National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I propose to share time with Deputy Neville.

As Members of the House will be aware, the National Famine Commemoration Day was introduced in 2008. At the time, it was envisaged by those who fought for its introduction that this day would become embedded in the minds of the people as the day for all those in this country and in the Irish diaspora to remember the victims of Ireland's greatest tragedy. Many had hoped this day would become another day of national commemoration on a par with days such as Easter Sunday when we commemorate all those who bravely lost their lives in the fight for Irish freedom.

Unfortunately now, nine years on from the first National Famine Commemoration Day, all too few people in this country even know the day exists. Very few talk about the event and even fewer children learn about this day when they study the Famine in school. This is not the fault of the people. In particular it is not the fault of the people who have worked very hard over the years on the national Famine commemoration committee to try to make the day a success and to try to establish the day as the premier way in which we mark the tragedy of the Famine. However, it is the fault of the manner in which we established the commemoration day back in 2008.

We did not put a fixed day in the diary for the commemoration day. As a result, our commemoration of the Famine moved around the calendar from one end of the year to the other. It has made it very difficult for those wishing to organise events and for those wishing to mark this day. How can we expect people to be aware of a day which changes its date each year? Introducing a fixed day - I propose the second Sunday in May - will bring certainty to this important day where no such certainty currently exists.

A fixed day for this commemoration of the Famine will have a number of benefits. First, it will enable the commemoration of the Famine not just to take place here in Ireland, but to take place globally, to enable the diaspora to participate fully in the commemoration of this most important event. By creating that date we can ensure that not just here in Ireland, but throughout the world where Irish people have been dispersed through emigration we can have one day to mark the Famine, one day that will not just be a national commemoration but can also be a global commemoration wherever Irish people have ended up that will mark the Famine.

It will also enable people from the Irish diaspora or people of Irish descent travelling back to Ireland if they wish to lock their travel into that day and know that when they are back in the country on that second Sunday in May there will be an opportunity to participate in what I hope will become a major event in our annual calendar.

There are other reasons I would like the Famine to have a fixed date for commemoration. It is my fervent hope that, with the creation of a fixed day, teachers and schools will be able to develop a programme of awareness which will culminate with the participation of the next generation of Irish children in the commemoration of the Famine. It is most important that this be done. The next generation of children must be made aware of the tragedy of the Famine and its importance in shaping our country.

Many historians have pointed out that the Great Famine marked a watershed in our history. It was not inevitable that Ireland would suffer this famine. A combination of circumstances brought it about. An inept Government and various other circumstances combined to turn the Famine into one of the greatest tragedies of the 19th century. It is vitally important that we recognise this by having a fixed date.

Last year, I had the privilege of attending the National Famine Commemoration day at Glasnevin Cemetery. Our President made a poignant remark at that event. I will share what he said with the House:

We now have the capacity to anticipate the threat of Famine. We have the capacity to take measures to avoid it; and yet we allow nearly a billion people across our world to live in conditions of extreme but avoidable hunger.

This week, for the first time in six years, the United Nations declared a famine. This famine in South Sudan, very much like our own, was not inevitable. It was greatly contributed to by the actions of man rather than a natural disaster. It is vitally important and ties into the reason having this programme in our schools is a necessity. It is necessary that schoolchildren in our country do not only mark a day that commemorates the Irish Famine but that they also understand the significance of famine in the world today and its impact on the 21st century.

The Famine had many impacts on Ireland but I will refer to two major ones. The first overwhelming impact was to change our country for ever. It changed this island, the population, the way we are as people and the impact we have on the world. In doing that it created the Irish diaspora, which is its second major impact. It is a diaspora that has spread throughout the world and has given huge significance to us as a country on a global basis. When we think of the benefits of an Irish diaspora and when we think of our country, we must always remember that those who comprise the diaspora came to be as a result of the deaths of a million Irish people as a result of hunger and disease and because of the millions who subsequently emigrated from our country. This is a direct result of the Great Famine.

Not only should we have this fixed day in our calendar but we must make sure that the commemoration we instigate, which will be held on that day, recognises the overwhelming significance of the Famine in our history. It should pay due respect to it and ensure the impact and knowledge of what happened to our country during the Great Famine remains at the forefront of the minds of future generations of Irish people, both on our island and around the world.

