It's our national duty to honour memory of Famine victims – Enda Kenny
Published 12/05/2014 | 02:30
The weather was a suitably doleful accompaniment for the event that was in it. It rained – not just cats and dogs but a whole ark full of beasts – on the National Famine Commemoration at Strokestown Park House in Co Roscommon.
"The Child of Prague didn't do the business for us today," apologised the owner of the venue, Jim Callery, to the sodden audience as the heavens stayed open.
Nonetheless, it didn't deter a large crowd of about 2,000 from donning free plastic ponchos, hoisting umbrellas and sticking out the almost two-hour ceremony.
Even the Child of Prague probably had a poncho.
But then this particular part of Ireland was especially devastated by the Great Famine. Between 1841 and 1851, an estimated 32pc of the county's population disappeared, either through death or emigration, and the estate upon which the ceremony took place was one of the worst affected of all, losing over 60pc of the people in the locale – the tragedy is curated in the famine museum in Strokestown House.
The participants came from far and wide; alongside the Taoiseach and Arts and Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan were ambassadors from over 40 nations and representatives from eight different religious and humanist communities, plus MEP Mairead McGuinness and barrister Michael McDowell.
The event, co-ordinated by the Defence Forces, ran with as much military precision as a perennially tardy Taoiseach will allow (he was a trifling five minutes behind schedule).
Upon his arrival he inspected a military guard of honour, and then took to the nice, sheltered stage for the programme of events. There was music from local choirs and musicians, including a piece called 'Orphan Girl' about 200 orphaned girls who sailed from Ireland to Sydney, and some poignant readings from letters home from emigrants, or pleas from local landlords for food for their tenants.
One of these was read by the owner of Strokestown House, Jim Callery, who just after purchasing the property found a large cache of letters relating to the plight of the tenants of the demesne.
"We cannot much longer withstand their cries for food," wrote one land agent to the then-owner of Strokestown Park.
These were followed by prayers, readings and reflections from representatives of the Jewish, Quaker and Islamic communities, the Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, also the Church of Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland.
"On a day when we know little discomfort, apart from rain, we remember those on whom the rains of Roscommon poured when their stomachs were empty and their limbs were bare," read Canon Liz McElhinney of the Church of Ireland.
Then the Taoiseach delivered his speech, vividly painting a picture of the horrors faced by the pitiful populace. "It's the story of our starved and our famished humanity – it's the story of the eight to 10,000 men, women and children pitched into mass graves in Skibbereen, it's the story of the living skeletons burying themselves by lying down in the corners of graveyards, their sole wish from life that they be buried within consecrated ground," he told the crowd.
"As their descendants, we carry the generational memory of An Gorta Mor, deep within us. It's in how we stop momentarily when we hear summer blight warnings on the radio; it's in the coldness in the back of the neck at the particular smell of a bag of potatoes that has spent too long in the cupboard," he said. He spoke about one village where 400 people were shipped to New York for £2,500 that was sold for double the price a year later because it was "perfectly untenanted".
It was, he said, "a perfect national horror" where the people suffered "slow, starving deaths in the fields around here, in the cabins, the ditches, the towns and cities, to the degree that the most notable sight in this country was that of men and women carrying coffins in their arms, on their shoulders, on their heads until such was the onslaught of death, that the coffins themselves ran out".
Looking out on to the grim grey afternoon, he said, "Let us remember that wherever you go in this country to dig potatoes, you're not far away from the spirit and the spirits of those who went before us. It's our country's duty to honour them."
The formal part of the ceremony continued with a tree-planting and the unveiling of a memorial wall to commemorate the 1,490 tenants from 275 families from the Strokestown estate who boarded famine ships in search of a new life in Quebec. Almost half died en route.
Before the Tricolour was raised to full mast and a minute's silence observed, the Taoiseach laid a wreath in honour of the dead, followed by a long procession of representatives from diverse nations. Rain dripping from them, they came forward, placed wreaths and bowed. Israel. Palestine. France. Germany. Ethiopia. Lesotho. Cuba. The United States. Russia. Ukraine.
There was silence apart from the thrum of the drops on the stones. So many nations have been touched or ravaged by a Great Hunger – some in recent times – that this was one of those moving moments when history reminds everyone that some events bind us together rather than divide us.