emigrants survive the calamity and the ocean crossing, must have been extraordinarily strong. It must have been one of the main factors that enabled them, and in time their children, to put down firm roots in their new countries. This determination to survive and to succeed was passed on to later generations of the Irish of the diaspora, and must have inspired them as they made their mark and reached the top in every area of the new societies in which they settled. We must ensure that the catastrophic events of the Great Famine are appropriately remembered and that the extraordinary contributions of those who emigrated, and of their many descendants abroad, are justly celebrated.” Ó Cuív remarked on the importance of using the commemoration of the Famine to raise awareness about those suffering starvation throughout the world.

Marianna O’Gallagher, who has played an integral role in Canada’s commemoration efforts since the 1980s, remembered a similar sentiment when President Mary Robinson spoke at Grosse Île in 1994. “She made it very clear that famine, our famine, should not be forgotten, but much more — that we must realize that famine still exists around the world today, and for many of the same reasons: the heartlessness of governments with regard to care of their people.”

Of course, many groups in Ireland, Canada and America have been commemorating the Great Famine long before their governments recognized a day in its memorial. “Certainly here in Canada we have been remembering 1847 for a hundred years … now the world is getting into the act,” said Marianna O’Gallagher. “The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) has been holding pilgrimages to Grosse Île almost continually from about the 1890s. In 1909, in a ceremony that drew thousands, the AOH unveiled a 46-foot-high Celtic cross on Grosse Île atop Telegraph Hill, the highest point on the island. In the 1920s and 30s the pilgrimage was an annual affair from Quebec City.”

The Ancient Order of Hibernians will host a three-day celebration of the Centenary of the Cross on August 14, 15 and 16, 2009. AOH members from across Canada, the United States, Ireland and Europe are expected to attend.

The New York Consulate General of Ireland held a series of lectures by prominent writers, professors and scholars of the Famine in correlation with the National Famine Memorial Day. The series reflected on the role of the Famine in drastically and permanently changing the history of both Ireland and New York, where many Irish emigrants sought refuge.

Cathal Póirtéir, an expert on the Famine, drew from folklore to detail memories of those terrible times as they were kept alive in Irish-speaking communities. Christine Kinealy, author of The Great Calamity, spoke about the international response to the tragedy (see page 73), while Professor Maureen Murphy, Hofstra University, talked about the Great Irish Famine Curriculum and the pedagogy that was developed to teach the curriculum in New York.