I support Deputy Brophy and congratulate him on bringing this Bill before the Dáil. Thinking back to what happened to our ancestors reminds us that it is part of us. It is built into us and is what is known as a cultural memory or identity. It is something that needs to be shared with the diaspora. I was part of that diaspora for a number of years when I emigrated as a result of the crash. It gives extra impetus to hold on to our culture and identity when we are away. It also educates the countries that welcome us about our heritage. The Irish have become synonymous with travelling and moving across the world. They say that someone will always meet an Irish person no matter where they go in the world. This is where it has come from. It seems to be built into us. It is essential that it is recognised. I welcome that a fixed date is proposed. It allows people to plan for it and it allows ceremonies to be planned. It allows for it to be given a profile across media and other networks and for us to share our identity and culture with people. I do not want to be cold about it but the spin-off of that is its commercial impact. In tourism, the education of other countries can have the effect of bringing people back here and marketing our commemoration sites. It also educates people on the island about what their predecessors had to do at that time. A fixed date is very much welcome for that. We have much to teach the world about our roots and where we come from and our history. There is a huge amount of history and heritage in this country. It is about spreading the message and connecting and not forgetting our diaspora, whether our ancestors or the people of today.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party and I thank Deputy Brophy for his efforts in bringing this Bill forward. While in government, Fianna Fáil took a number of important steps to commemorate and honour Ireland’s history, including the Great Famine, which was one of Ireland’s most significant tragedies. This Bill comes at a fitting moment in Irish history. Beginning in 1845 with the failure of the potato crop, the Famine lasted for six years and resulted in the loss of 1.1 million lives. Taking into account the 2 million people who emigrated during the Famine, the population of Ireland declined by approximately one third as a result of the Famine.

In the years preceding the Famine, the collapse of Irish manufacturing and sharp increases in our population gave rise to an intense fracturing of Irish agricultural holdings. By 1841, 45% of agricultural holdings in Ireland were under five acres. As the size of the average agricultural holding dwindled, so too did the diversity of the average Irish peasant’s diet. Peasants who had previously supplemented their staple diet of potatoes with herrings, milk and meat were increasingly reliant on potatoes alone for their sustenance. Potatoes were a remarkably high-yield crop. A single acre of potato ground could produce up to 6 tonnes of food, which was enough to maintain a family of six for an entire year. The peasants’ reliance on potatoes came with significant risk. While Ireland had initially rejoiced in its apparent escape from the terrible blight that had swept through much of Europe and England, by late 1845, Irish newspapers were beginning to report fears that it had reached Irish shores. With the late harvest, the main potato crop was taken out of the ground in October 1845 and the people’s worst fears were confirmed. Historian John Kelly describes how the "men wept openly as half-ruined potatoes were lifted from the ground" and "shovels dropped and laborers soaked through to the skin with rain filed out of the fields like mourners." The speed with which the blight had spread astounded farmers and scientists alike. Even seemingly healthy potatoes could quickly decay in storage, further impeding Ireland’s food supply.

By late 1845, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had initiated a poverty relief programme in Ireland. Corn maize was to be imported here, distributed to local relief committees and then sold to peasants at cost price. Public work schemes would allow peasants to earn the cash wages needed to purchase corn maize. This model of relief would not only provide minimum poverty alleviation, but it was also hoped that it would modernise Ireland. This plan hinged on a number of faulty assumptions about the nature of Ireland’s history and infrastructure. In the first instance, the success of the aid plan depended on the willingness of Ireland’s noble classes to administer and support it. Unfortunately, Ireland’s landlords were rather indifferent to the suffering of the peasants around them and, in some cases, viewed the widespread eviction and perishing as furthering their own interests. Second, the plan relied on a modern distribution and logistical infrastructure which was unfortunately absent from Ireland. This was an unfortunate pattern which was to continue throughout the Great Famine and one which the British Government was unwilling to amend, for a variety of reasons, to better address the specific Irish context.

The lessons we learn from the Famine ought to guide us in our understanding of the Bill.

At its heart, commemoration is the process through which we remind ourselves of the events and people who have gone before us. It is the recognition of the links which bind our past and our present. As we reflect on our history of the Famine, it is imperative that we reflect too on the present reality of famine across the globe. While Ireland has had the great fortune of avoiding such widespread starvation since the 19th century, other nations have not. Perhaps as a result of our experience, Ireland has a rich history of giving to those most in need. Commemorating the Famine is a moral obligation. We must mark the dead and why they suffered. We must remember the cold indifference of the removed Government which overlooked the deprivation of the people under its charge. More than a day in the year, it must be an enduring lesson, a lesson that should colour our policies and drive on our commitment to those who find themselves in the same desolation in which this island was once cast. I hope this Bill is read in that light and helps to serve as a testament to that legacy.

