16/10/11 – Speech by Mr. Jimmy Deenihan T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on the occasion of the Overseas Commemoration of the Great Irish Famine, at The Great Famine Memorial, St Luke’s Gardens, Leece Street, Liverpool.
Lord Mayor, Ambassador, distinguished guests.
It is a great honour for me to be here today in Liverpool representing the Irish Government, at this the third Overseas Commemoration of the Great Irish Famine. Today is a day to commemorate and honour those who perished during the Great Irish Famine and also to celebrate those who emigrated from Ireland to many parts of the United Kingdom, Canada, United States of America, Australia and across the world during the Famine.
Firstly, I would like to thank Lord Mayor Prendergast for his warm welcome and I would also like to you all for coming here to St. Luke’s Garden today to pay tribute to those who emigrated from Irish shores to Liverpool during the Great Famine to try and find a new life – free from hunger, disease and despair. We can only imagine how difficult the journey was for those who left Ireland at that time and marvel at their courage as with heavy and sad heart they left behind them their homeland, family, culture and traditions.
As is evident from the attendance here today, many Irish emigrants settled on Merseyside and indeed proudly took their place amongst the communities in the area, playing their part and contributing to the vibrant society that makes up Liverpool today.
The Great Famine in Ireland was undoubtedly one of the most significant events in our country’s history and also a transforming event. The failure of the potato crop during the 1840’s not only led to a huge amount of suffering and loss of life but also changed the demographic and cultural landscape of our country and had a huge impact on our language – the effects of which can still be felt in today’s society.
The immediate impact of the famine on the population was dramatic. The population fell from almost 8.5 million in 1845 to 6.6 million in 1851. Moreover, the story of Irish population change in the decades after 1851 was unique among the peoples of Europe. Ireland’s population continued to decline: from 6.6 million in 1851 to 4.4 million in 1911 and the key factor in explaining this unique demographic history was emigration. A fatalistic acceptance by many families that many of their members would be forced to emigrate became a deeply ingrained attitude among later generations of Irish, and had a profound effect on many aspects of Irish social and cultural life.
I understand that between the years 1849 and 1852, 1.2 million Irish emigrants arrived in Liverpool. John Besnard, the general weighmaster of Cork, stated as follows in evidence to the Select Committee on Emigrant Ships in 1854:
‘‘I have gone to Liverpool expressly to wait the arrival of Irish steamers and no language at my command can describe the scenes I witnessed there; people were positively prostrated, and scarcely able to walk after they got out of the steamers……”
He went on to describe the manner in which passengers were carried from Irish to English ports as “disgraceful, dangerous and inhumane”. This is a stark reminder to us of the horrors experienced by the victims of the famine. Unfortunately, many who came to these shores died here shortly after their arrival or indeed en route. However, some prospered here and the strong relationship that continues to exist between Ireland and Liverpool confirms this.
From historical reports, it seems that much relief was provided by the city, through local rates, and many Liverpool citizens gave generously to help those starving and suffering. This is a testament to the people of Liverpool, who have a reputation for warmth and compassion to this day, and on behalf of the Irish Government I salute and thank you for this.
However, despite the efforts of local people, many perished. In one Liverpool parish in 1847 alone, over 7,000 people were buried in mass graves. Thousands more were buried in surrounding parishes. Famine, of course, does not have any boundaries and amongst the victims were many who worked to help the sick, including Catholic and Protestant clergy, Christian Brothers, relieving officers, doctors and nurses.
However, one of the purposes of our annual famine commemorations is to not only remember the victims of the past, but to raise awareness of famine issues all over the world. The legacy of the famine in Ireland includes a deep compassion felt by Irish people for those who suffer from hunger in today’s world and a very strong commitment to humanitarian aid and relief. Although we can say that famine in Ireland or England may not be likely in our time, there are other parts of the world experiencing famine today. All of us have seen the harrowing scenes of the humanitarian disaster in Somalia and the Horn of Africa on news reports, on our TVs and in our newspapers over the last few months. It is clear from these scenes that there is an urgent need for the international community to provide an effective and comprehensive response in order to save the thousands of lives that are currently at risk. This is the most severe humanitarian emergency in the Horn of Africa for decades and tens of thousands of people have already starved to death.
The Irish Government is strongly committed to providing aid to East Africa and tackling global hunger and I know this vision is shared also by the British Government – I am aware, for example, that the Development Secretary here has recently spoken about the importance of preventing famine in the developing world. It is vital that we learn from our past experience of famine and use our empathy to raise awareness of the plight of victims of famine all over the world.
Finally, the Great Famine resulted in a disproportionately strong representation of the Irish among the nations formed through emigration in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. These diaspora communities still demonstrate a significant affinity with their migrant predecessors of the Famine and there is strong evidence of this affinity here in Liverpool. We must continue to remember those who suffered during the great Irish Famine, but also continue to make the alleviation of hunger in the 21st century a key priority. This is the only way we can truly honour the victims of the past.