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Why the Irish must help desperate migrants


Hundreds of migrants in an overcrowded wooden-hulled boat in the Mediterranean Sea just north of the coast of Libya

Hundreds of migrants in an overcrowded wooden-hulled boat in the Mediterranean Sea just north of the coast of Libya

AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of migrants in an overcrowded wooden-hulled boat in the Mediterranean Sea just north of the coast of Libya

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's visit this week was timely. Post-referendum euphoria suggest our human rights credentials are in good order.

He pointedly praised Ireland's proud record on human rights, peacekeeping and international aid.

Meeting with the Taoiseach, he urged support for the rescue and resettlement efforts for migrants in the Mediterranean, stressing the collective responsibility of European Union leaders.

One hopes our recent referendum vote for diversity and humanity extends to this pressing human rights challenge.

But it would be a mistake to view that vote as heralding an unqualified embrace of progressive politics or diversity. Suggestions that "repealing the Eighth" is the sequel to the marriage-equality vote are wide of the mark.

Sadly and in similar vein, public support for receiving more refugees is not a given according to a recent poll.

The crisis in the Mediterranean has been described by the United Nations as the greatest refugee challenge since the Second World War.

On a daily basis thousands are fleeing Syria and other war-torn and unstable countries and embarking on dangerous voyages to try and enter Europe, many drowning in the seas off Italy and Greece.

The body count and images of migrants being rescued from the seas finally forced European governments to put in place a modest but more coherent rescue and settlement plan based on a quota. Around 40,000 more refugees from Syria and Eritrea are to be settled in the EU. Ireland has agreed to accept 300 refugees which, given the scale of need, is modest but indicates a willingness to burden share in this regard - unlike the UK, which has declined. An Irish naval ship is participating in rescue missions.

The sight of these unseaworthy and crowded vessels heaving with their human cargo of the dead and desperate evokes thoughts of the coffin ships which carried Irish people to America during the Great Famine. The scale of that national catastrophe in our own history is still hard for us to grasp, just as it is when contemplating the current situation facing millions displaced as refugees in Syria and North Africa.

Sometimes local stories on a smaller scale can give a greater insight. I recently read 'Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine' by Ciaran Reilly. Based on the Strokestown Park House Archive, one of the largest collections of Famine documents in the world, it provides a detailed record of the varied experiences of those who inhabited the Co Roscommon estate in the 1840s.

The 50,000 documents detail the plight of the landless labourers and cottier class who were the worst affected. Five thousand people emigrated from this one estate alone during the Famine.

The archive, housed at the National Famine Museum at Strokestown, traces the trauma of hunger, eviction and forced migration of a community of 10,000 people on a landed estate during the Famine years. It documents determined efforts by the landlord to clear the land of paupers due to overcrowding, poverty and disease.

There are written petitions for help to the landlord, often from women abandoned by husbands. Many of them were unable to pay rent due to illness and penury so a scheme of "assisted emigration" was designed whereby the landlord would pay for tenants to be transported to Canada. Whole families were accompanied to Liverpool and put on ships bound for Quebec. Many were ill and malnourished before setting off, but the prospect of a better life beckoned and they gave up what meagre rights they had on the land.

Records tell harrowing stories of disease and death on board the ships. Those who survived the 63-day voyages in appalling conditions were quickly dispersed into Canada and North America. The Mahon tenants from Strokestown were the first to be described as travelling in "coffin ships" by the Canadian newspapers.

By the time they reached Grosse Ile, a quarantine station at the mouth of the Lawrence River near Quebec, half of the tenants were dead or dying. In July of 1847, 1,490 tenants, whole families, from Strokestown were accompanied by the Bailiff John Robinson to Liverpool. He returned having seen them off, but he was not to know what was to befall his charges.

They were holed up in Liverpool docks for two days waiting to leave on four ships: The Viginius, John Munn, Erin's Queen and Naomi. Cholera and typhus was rampant. The first of the Mahon tenants arrived at Gross Ile on July 17 on Erin's Queen but were detained for more than 12 days in quarantine. By the end of the month, other tenants from the Virginius joined them having spent 63 days at sea. The other two ships duly arrived carrying more dead. The 'Toronto Globe' newspaper reported the shocking death toll. Of the 1,490 people, more than 700 had died and were buried at sea or at Grosse Ile.

News did not filter back immediately of the death toll and so the assisted migration continued during 1847, with people unaware of the horrors of the crossing.

Indeed, many more unwittingly surrendered their holdings for compensation money to go to America. Even those who were not destitute but "sturdy farming class" joined in the exodus, just to escape the chaos and calamity all round them.

Back in Strokestown, relations between landlord and tenants were deteriorating. In November 1847, Major Denis Mahon was murdered near the townland of Dooherty. It was the most high-profile assassination of the Famine and prompted debates in the House of Commons on evictions and the misgovernment of Ireland.

The fate of the Mahon tenants was just one part of a social catastrophe of famine and migration in Ireland which cost millions of lives. There is a memorial at Grosse Ile, erected by Strokestown Park owner Jim Callery, thought to be the largest mass grave of famine victims outside of Ireland to commemorate the 5,400 Irish, many of them from Strokestown, who died in the summer of 1847.

Just like the wretched migrants now fetching up on the southern shores of Europe, each of whom has their own story, our ancestors endured pitiful destitution abandonment and forced migration not of their making. They relied upon the kindness of Canadian and American strangers to receive them.

We Irish, of all Europeans, should be mindful of our history and should be a leader, not a reluctant participant, in the international response to the migrant crisis.

Irish Independent