I support all that has been stated by my colleague, Deputy Smyth. I pay tribute to Deputy Brophy for bringing forward this Bill. I am glad the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is present for this debate. She chairs the National Famine Commemoration Committee, which was set up in 2008. It has special significance for me as I come from the town of Strokestown in County Roscommon where the National Famine Museum is located. One of Deputy Humphreys' first acts as Minister was to visit the town. Unfortunately, I was missing on that occasion, even though she sent me an invitation. The town has many attributes. We dispute the fact that O'Connell Street is the widest street in the country. Our town has one that is at least as wide. I know the Minister had a fantastic day in the town.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Callery and his family. Mr. Callery bought Strokestown Park House, which was the estate of the Pakenham Mahon family. There was a huge cost involved in its purchase but the museum is now attracting 60,000 visitors a year to the town. I urge everybody in this Chamber not only to visit the museum at some stage but to encourage their families to do so. Many people tend to forget what happened during the period of the Great Famine when 2 million of our people emigrated and 1 million people were lost, but how many more people were lost as they tried to emigrate?

One of the big projects in Strokestown Park House is the "missing 1,490". A total of 1,490 people left the locality and many were lost en route. Some have been traced now in America and in Canada. It is an extraordinary story. It involves the number of people who did not reach their destination and the number of people who reached it and did well for themselves in the United States. There is a huge story still to be told. The Irish Heritage Trust is in charge of Strokestown Park House for the next eight or ten years.

The national event commemorating the Famine was held in Strokestown in 2014. It is a spectacular and extraordinary event. Nobody can explain how wonderful the occasion is. Given that one of the biggest problems in the world today is hunger and people dying from it, there is a huge opportunity to establish a university in Ireland specifically dealing with the issue of world hunger. The International Famine Conference is held in Strokestown each year from the end of May to early June. It attracts both important figures from across the world and students from across the world who want to learn more about the Great Irish Famine.

Many Irish people do not look back on the Famine and in many respects, it is a forgotten part of our history. When one visits the National Famine Museum in Strokestown and one reads through the stories, which are all there, it is an extraordinary experience. It is very touching. Many schoolchildren visit it. I would encourage not only primary schools but second level schools to bring their students to the museum and learn about this great story.

I very much welcome what the Minister has done here this evening. As Deputy Niamh Smyth noted, Members on this side of the House fully support her. We can put this commemoration day in its proper place each year but we should never forget what happened to many of the generations gone by, what they suffered and went through and the heartbreak that was brought to many families. It is only right and proper that we would honour those people, think of what happened and think of the great loss of life. No occasion should be missed in terms of talking about this issue, giving it its proper place in Irish history and developing an analysis of world hunger and why it happens even today. Although there seems to be so much wealth in many parts of the world, many people still die of hunger. As was mentioned by some Members opposite, there is now another famine in South Sudan. Why is that happening again in the world? I am sure many of us will want to talk about that in the weeks and months ahead and will want to support those people. I am glad, along with my party colleagues, to be able to support the Bill.

I welcome wholeheartedly the introduction of this Bill. It deals with something that we in Sinn Féin have been working on for a long time. I welcome Fine Gael's conversion to this logical reform. However, it strikes me as a little strange in these days of new politics that the Minister's Government refused to run with an identical Bill I put before the Dáil in December and instead the Government published its Bill, which is roughly the same as ours, with the same objective two months later. I can only imagine there was an ideological reluctance within Fine Gael to proceed with this Bill but when the Government was faced with my Bill, perhaps the tribal instincts kicked in and there was a sense that it should prevent the Opposition's Bill on this issue. That was a pity. Ideally, we often hear from those on the Government side that they are looking for good ideas from the Opposition, they are willing to work with those in opposition if they have an idea or a solution to issues, but when that happens, mechanisms are used to prevent the Opposition's Bill from going through.

The Great Famine was the most important event in Irish history. It was a disaster of incredible proportions and it radically altered the trajectory of this country and pretty much every family within it. It emptied the country of its people with considerably more than 1 million deaths and 1 million more forced to emigrate. To this day, 170 years later, the population of this country has still not recovered.

