Tuesday 15 October 2019

Liam Collins: 'The anthem, the writer and a hunger for remembrance'

The tragedy of the Great Famine inspired a mission of commemoration by songwriter Pete St John, writes Liam Collins

REMEMBERING: Every year Michael Blanche and his wife walked along the course of the Liffey from Inchicore until they reached Rowan Gillespie’s Famine memorial
REMEMBERING: Every year Michael Blanche and his wife walked along the course of the Liffey from Inchicore until they reached Rowan Gillespie’s Famine memorial
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

As the strains of The Fields of Athenry ring around Lansdowne Road today, the thoughts of Pete St John will not be very far from what he calls his "Famine song".

Sitting at his usual table in the Beaumont House public house, eating a lunch of salmon and spuds, the author of the Irish sports fans' anthem puts down his fork to talk about the Famine and the revival of the Lumper, the potato that nourished nine million Irish people and then decimated the population when the crop failed in 1845 due to the blight.

"The Fields of Athenry, as you know, is a Famine song," he says. But while he had researched it in his usual meticulous way, he hadn't really thought about how ''the Great Hunger'' was perceived until one night he sat into a taxi driven by Michael Blanche.

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As they talked about this and that, the taxi driver told him that every year he and his wife Olivia walked along the course of the Liffey from Inchicore until they reached Rowan Gillespie's Famine memorial opposite the entrance to the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in central Dublin.

It was their personal commemoration of the Famine and the four million Irish people who died of starvation and disease or emigrated to Britain and America in search of a new life.

Pete St John was fired with a new mission and along with Michael Blanche the ''Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims'' began knocking on the doors of politicians - including Bertie Ahern, a frequent visitor to the pub where we are sitting - beginning a long drawn out struggle to mark the events that changed the country utterly and forever.

After a 14-year campaign, the Government has designated the third Sunday in May as the annual Famine Day.

"We're two guys who got the Irish Government to accept the Famine, a lot of it was done by Michael and we had to battle for it, but now we can tell people all over the world the exact date of Famine Day so that they can join us in paying tribute to those who died and were forgotten for so many years," says the songwriter.

In tandem with their "hard battle" for a day of commemoration, a potato merchant from the Glens of Antrim called Michael McKillop, using ''heirloom seeds'' resurrected the Lumper, the potato which was boiled, roasted, grated into pancakes and baked as the staple food in pre-Famine times. It is estimated that some people ate up to a stone of potatoes a day!

"The history books said it wasn't particularly nice, so I was fascinated to find out what it was really like" McKillop told National Geographic magazine. And indeed the result did get mixed reviews, from tasty to waxy.

"It's an ugly looking thing and a second rate potato, but it will grow anywhere" says Pete St John, tucking into his own plate of mash. "But once I took it in my hand I fell in love with it, it became a prop. Whenever you hold it in your hand you can feel a connection with the people of 1845 and Black '47."

So he got a bag of Lumper potatoes and brought them to the Lady of the Wayside School in Bluebell, near where he grew up in Inchicore, and it didn't take much persuading for the principal Anne McCluskey to arrange for him to talk to the school about its significance in Irish history.

"Afterwards, we cut them up - you cut each one in three - and planted them in the school garden. It was like magic, those kids felt a real connection to the crop and I went back when they harvested it and we had a special meal of potatoes."

Pete St John regrets that, with history no longer compulsory for the Junior Certificate, the Famine may be forgotten again.

So he has persuaded President Michael D Higgins to come to Our Lady of the Wayside school on March 20 to be present at the planting of this year's crop of Lumper potatoes and launch a programme which he hopes will soon be nationwide.

''It's the Lumper, glorious Lumper, just hold it in your hand

To feel its Famine history, and folk memory of our land'' go the lyrics of a new song he has written for the occasion and will be sung by his friend Brian ''The Furrier'' Furling on the occasion.

The Fields of Athenry may be ringing around the Aviva today, with many of those joining in the chorus not even aware that Pete St John was its author, but that doesn't trouble him at all. Nor does the fact that he has just come out of hospital after 12 weeks following a bad fall and a serious brain operation dim his enthusiasm for the project.

With Famine Commemoration Day now on the books, half the campaign is complete. The second half of the game is to make Irish schoolchildren aware of the most significant events in modern Irish history through the symbolism of a humble spud with the unassuming name of the Lumper.

Sunday Independent

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