Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr. Enda Kenny, T.D.,
at the National Famine Commemoration
in Drogheda, Co. Louth,
on Sunday 13th May 2012 at 3:00pm
People of Drogheda
There is a lot in the title the Great famine. An Gorta Mór. Hunger scourged our country, pursued our people long before the 1840s.
But the adjective Great……mór…… brought death, dispossession and destruction of a new and very different order.
Shops were still full of food. The well-off still sated.
Here…. mesmerised……hundreds of thousands took to the roads.
Too many of them….already mere hints of humans….. carrying their most precious possession: their children….. blue-black and bloated from hunger and fever. ….
With those children in their arms, they turned their backs on all they had known..
The already-skeleton dead….. of a famished Ireland.
By the time they arrived here on the North Quay who knows what they had witnessed, avoided, endured? Not just hunger, but typhus, fever, cholera.
And through it all, the best…..the worst of humanity.
Men and women who gave when they had nothing.
Those with plenty who, for whatever reason…… too much fear, too much shame, or too little compassion…… did not.
Those of us here who are parents….. will experience these stories with particular sorrow…..distress…..
Because those starving refugees were people like us…… families like our families…… their children just like our children….
If they were strong enough…lucky enough….. they made it to quaysides like here to Drogheda.
They gathered the remnants of their dignity, their sanity and boarded ships bound for Liverpool….. with the hope….. at least…. of a future.
Today, then, we meet on sacred ground. The last piece of Ireland on which so many thousands stood. Never to return.
In Black ‘47 alone, 70,000 men, women and children left this very place for Liverpool. In time, many of them then going on to the New World.
Earlier today, Mayor of Drogheda, Kevin Callan, read the newspaper account of one such famine story.
It was about a family of four from Ballina who arrived in Drogheda having been three weeks on the road.
The journey and the hunger took their toll. In Shop Street, the two children collapsed and died.
As the newspaper put it “this is but one of the innumerable cases of destitution witnessed amongst the crowds daily arriving here from the West.”
Today, we honour and remember this Irish family.
They are our people.
Their children are our children.
Perhaps they were friends, neighbours of our ancestors.
Some here today honour and remember them in a very special way.
Those who traced the footsteps of this couple and their children walking in Ballina and Drogheda in a journey of solidarity and commemoration.
You bear witness to their suffering…..to their memory…..even to their existence itself.
Thank you for your thoughtfulness, your compassion, your respect.
Every time I go to America, I imagine the babble of languages at the entry ports.
As Taoiseach, walking down the street in America, I always take care to speak Irish………..if there are Famine spirits lingering…… they might once again hear their own language….
To let them know that Ireland survived…. it endured….and because it did…we the Irish people remember them, honour them. Now and always.
The emigration tide continued undimmed well into the 1850s.
The famished people who arrived in Britain, Canada and America in time brought their genius, hardwork and talent not just to those countries but to future generations. In time came streams of Irish teachers, Irish nuns, Irish priests, Irish union officials.
And in time, Irish Presidents and Vice Presidents.
Here was the genesis of our Diaspora…70 million across the world.
President Michael D. Higgins did a magnificent job in lead the official representation at the Overseas Famine Commemoration in Boston last week. The vibrancy of the community who welcomed him is a testament to the brilliance and determination of the Irish people wherever they may be.
But for Ireland however, it’s never just a matter of simply being.
Our famine history means it’s a matter of ‘being with’.
Irish Aid focus on Hunger
The legacy of the Famine is that we bear witness.
When we see human suffering, we don’t linger behind the scenes and depend on anonymous process.
We go to what we believe is our proper haunt…. as human beings and as Irishmen and Irishwomen: the front-line.
For us, food security, humanitarian aid are not just political matters.
We make them our personal business because they run so deep in the Irish heart, the Irish experience, the Irish psyche.
It is that generational memory that supports Irish Aid and all aid agencies, to bring not just food but hope, self-reliance, compassion and dignity across the Developing World.
A major priority of Irish Aid is to support global efforts to reduce hunger. In addition to addressing the immediate needs of those who are victims of natural and manmade disasters, Ireland is also working to address the root causes of hunger and has become a leading global advocate in the fight against hunger.
We have committed to spending more than one fifth of our overseas-aid budget in support of activities that can improve access to food and reduce under-nutrition in the world’s poorest countries.
Ireland has been a strong supporter of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement. This initiative brings together governments, civil society, development partners, the United Nations and the private sector to support governments’ own efforts to address maternal and child under-nutrition.
In addition to the Government’s commitment to ending global hunger and under-nutrition, Irish civil society has also played an invaluable role, in Ireland and globally, with both advocacy and action to end hunger. Ireland’s leadership role when it comes to the fight against global hunger was recognised by the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, last month when he appointed two prominent Irish citizens to the Scaling Up Nutrition Lead Group – Tom Arnold and Mary Robinson.
Our shared humanity means we live in a continuous present. What was endured by one generation becomes vital knowledge…..experience for another….. at the level of memory, heart or soul.
It is vital that through remembering and honouring the victims of our own Great Hunger that strive to ensure food, dignity, opportunity….humanity itself…. for all peoples in all parts of the world where starvation and under-nutrition exist whether as a fact or a possibility. Both as a fact and a possibility. This is one way our National Famine Commemoration is part of a global agenda.
Finally, I would like to thank the community in Drogheda who have made this event and this commemoration their business. By doing so you hold the past generations in your mind and more importantly your heart.
You keep their memory safe and pass it, intact and alive, to the next generation.
As Taoiseach, let me say today that we must never forget. Nor will we ever.