The Famine was a painful and deep lesson on the importance of independence and self-determination. Ireland produced enough food to feed our people throughout the Famine but much of that food was exported under armed guard. There is no doubt that the decisions made in London were based on ensuring the profitability of the landlords and the further ethnic cleansing of many parts of the country and that this experience convinced that generation of Irish republicans that this country had no choice at all but to fight for its self-determination.

One would imagine that an event of this import would be treated with the requisite and adequate reverence and magnitude but this is not the case. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister a few weeks ago to seek the date for this year's commemoration and the response I got was that no date has been selected yet for the commemoration in 2017. Unless there is a change, and she might be able to tell us that, but mid-way through the first quarter of 2017, the Government had not decided upon a date for the national commemoration of the Famine in this country. It is incredible that would be the case.

Is é an Gorta Mór an rud ba mheasa a thit amach ar mhuintir na hÉireann riamh. Bhí an tragóid seo chomh tubaisteach nach raibh daoine in ann labhairt faoi ar feadh blianta fada ina dhiaidh. Ní bhféadfaimis samhlú an pian agus an léirscrios a rinneadh i rith aimsir an Ghorta. Tá na himpleachtaí le feiceáil sa lá atá inniu ann.

Cé gur tháinig dubh ar na prátaí go nádúrtha, d’fhulaing muintir na hÉireann de bharr go raibh siad faoi chos ar bolg ag Sasana. Ní raibh smacht acu ar a gcuid talaimh féin. Tá a fhios againn go raibh bia á n-easpórtáil le linn na blianta ba chrua a bhí againn. Caitheadh anuas ar na fíricí sin mar theoiric chomhcheilge, ach fíric lom atá ann. In 1847, mar shampla, d’fhág nach mór 4,000 soithí ag iompar bia ó Éirinn go dtí na calafoirt ba mhó sa Bhreatain. Bhí méadú ar an mbeostoic ag fágáil na tíre i rith tréimhse an Ghorta Mhóir. Rinne Rialtas na Breataine neamhaird ar achainíocha comhairleoirí ar fud na hÉireann ó Bhéal Feirste go Baile Átha Cliath na calafoirt a dhúnadh. Cloistear go minic gur ruaig milliún duine as an tír agus gur cailleadh milliún eile de bharr an t-ocras agus an galar, ach is measúnaithe fíorchoimeádacha iad seo. Bhí borradh mór sa daonra ag tús an 19ú aois. Bhí nach mór dúbailt ar ár ndaonra. Bhí breis is 8 milliún duine ina gcónaí ar an oileán seo sa bhliain 1841. Bhí na daoine a bhí i mbun an daonáirimh ag tnúth go mbeadh 9 milliún duine ina gcónaí sa tír faoi 1851, ach mar thoradh ar an nGorta bhí níos lú ná 6 milliún fágtha sa tír ag an am sin.

The Famine was a catastrophic blow in many respects but particularly to the Irish language. While Irish was the language of the native elite in the 1600s, by the 19th century it was spoken principally by the poor in the rural west. While 4 million people in this country spoke Irish immediately before the Famine, the highest ever number of speakers of the language in the country, it was later associated with the poverty of the Famine. After the Famine, those who had lived through it and sought to better themselves or perhaps emigrate to the US felt out of very difficult pragmatism that it was necessary for them to learn the English language and leave Irish behind. This was also a time when Irish was prohibited in the school curriculum. This was enforced through corporal punishment administered with a tally stick, so-called, which resulted in English becoming the predominant language of this country.

It is interesting that even today, 170 years after the Famine, a poor mouth attitude is shown to the Irish language. A number of years ago, under Fine Gael, the Coimisinéir Teanga resigned from his position due to the lack of help and effort on the part of the Government in respect of the Irish language. The State organisations were breaking the law on the Irish language and the Government sat on its hands on the sidelines and did nothing for it whatsoever. The current Coimisinéir Teanga has said the Government has failed utterly regarding the Irish language. The Irish language is receding from education. If one talks to current teachers, they will say the standard of taught Irish in this country is falling every year. If a person makes an effort to engage with the State in Irish at any level, for example, if he or she picks up the phone and rings a number to seek a service in the Irish language, that person will get through to a line with nobody at the end of it, only an answering machine to take his or her name and perhaps sometime in the future that person will get a response. Our attitude towards the Irish language has not changed whatsoever. In fact, the process started during the Famine is continuing unabated, unfortunately.

