I move that: "The Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share time with Deputy Seán Crowe.
I pay tribute to Mr. Michael Blanch who has been behind the campaign to achieve a set day for the commemoration of the Famine. He and his family have worked on this issue for approximately ten years to get the State to recognise the importance of the Famine and commemorating it on a set day.
The Famine was one of the most shocking events in Irish history. It is also one of the most important events, if not the most important. Sometimes we think of it as occurring a long time ago, but my great grandfather was born at the end of it. In generational terms, it occurred quite a short time ago. I will read some extracts from the diary of a Dr. Daniel Donovan because when we talk about the Famine, we forget the individual horrors of the time, three or four generations ago. I do not want to shock people, but it is important to reflect on the personal experiences of Irish people not long ago. Dr. Donovan was from Skibbereen and stated:
A man named McDonald called upon him to see his stepdaughter who was dying and whom he wished to have removed to the workhouse in order that she may obtain the rites of burial. The girl was lying on a floor of this hovel and she was filthy. Around her hands remained the tattered garment and though death was evidently hastening to her relief, she appeared quite conscious. In reply to my inquiries as to why her hands were tethered with this cloth, she said her mother had been dead for two days and she was stretched on the same straw as her and feeling that her corpse was cold, she decided to warm herself by the fire and because of the weakness she fell into the fire and almost burned her hands off. At the back of her hands she was extensively burned and they were charred to a cinder. I said there was no use in removing this woman from the house, but the stepfather took the dying girl in his arms and conveyed her to the hospital and in an hour after she expired. A few days before McDonald, not being able to procure a coffin for his wife, wrapped his wife in a sheet and placed his wife on his shoulders and conveyed her by night to the burying ground about a mile from Skibbereen where he left her exposed on the tombstone until some labourers going to work the next day discovered her remains and had her interned without a coffin, an act that a few months ago would be regarded as a sacrilegious abomination in this locality.
Later I was told this day by the police that a man had been for day unburied in a house on the windmill. There one of the most revolting scenes I had ever witnessed was before me. In a nook in this miserable cabin lay upon a wad of straw a green and ghastly corpse that had been for five days dead and that was already emitting an intolerable exhalation of putrefaction. At the feet of this decomposing body lay a girl groaning with pain and by its side was a boy frantic in fever. The wife of the deceased sat upon the filthy floor stupefied from want and affliction. I asked her, in the name of Heaven, why she had not got her husband buried and she answered because we have no coffin.
I am cautious about these stories, but another that really gripped me at the time was that of a mother who had been "found on the ground dead and her mouth was green from eating grass and her infant was still alive and seeking nutrition from her breast but because the infant was so hungry the infant had removed the nipples from the mother".
These stories are absolutely shocking and they did not happen long ago. The Famine altered irrevocably the trajectory of the country. The population was halved, over 1 million died and after the Famine approximately 3 million emigrated. This disaster did not happen by accident. It happened in large part owing to the laissez faire economic policies of the Tories in London. For the generation who fought in 1916, the Famine made it clear that if they did not control the future of Ireland, did not have self-determination, Ireland would experience other famines and that it was not a priority for the London Government. It made that generation, of O'Donovan Rossa, and those which came afterwards realise the necessity for independence and freedom.
The effects of the Famine run deep in our culture, language and psyche. It is incredible to think the population of the island of Ireland has still not recovered from the Famine. The demographics today have been radically altered owing to the Famine over 150 years ago. One of the other legacies of the Famine has been silence. There was guilt on the part of many who had survived the Famine and emigration. People were cautious about telling the next generation about the unimaginable horror of their experience.
Then there was the silence of the guilt in respect of the survivor instinct, that is, of having survived and not having suffered in this regard. This is one reason the State does not do justice in commemorative terms to the historical and humanitarian importance of the Famine and that we have such a low-key response to the commemoration of the Famine. We do commemorate it and good work is done by many people in this regard but the fact that it is a minor commemoration in most people's experience is shocking, given the radical importance of the event in humanitarian, historical and cultural terms. The fact that most of us speak English in this Chamber and that English is spoken by much of the population is a result of the Famine also having radically changed the language patterns throughout the country.
The fact that we do not commemorate the Famine on a particular day on an annual basis is a reflection of how uncomfortable we are in dealing with the Famine. This has to change. This simple Famine Memorial Day Bill has a simple premise, namely, that we set a fixed date for the remembrance of the Great Irish Famine and that it should fall on a particular Sunday every May. This would help because from year to year people around the world who seek to commemorate the Famine are not aware of on what day that will happen. It is difficult to build a commemorative cycle when the date flits from one Sunday to another or from one month to another. There is no excuse for our not having a proper approach to this matter.
There is also a little bit of politics around this Bill but I do not propose to dwell on it because this is something that all of us should share. It is interesting that I introduced this Bill on First Stage in December 2016 and two months later, a Fine Gael Deputy introduced a replica Bill. Sinn Féin saw this as being a little cynical but we decided that this issue is too important and that we would support the Fine Gael Deputy's Bill. We later learned that the Bill introduced by the aforementioned Fine Gael Deputy was being blocked by the Fine Gael Government because it did not have a money message. Two years later, we have two Bills and no legislative date for commemoration of the Famine. I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Madigan, has indicated that she has decided to accept the proposal that the commemoration take place on a particular day on an annual basis, which I understand will be the third Sunday in May. While I welcome this decision, matters such as this should not be the prerogative of a Minister. We should settle on a date that is internationally recognised as the date on which the Famine is commemorated. Through this commemoration we can, first, show respect to those who died so horrendously in this country not so long ago; second, learn a little about ourselves as a people and how we have developed and evolved and our cultural traits as a result; and, third, start to identify how we help other countries and people around the world stricken down with famine.
I hope the Government will accept this Bill and that we can have it passed in a speedy fashion in order that we can all focus on the job at hand.