That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for the holding of Famine Memorial Day on the same day each year and to provide for related matters.
The aim of this Bill is simple. It is to place our Famine memorial day on a fixed date each year, namely, the second Sunday of May. While we have had the commemoration date since 2008, this Bill will ensure that the date does not swing, as it currently does, from May to September each year. It will mean that, nationally and internationally, Irish people and the diaspora can plan, prepare and commemorate this time in our history with the recognition it deserves. For example, we do not know at this late stage when the national Famine day will take place next year. This annual uncertainty over the commemoration date is shocking, given it is the biggest event to befall the people of this country. We have a national day of commemoration in remembrance of the Irish people who died in past wars, which falls on the Sunday nearest to 11 July. It is surprising, therefore, that we do not have a fixed date for the commemoration to honour the victims of the Great Irish Famine and its survivors.
The Irish Famine poses an uncomfortable stain on the legacy of British imperialism. While the potato blight was a natural aberration, Ireland's people, who were utterly subjugated and whose land and resources were mercilessly exploited, were incredibly vulnerable and suffered far more than any other people who suffered famines in Europe at the time. The scars of the Famine are still visible throughout the countryside, physically in the ruined cottages and on lonely ridges where the blighted potatoes were left unpicked.
However, the lasting consequence of the Great Hunger was the massive depopulation of this country where more than 1 million people died and a million people were forced to emigrate. These are conservative estimates. This country has still not returned to its pre-Famine population level. It is estimated that halfway through the 19th century 9 million lived on the island of Ireland. By 1861, this had fallen to 4.4 million. That population decrease continued until the 1960s.
The legacy of emigration still exists. The sad fact is, because of the start of emigration during the Famine, we still have emigration as a defining characteristic of the Irish population and we still see its effects in rural areas today.
The language shift from Irish to English was compounded by the Famine, and those who lived throughout the Famine knew that if they had to go to America or to England, they would have to use the English language to survive. That language shift was enhanced by that brutal pragmatism forced by the Famine at the time.
The dearth of Irish poetry and music from the era will testify to the utter horror that befell the Irish people. The following is an extract from one of the few songs that exists from this time, "Amhrán na bPrátaí Dubha", written by Máire Ní Dhroma when the worst effects hit Ring in Waterford:
Tá na bochta so Éireann ag plé leis an ainnise,
Buairt is anacair is pianta báis,
Leanaí bochta ag béiceadh is ag screadadh gach maidin,
Ocras fada orthu is gan dada le fáil.
Ní hé Dia a cheap riamh an obair seo,
Daoine bochta a chur le fuacht is le fán,
Iad a chur sa phoorhouse go dubhach is glas orthu,
Lánúineacha pósta is iad scartha go bás.
Na leanaí óga thógfaidís suas le macnas
Sciobtaí uathu iad gan trua gan taise dhóibh:
Ar bheagán lóin ach súp na hainnise
Gan máthair le freagairt díbh dá bhfaighidís bás.
The response to the Famine by England was at best indifferent and at worst utterly inhumane. Public works were established in order that the impoverished and weakened men would labour at building useless roads, follies and other pointless projects for pitiful sums of money. Irish ports did not close during the Famine for exports and it is a matter of historical fact that millions of pounds worth of Irish food, including grain and even butter, were sent for export while hundreds of thousands were literally left starving to death. I am not deliberately being emotive on this issue. These are matters of fact. While myths abound with regards to the Great Hunger and how it could happen under Britain's watch, some have speculated that it was an attempt at depopulation or a manner to quell dissent by the obliteration of the poorest cottier class. No doubt the Famine painfully impressed upon the generation of O'Donovan Rossa that self-determination was a matter of life and death.
We need a fixed memorial day to remember the Great Irish Famine, to remember the human cost and consequences of neglect, to remember the effects when an economic imperative is prioritised and to recognise the dark shadows of colonial might. Most of all, a fixed day of remembrance would honour those victims and survivors of the Great Famine and allow us to remember what our ancestors lived through.
It is an Irish tragedy, but with global significance. There is a plaque on the Dublin Mansion House honouring the Native American Choctaw tribe who contributed so generously to the Famine victims. It reads: "Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger related illness in a world of plenty." There are 800 million such people around the world today. Let us fix this day of national commemoration in order that we can remember those who suffer today, as those in this country did once.