The Bill presents an opportunity to focus on this very important issue. As has been mentioned, 800 million people in the world today go hungry. We need to remember them when we commemorate the Famine. The need for the Bill is simple: to place the Famine Commemoration Day on a fixed date, namely, the second Sunday of May. While we have had a commemoration day since 2008, we need to ensure its date does not swing. If it swings, people locally and internationally cannot organise for it whatsoever. We have a national day of commemoration, which falls on the Sunday nearest 11 July, in remembrance of the Irish people who died in past wars. It is surprising we do not yet have a fixed day to commemorate and honour those who fell in the Famine. I have a hunch that our lack of emphasis on this commemoration stems from our historical baggage. Subconsciously, we the survivors may not want to dwell on what befell our kith and kin. We must change this. The gravity, significance and devastation of the Famine means the event deserves a fixed day of remembrance.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill and the event it seeks to commemorate on a regular day each year. The Great Famine was an event of earth-shattering and tragic significance and long-lasting consequence for this entire country. Its impact still reverberates today. It fundamentally altered the historical trajectory of this country and had devastating human consequences for those who fell victim to it. It is also the first example of a particular type of famine unique to the modern era. Therefore, there are lessons in the Great Famine and the reasons it occurred which, if not learnt, will mean that such events will continue to be repeated. Tragically, they are repeated again and again across the world because we have failed to understand fully what happened in the Great Famine and what led to it. This has not only caused tragedy for this country, but also has allowed for similar tragedies to be repeated again and again in different countries across the world.

I wish to dwell on this point but I should first pay tribute to those who have campaigned for this national day of commemoration for the Famine. I was not aware - perhaps I should have been - that other Bills on this matter have been brought forward. I do not know the truth of the matter but, if true, it is a little strange that the Government rejected a Bill of the same character only a short while ago. If this is true, the Government should acknowledge it and acknowledge it was a mistake. I hope petty politicking was not at play. People can give their explanations later. I do not know the truth of the matter so I will not prejudge it, but it would be terrible if petty politicking played any part in establishing a national day of commemoration for the Great Famine.

Deputy Paul Murphy sends his regrets that he is not able to be here. He asked me specifically to give a shout-out to the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims as a committee that has been campaigning for many years for the Famine to be commemorated properly and for a day to be established on which that commemoration would take place. I therefore pay tribute to those who have campaigned for this, and they are absolutely right in doing so. Not only was it an event of enormous, earth-shattering significance for this country, as I said, but it also has a significance for the world we live in today. This is so important because of the human tragedy of a million people losing their lives through hunger, disease and exposure.

One million people were forced out of the country in those years - made exiles and refugees from their own land - and the population of the country was slashed in half over decades.

Of enormous significance beyond that immediate human tragedy is the fact that it was unnecessary. This was the first famine of its type. Famines had happened previously but what is unique is that for the first time, a famine occurred amidst plenty. It did not happen because the level of technological, economic and social development was not great enough to ensure sustenance for all of the people. That had been true in previous periods and epochs. At times, notwithstanding that there were great divisions in the distribution of wealth and inequality, there were objective problems with humanity's capacity to feed all citizens. At the time of the Irish Famine and the advent of modern capitalist society this was not the problem. This famine occurred under the rule of the wealthiest country in the world. It had an enormous empire. This famine was not a natural disaster, it was a man made disaster and was the result of a misguided belief in a particular view of political economy, laissez faire economics, what we now call market economics. We have still not broken our addiction to this when addressing the great levels of poverty, inequality, homelessness, suffering, hardship and so on that affect billions of citizens across the world. Those people needlessly suffer and die from malnutrition, starvation, exposure and a lack of water and medicine, something that has become a feature of the past 200 years - the wealthiest period in the history of civilisation. The Irish Famine was the first example of that obscenity, that 1 million people could die even when there was more than enough food and wealth to ensure that did not happen. That is what is shocking, obscene and extraordinary about it.

