HELP DURING the Famine came from the most distant and unexpected places, President Mary McAleese told more than 2,000 people who attended a ceremony in Clones, Co Monaghan, on Saturday.
Mrs McAleese led the official representation at National Famine Memorial Day accompanied by the Minister for Heritage Jimmy Deenihan. The ceremony, held in the Diamond in the town, marked the first time the national commemoration has been held in Ulster and also the first time the President has attended.
The President, accompanied by her husband Senator Martin McAleese, said that while the Famine was remembered as the failure of a potato crop, it also confronts us with “a much more cruel and dreadful truth.”
She said this was an avoidable and far from inevitable great hunger.
Mrs McAleese told those gathered that the Irish experienced “an unbearable physical hunger and an intolerable political disinterest that resulted, in its immediate aftermath, in the deaths of a million, the scattering of another million, the embedding of mass emigration and the skewing of the course of our people’s history at home and abroad”.
Help came from the most distant and unexpected places, she said, and noted donations from New York’s Jewish community and the Choctaw tribe of native American Indians who, in 1847, donated the equivalent of more than $100,000. She also marked the contribution of the people of Toronto, who sacrificed their lives ministering to the Irish who arrived in large numbers suffering from disease.
Acknowledging Ireland’s history of solidarity with the poor in developing countries, Mrs McAleese said the story of the Famine must be repeated “so that the grief that has been ours for over a century and a half will blight no other nation or people”.
Mr Deenihan, who is chairman of the National Famine Commemoration Committee, welcomed the North’s Minister of Culture Carál Ní Chuilín and others from the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Mr Deenihan said that while “in the past, the devastating impact of the Famine in Ulster has not always been recognised”, Clones Poor Law Union was among the worst affected areas in Ulster.
During the 90-minute ceremony, prayers for the victims were offered by leaders from the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church, Society of Friends and Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland.
Writer and Clones native Eugene McCabe also read an extract from the Fermanagh Reporter, dated May 6th, 1847, which reported: “There is scarcely a day but there are wretches found dying or dead either in Clones town or on some of the roads that lead to it.”
Community representatives from Co Monaghan and Co Fermanagh, including children from Gaelscoil Eois in Clones and Corranny Primary School in Fermanagh, made a procession with tokens, chosen to reflect all four provinces.
Placing them on a “dead cart” used in Famine times to transport those who had perished, the items included a bowl of potatoes, a McMahon spade, a wad of thatching straw symbolising the 2,000 households that lay derelict across Clones Poor Law Union after the Famine, and a fiddle representing lost traditions.
At the close of the ceremony, Mrs McAleese planted a rowan tree in the Diamond where she also unveiled a commemorative plaque, carved from two of the original sandstone sills salvaged from Clones Poor Law Union Workhouse Hospital.
Diplomats from 25 countries laid wreaths, as did a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, before a minute’s silence was observed.