Wednesday 20 November 2019

Great Famine gave rise to Irish diaspora, says Higgins

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins

Olivia Kelleher in Cork

The Great Hunger must be considered the single most important event in the formation of a distinct Irish-American identity, President Michael D Higgins told the National Famine Commemoration at UCC yesterday.

Mr Higgins said that, though it was not the sole event in the formation of the Irish diaspora, it should never be forgotten that between 1846 and 1855, some 2.1 million people left this island, more than in the previous 250 years.

"One point five million of those went to the United States. An editorial in the Times of London would later state that it is there the Irish Famine of the 1840s would become a central part of collective memory, with all the difficulties this ensues, and a significant component of American politics," he told those at the ceremony.

The President spoke of our solidarity with migrants and refugees borne out of our historic experience. He also paid tribute to the members of the crew of the LE William Butler Yeats who were present at the event.

"That practical solidarity has been displayed, with unwavering courage and devotion to duty, by the officers and sailors of the LE William Butler Yeats, in the course of their humanitarian mission to the Mediterranean. As President of Ireland, may I commend and salute you for your service."

Mr Higgins also called for a renewed commitment to support all those who were vulnerable in the world. He said that, given the "catastrophic dimension" of Ireland's history, "we must deliver not only charity but justice".

The President added that the commitments of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord could not be "met with such an indifference as would mean simply abandoning and jettisoning millions of our fellow human beings".

To mark the commemoration, UCC staff recreated An Bothan, a mud cabin, a replica of a class four dwelling reflecting the horrendous conditions in which our forebears lived, suffered and died.

Ross O'Donovan, who supervised the building of the hut, said the conditions for inhabitants were very poor.

"Forty per cent of the population were living in class four housing in the 1841 census before the Famine. The conditions inside could only be described as very basic. The potato failing caused economic and social disaster in the country," she said.

UCC is launching a Famine Online Project which will publish the 1841 and 1851 famine database.

Sunday Independent

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