The British very reluctantly spent £7 million on famine relief. That did not avert the disaster. To put it in context, in 1833, some years previously, the British spent £20 million on compensating slave owners when slavery was abolished. They did not compensate the slaves but they spent three times as much as they spent on the Famine on compensating slave owners to protect the interests of property and the wealthy. Shortly after the Famine, the British spent £70 million, ten times more than they were willing to spend on famine relief, on the Crimean war in order to ensure the power of the Empire. When an Irish delegation visited Lord Russell to appeal for more help during the Famine, he told them he could not give them more support and quoted at them Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. That is extraordinary. Adam Smith's philosophy was that government could not interfere with or, in the modern parlance of the EU, distort the market. That would be a greater crime than allowing people to die and another 1 million be driven off the land. Racism was another significant feature of the unwillingness of the British Empire and the ruling elite, ably assisted by some of the big Catholic farmers and middle men here in Ireland. They assisted in the evictions and used the catastrophe of the famine as an opportunity. They took advantage of this extraordinary human misery to clear and consolidate the land of big farmers and land owners for profit and money while 1 million died and a million were driven off the land. It could not be more important to upscale the commemoration of the Famine, not just as a historical curiosity or something in the far distant past of our history but as something that echoes today in the continuing misery, famine, hardship, suffering, starvation that millions across the world suffer, that is totally unnecessary when eight individuals own as much wealth as half the world's population.

I am delighted to have this brief opportunity to speak in support of Deputy Brophy's National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017. The Bill is almost an exact replica of an earlier Sinn Féin Bill, the Famine Memorial Day Bill 2016, which also called for the setting up of a national day of commemoration on the second Sunday of May each year.

It is quite shocking, when one thinks about it, that we do not have a set, national day of commemoration to mark the greatest tragedy ever to befall our people, an Gorta Mór, when 1 million people perished and another 1 million fled our shores. Continuing into the early 1850s, a total of 2 million or 2.5 million fled the country and gave rise to the Irish diaspora. We did have famines before then, in the 1740s and so on. The timing and the incredible horror of the events of the 1840s marked a truly iconic watershed in our history.

When I first studied history in UCD under Professors Art Cosgrove and Dudley Edwards, I was asked to read James Connolly's Labour in Irish History. Connolly made a brilliant analysis of the vicious landlord and capitalist system which created the terrible social conditions that facilitated and led to the Famine, aspects of which Deputy Boyd Barrett has referred to. Since studying the Famine as a student, I have had a revulsion for the British Liberal Party despite the later efforts of W.E. Gladstone to deliver Home Rule during the Parnell period. It was Lord John Russell and the Whigs, the Liberals' predecessors, who absolutely refused to address the starving hundreds of thousands of our ancestors in the terrible winter of 1846-1847 and in 1848 and 1849 and put their trust in the so-called invisible hand of Adam Smith. Even Sir Robert Peel and the Tories, as viciously landlord and Unionist as they were at the time, had, at least up to 1846, purchased corn, although we did not eat it, and set up some basic mechanisms to try to address the Famine. The Tories and the Whig Government of Russell failed completely to take care of our starving nation as they would have addressed such a problem had it been in Yorkshire, Lancashire, or Northumbria or even Wales or Scotland. They treated us fundamentally differently.

Even the response to the rampant disease which took away so many tens of thousands of our ancestors and affected the poorest families across the west, the south and the midlands was appalling, particularly in view of the fact that the United Kingdom was the greatest power on the planet at that time, that significant parts of the map were covered in red and that it possessed an empire on which the sun never set. Following the sectarian carnage inflicted on our people by the land-owning ruling Unionist caste in the 1798 war that lasted into the early part of the 19th century - a war similar to those in the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East - the Famine marked a clear dividing line whereby Ireland had to become an independent nation outside Britain. The ferocious determination of James Stephens and his successors down to Thomas Clarke, the real originator of the 1916 Rising, the IRB, of Michael Davitt and the Land League and Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party all flowed from that appalling event.

I believe a memorial day for this Irish holocaust would be entirely fitting as it would allow us to remember more than 1 million of our people who died tragically and 2 million people who fled this country to safety in the US, Australia and Britain. It could be argued that the latter figure later increased to 6.5 million, 7 million or 8 million. Such a memorial day would give us an opportunity to remind ourselves that never again should our nation be in thrall to outside powers who do not give a damn whether our people live or die. That is a particularly relevant sentiment at this time of Brexit. Other Deputies referred to the importance of our diaspora. The reasoning set out by Deputy Brophy for this Bill echoes some of the sentiments expressed by Deputy Tóibín of Sinn Féin last year and again today. It is important we acknowledge the historical significance of the Great Famine in our history. We need to allow for the greater integration of this annual commemoration into school curriculums. The diaspora must also be integrated. I welcome the Bill. It would be fitting to have a memorial day on the same day each year.

