A new bill for an official day to honor the victims of Ireland's Great Hunger is the result of a 16-year campaign by a Dublin taxi driver.
A retired Dublin taxi driver’s dream that Ireland would honor the forgotten victims of the Great Famine with a dignified memorial each year is set to come to fruition when new legislation is finally enacted by the Irish parliament early in the New Year.
Michael Blanch has campaigned since 2003 for his country to hold a National Famine Commemoration Day on the same weekend each year to remember the million people who died and well over a million who emigrated to North America between 1845 and 1849.
Until now, there has been no official date in the Irish calendar to remember the greatest disaster in Irish history, but from 2018 the annual event is set to take place on the second Sunday in May each year.
The potato blight of the 1840s, when Ireland was under the rule of the British Empire, decimated the island’s population, almost wiping out the Irish language and leading to decades of mass emigration which continued throughout the 19th century.
Blanch told IrishCentral this week that he came up with the idea of a national remembrance day after being struck by how there was nothing to remind people of the Great Famine when he used to drive throughout the capital city 15 years ago.
“People used to sit into my cab and ask me about the Great Famine,” he said. “I realized that there was nothing to show them in Dublin. There was nothing about the Great Famine in the National Museum of Ireland and this was before the striking statues were built down by the River Liffey, on the quays.
“I thought it was crazy that the victims of the famine weren’t given the respect they deserved, as though our history was too painful for people to want to remember them. So myself and my wife, Betty, set up our own little commemoration in 2003.”
Only Michael and Betty took part in that first commemoration 14 years ago. Eventually, after he began a vocal campaign, the Irish Government appointed him to a National Famine Memorial Committee.
Events have alternated between the four provinces of Ireland throughout the past decade, but Michael was upset that there was no fixed date on the calendar. People could not plan in advance for the event, which could take place anytime between May and September.
He felt this diminished the significance of the event, even though it has been attended by either the President of Ireland or the Taoiseach in recent years.
“It’s so important that Ireland has one day in the year when people can stop to remember the Great Famine,” he said. “There are events to commemorate the famine victims in Canada, London, and Liverpool, but until now we never knew when it would be held in Ireland. It moved around on the calendar, between May and September.”
Blanch points out that some great work is being done in other areas. The Lumper Schools Project, which involves planting potatoes in memory of famine victims, has been rolled out at primary schools across Ireland.
A ‘marker project’, funded by Bill Fahey, involves the marking of unmarked famine graves which are dotted all across the country.
He is also delighted that, following a decade of campaigning, the National Museum of Ireland will open a permanent exhibition in memory of the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor) in 2018.
A commemoration is scheduled to take place at University College Cork in May 2018. New legislation introduced through the Dail by Deputy Colm Brophy (Fine Gael) will finally fix the date of the event for the second Sunday in May each year.
Deputy Brophy first brought the new legislation before the Dail in February of this year and admits there has been a “serious hold up” with the passing of the bill through the national parliament.
However, he now believes that the legislation will have passed by January or February of next year, ensuring that the National Famine Commemoration Day has a permanent place in the calendar on the second Sunday in May.
“This bill has had cross-party support in February and I’m surprised it has taken so long to go through the Dail,” said Deputy Brophy. “This is something that is relevant to every town and village across Ireland.
Deputy Brophy said it was important that the annual commemoration took place during the school year, so that Irish children could learn about the darkest period in Irish history.
He said that Irish people needed to remember their past appropriately so that they could understand where they came from.
The Great Famine also gave young people in Ireland a greater understanding of why so many Irish people set sail on the ‘coffin ships’ for new lives in the United States and Canada.
“This was a watershed in our history,” he told IrishCentral. “The famine was not inevitable, but a combination of circumstances and an inept response by the British authorities ensured that it turned into one of the greatest tragedies of the 19th century.
“Our population still has not recovered from the Great Famine. In Ireland, we used to celebrate those who left terrible poverty behind to make new lives in the United States, but we didn’t seem to want to acknowledge the horror of the thousands upon thousands who died.”
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook here