Between 1845 and 1850, the potato crop in Ireland was destroyed by blight. Out of a population of 8 million people, over one million died from starvation and starvation related diseases. A further one million emigrated under appalling conditions, with many dying in the coffin ships or soon after landing. This is fact, not fiction, and it is not open to historical revisionism.
The plain fact is that over large parts of the country there existed, at the bottom of a class-driven society governed by access to land, a large seething mass of cottiers and landless labourers whose sole means of existence was the potato. The potato was to these people what today's social welfare, health and other State support systems are to many of our people today. It is beyond imagination to contemplate the effect of a Government announcement today that all its supports were withdrawn for the next five years. If one were to contemplate the effects of such an announcement, one would begin to have an idea of the shattering impact of the potato blight on our people in the 1840s. Quite simply the potato harvest, after the hungry months of June, July and August acted like a single annual social welfare payment that sustained an entire family, community and culture for another 12 months.
When that safety net snapped, it pitched into an ever descending vortex of misery, death and emigration a rural proletariat who had no one and nowhere to go to, except a helpless alien administration, physically and psychologically removed from the people. The administration, despite having one of the most advanced systems for addressing poverty in Europe, the Poor Law Unions, was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster and, as is evidenced by the insertion of the Gregory Clause, considered land and property before people. While some lessons were learned, it is chilling to realise that not much has changed in many parts of the world today.
The scale of this enormous catastrophe is difficult if not impossible to imagine. A single instance can have more impact than all the statistics. A doctor in Skibbereen described the following visit:
The shed is exactly seven feet long, by about six in breadth. By the side of the western wall is a long, newly made grave; by either gable are two of shorter dimensions, which have been recently tenanted; and near the hole that serves as a doorway is the last resting place of two or three children; in fact, this hut is surrounded by a rampart of human bones, which have accumulated to such a height that the threshold, which was originally on a level with the ground, is now two feet beneath it. In this horrible den, in the midst of a mass of human putrefaction, six individuals, males and females, labouring under the most malignant fever, were huddled together, as closely as were the dead in the graves around.
These are the people we must remember and for whom the Government is implementing its Famine commemoration programme. Our programme is an appropriate and respectful commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the greatest tragedy in modern Irish history.
In early February I took over the chair of the National Famine Commemoration Committee from my predecessor, Deputy Tom Kitt. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Deputy for his contribution. The committee and I have been working hard since then to develop and implement a fitting, imaginative and balanced programme to mark the commemoration of this tragic event.
I will give details of the programme in a moment. The programme is very broad and ranges from a major historical research programme to a series of television documentary programmes for broadcast by RTE, to commemoration scholarships for famine studies for Third World and North American students, and specific programmes to alleviate famine and drought in selected Third World countries. The scholarships for North American students are a belated "thank you" to those emigrants who, having survived the torment of the coffin ships to find work in the New World, immediately sent money home. Other parts of the commemorative programme will include, for example, a set of commemorative postage stamps, a national monument and recognition for a limited number of local voluntary projects of national significance.
I will now turn to the detail of the programme. The Famine was an all-Ireland tragedy. It was appropriate, therefore, that the Government commemoration began with my attendance at a special ceremony in the "Paupers' Graveyard", Enniskillen. This was held by Fermanagh District Council on 28 August 1995 to mark the outbreak of blight in Ireland in the county where it first appeared in the field. I am delighted to have been invited to participate in this important event and to share in a tree planting ceremony with local children.
The Government was also an active participant in the commemorative ecumenical "Service of the Word" organised by the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Tuam on Sunday, 3 September last. The service was a most solemn and moving occasion for the whole congregation and all those who listened to the service which was broadcast live on RTE radio.
As a further element in our autumn programme we organised a Famine commemoration concert at the National Concert Hall on 6 September last to which I was delighted to welcome our President, Mrs. Mary Robinson and Ambassadors and leaders of Church and State. The concert featured an original piece, "The Famine Suite", by Dr. Charlie Lennon which was newly commissioned by the George Moore Society and was performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra. An exciting programme also included Frankie Gavin and Dé Dannan, Dr. Bernadette Greevy, Mick Hanley, Liam Harney and Eleanor McEvoy. "The Famine Suite" was broadcast live by RTE. The rest of the concert was recorded by RTE for subsequent broadcast, probably at Christmas time.
I do not have to remind any of my colleagues about the genocide in Rwanda, again recently brought to the forefront of our minds. This has left a huge number of orphans with over 40 per cent of families headed by women. The entire proceeds of the Famine commemoration concert on 6 September last, approaching £20,000, are being donated to assist women in Rwanda to support their dependants in such practical ways as providing food, establishing small scale income-generating projects and assisting with basic health needs. I would particularly like to thank the artists for the contribution of their time and talent to this concert inspired by the Great Famine experience.
I would also like to take this opportunity to publicly thank the AIB Group, Radio Teilifís Éireann, Aer Lingus, The National Concert Hall, The National Dairy Council, Independent Newspapers, The Irish Times, Gilbeys, The Grey Door Restaurant, Jurys Hotel, Ms Karen Finn, Mr. John Behan, Mr. Garry White Deer of the Choctaw Nation, Business and Finance Business Information and Elo Press for their contribution to the success of this concert.
On 27 June last I announced that the Government is financing research into the history of the Famine. This is possibly the largest historical research project ever undertaken in this State. It will make a huge contribution to our understanding of the Famine. For the first time, the enormous volume of data which is part of the Famine legacy can be analysed using computer technology. This project will compliment the historical research of the 100th anniversary and will, I am confident, provide new and important insights. It will focus on a carefully chosen cross-section of localities. The areas are the Poor Law Union areas of Ballina, Kinsale, Enniskillen, Thurles, Ennistymon, Rathdrum, Inishowen, Dublin (City) North, and Parsonstown. I wish especially to thank UCD and TCD who are managing the project both for their support and for making facilities available to the research team to assist them in their work and to thank CIE, Telecom Éireann, Friends Provident and Dell Computers for their assistance with the project. I look forward to the publication of the reports based on the research, and to the international conference at which the results will be presented in 1997.
The commemoration of the Famine is not merely for academics. In recognition of the vast interest among the general public the Government is sponsoring a series of historical documentary programmes which are being made by Louis Marcus for broadcast by RTE this autumn. The series will use contemporary Irish language sources and will show the consequences of the Famine for Irish culture. A video of the series will be made for distribution to schools and, as an outreach to the Irish diaspora, to our embassies abroad. RTE will market the series abroad to countries with a significant Irish emigrant population. I am confident that the series will make an original, imaginative and, most importantly, accessible contribution to our understanding of the Famine.
It is important that our young people are also brought into the commemoration. A schools essay competition, with a bilingual dimension, is being organised by the Department of Education in co-operation with the History Teachers' Association, which I thank publicly for its help. The competition will be held in 1996 and the result announced in 1997. Full details of the competition will be announced in due course.
Unhappily, famine continues to be a modern reality. As a commemorative gesture the Government is supporting four carefully selected projects for the relief of famine and drought, namely, storage silos for grain in Ethiopia, a potato and maize seed project in Eritrea by the Carlow based self-help international organisation, research on blight resistant potatoes at the international potato centre in Mexico involving Teagasc and a water supply and sanitation project in Lesotho. Together, those projects will receive more than £150,000 in the next three years.
As a contribution to our understanding both of our Famine and of modern famines, the Department of Education is organising post-graduate scholarships for 1996 and 1997. They will be awarded to students in one of the recognised recipient countries of Irish Third World aid and to students from a North American country. The scholarships will be for research in a famine related discipline such as agriculture, hydrology, engineering or health.
Those projects are in addition to the Government's overseas development aid. At this time, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Famine, it is appropriate that our overseas development aid is at its highest ever level. Also, it is fitting that the Government should mark the occasion in a tangible way through the introduction of tax relief on donations to designated Irish Third World charities as announced by the Minister for Finance in this year's budget. It is important that our Famine commemoration programme recognises the importance of alleviating existing famines and of contributing to our understanding of them.
The Government also intends to erect a modest but distinctive memorial as a permanent mark of national commemoration. An advertisement seeking suggestions from the general public for the best location for the memorial was placed in the national press on 4 August last, to which there was an excellent response. So far 60 locations have been suggested and I thank everybody who submitted proposals for the best site for the monument. I hope to be in a position to make an announcement of the location before Christmas.
The Government will also hold a national service of remembrance at a venue to be decided in the summer of 1997, bringing the Government commemoration to a close. This will be a major occasion marked, I hope, by the presence of the President, the Taoiseach, members of the Government and the Oireachtas, representatives of the major religious denominations, diplomatic representatives and so on.
Great credit is due to the vast number of local and voluntary projects that are being planned to commemorate the Famine at home and abroad. Unfortunately, it would not be possible for me to support them all. However, I hope shortly to be able to announce support for a small number of projects as a token of my esteem for the many. Such is the interest in the commemoration of our Famine that my office in the Department of the Taoiseach has compiled a directory of commemoration events. If any Member of the House or members of the public, at home or abroad, want to check what is taking place in their locality, they should contact my office and we will supply them with a copy of the directory.
The Famine had particular consequences for Irish women and it is important that this is recognised. One area in which women were affected differently from men was that of emigration. The emigration of women from Ireland had a lasting impact on Ireland. Most strikingly, Ireland was unique in Europe in that more women than men left its shores. Other European emigration consisted of family groups and single men, women travelling as wives or dependants rather than, as in our case, as migrants in their own right. Irish women were forced to break the most intimate ties of kinship to leave their families and friends and to uproot themselves from their place of birth to travel half way across the world. I am confident that the major increase in research into the Famine will contribute greatly to our understanding in this area.
I was pleased, therefore, to be able to support the exhibition on Women, Famine and Emigration mounted by the Irish Women's archive in Dublin Castle. The exhibition will travel not only to other centres in Ireland, North and South, but also to other countries with a large Irish population.
Another project I am pleased to be in a position to support is the international conference being organised by the Strokestown Famine Museum and an education pack they are publishing. The international conference on the theme, Writers and Famine, will take place in May 1996 and will bring together major writers from cultures in which hunger has been, or still is, a significant defining experience. The education pack will be targeted at junior certificate and transition year post-primary students.
There are a number of other projects I hope to be in a position to support, one of which is an exhibition in the spring of 1997 of works of art inspired by the Famine. The exhibition will consist of works by Ireland's leading artists from both sides of the Border. Another such project is a proposal by the Great Famine Commemoration Committee in Tullamore to publish a book of maps of each of the counties of Ireland showing their more important Famine sites.
As its contribution to the Government's commemoration programme, An Post plans to issue a set of three commemorative postage stamps early in 1997. I had hoped these would issue jointly with other nations, such as the US, Canada, Australia or even the UK, but logistically that has not proved possible. Other State bodies such as the National Botanic Gardens, the National Museum, the National Library, Teagasc and many local authorities are planning events to be funded from their resources. I compliment Teagasc on its Famine exhibition recently displayed in the RDS and which is moving to Ballina next week. The quality of the exhibition, the history and science involved in telling the story and the art work were superb. Teagasc should be complimented on a job well done. Those State bodies are publicising their operations themselves, but they are an important part of the overall State commemoration of our Great Famine.
I wish to respond to some comments made during the summer. It has been suggested that the Government may be going softly on commemorating the Famine because of the peace process. On the contrary, the peace process allows us all the more freely to explore the truth. The relations between the two islands have reached a maturity that allows us to look at our history objectively. It is in a spirit of understanding and reconciliation that we are now commemorating the Great Famine.
In this context I was very moved by the words of Archbishop Eames at the service of remembrance in Tuam on 3 September last who stated:
Today Ireland must be the land in which the healing of traditional wounds and the building of new understanding abounds. We all have a great deal which we must bury in the past — and leave behind us in the past. Today as we remember the Great Famine not just the untold suffering — we remember the anger and the resentment. But in the act of remembrance can we show the vision, the courage and the Christian understanding which alone can heal the bitterness of our troubled past?
This is a challenge we must all face.
The Famine was an immense tragedy. In some respects, although it took place 150 years ago, we are still coming to terms with it. For our own sake, as a nation, we need the catharsis of a commemoration which fully recognises the pain and loss the Famine represented. I am confident that the Government's programme of commemoration will raise national awareness and make a significent contribution to that process.
The Great Famine has enormous relevance for our times. An Irish writer who lived through those terrible years. W. Stewart Trench, posed the questions which are still relevant today. He asked:
But there was abundance of corn, abundance of flour, and abundance of meal in the country, not to speak of herds of sheep and cattle innumerable; and in the midst of such plenty, why should the people die? There was also abundance of money to purchase food: money was freely offered from many quarters, and was ready to flow forth in a mighty stream from the charitable people of England to almost any extent. If so I may again ask, why should the people die?"
In that question lies the relevance of our Great Famine to present famines. Why should people continue to die in the modern world in the midst of plenty? Why is there still starvation in the world today? Did we learn anything at all?
The question posed by the Great Famine must still be answered. Is there not a parallel between our experience of the 1840s and the state of the world today? In a time of food surpluses and agricultural set-aside, there is still widespread starvation and the solutions proposed are based on market forces as they were in the 1840s —laissez faire rules. Have we learned our lesson? Is there not a better way and how can we, as a nation which suffered so tragically 150 years ago, play our part?
Commitment to the underdeveloped world, if it has any meaning at all, must mean a commitment to assisting those nations to aspire to the prosperity levels of the developed world. There can be no question of leaving the poorest countries or sections of the population behind in poverty, war and societal disintegration. We can admit frankly that there is a large element of self-interest involved in this approach for poverty is by far the greatest threat to the world's environment and its political stability. It is an indictment of the present world order that while the wealth of nations is sevenfold what it was 50 years ago, one-fifth of the world's population goes hungry every day, one billion people lack basic health care and tens of millions are migrants or refugees.
As a country with a relatively recent experience of famine and that has suffered the haemorrhage of emigration, we in Ireland can bring a unique perspective to bear on the developed world's relationship with the developing world. This perspective, with our colonial past, will also have a deep influence on our participaton as equal members of a strong and effective European Union. It is, therefore, not merely with our past in mind but also with our future and the influence which we can bring to bear to diminish the anguish of starvation in the world today that I commend the Government's Famine commemoration programme.