I fully support this Bill. I congratulate those who have campaigned tirelessly for a particular date to be set aside for a commemoration of the millions of people who died through starvation or had to flee this country 170 years ago. I was surprised to hear the suggestion that the Famine of the 1840s was the last famine in Ireland. When I was reading The Big Issue before Christmas, I came across an article by Samantha Bailie entitled "Ireland's Forgotten Famine - The Mass Government Coverup". I would like to read some of the article into the record of the Dáil in order that the events of 1925 might be considered by Deputy Brophy and others who are involved in this campaign:

In 1925, the newly independent Ireland went through a tragic famine - but if the starvation of 750,000 people was not bad enough, the government's coverup in order to save face internationally should make us ask why our ancestors were not protected by their elected officials.

Ireland was a bleak place in 1925 - after all, the two wars had taken their toll on the land and the economy was at an all-time low, with mass unemployment. The government decided to implement trickle down economics and so cut the wealthy farmers' tax bills and reduced government spending - caring little about the impact on the impoverished. The old age pension was cut, the working week was put back up to 7 days and wages were cut by almost a fifth.

The poor felt the pinch instantly, and when the harvests yielded little due to extended seasons of wet weather - the crops collapsed. Even in those days the humble spud was the staple diet of the poor - especially those living in rural areas, to see them rotting in the soil was demoralising. Families were starving, and those with animals watched helplessly as they died due to a lack of nutrition. If things were not bad enough - families struggled to find any way to stay warm as there was no way to dry out turf - the chief fuel source. Citizens of Connemara and the islands in that area were worse affected, with three quarters of the people having had no potatoes (their main food source) for two months and attempted to find nourishment on scraps of seaweed and bits of shellfish they found on the beach.

The government gave £500,000 in aid money, but this barely touched the surface. On 31st December 1924 the local doctor was called to tend to an elderly man on Omey Island - when he arrived he found a man, Michael Kane lying on a cold stone floor beside a small turf fire - his face showing the dire hunger that would soon cause his death. Two little ones were lying beside him - a three and two year old who were so weak from hunger they just lay motionless. Kane passed away 48 hours later from typhoid - his body too weak to fight it off.

All Deputies should read this article if they can get their hands on it. It continues:

At the end of 1925, when international newspaper reports slowed down, [it had been reported in America that this was happening] the government finally gave a little, by admitting "acute distress" - but only in some areas.

Why did the government cover up this famine?

It would seem that this was due to a telegram received from the Boston Globe in the United States. The cabinet was sent the telegram with a cover note from James Douglas, who was a member of the Seanad. The message from the Boston Globe was asking for clarification on whether there was famine here. On Douglas' note he had written, "...the present propaganda in the United States, alleging that there is a famine, will do great harm to our credit in every way unless it is countered."

So Cumann na nGaedhael were concerned how it would look if the newly independent Ireland’s citizens were starving to death. Ireland's image was on the line. Minister for Agriculture, P.J. Hogan said that a typical farmer in the area was "a 200 acre man." Of course this was far from true. His colleague then unbelievably started taxing blankets - at the height of the chronic fuel shortage when kids were dying due to lack of nourishment and the freezing cold.

The Dáil still refused to admit the scale of the problem - arguing the situation was hugely exaggerated.

The country eventually got back on its feet [with the crop at the end of 1925].

Sadly the government never admitted there had been a famine in 1925 and so, it has largely been forgotten about entirely. It seems that when faced with the prospect of losing face on an international scale or fixing the problem - the government decided to orchestrate a huge coverup.

As we recognise the huge tragedy of the Famine of 170 years ago, we should acknowledge that our own Government stood over a famine in this country in 1925.

I salute the work of an Teachta Brophy in introducing this Bill. As he said on First Stage, this "small, compact Bill [proposes that we] should have a national day marked in the calendar to commemorate the greatest tragedy that has ever befallen the country". The Deputy is proposing to designate the second Sunday in May gach bliain as the annual Famine commemoration day. The Great Hunger was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. I believe much of it was needless. It is remarkable in many ways that we do not have a national day set aside to mark this enormously significant historical, social and cultural event. I am aware of the previous work of the National Famine Commemoration Committee, which was first established in 2008 on foot of a Government decision to commemorate the Great Irish Famine. The annual national commemoration revolves between the four provinces of Ireland. The most recent commemoration took place on Sunday, 11 September 2016 at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. This event was led by President Michael D. Higgins, who unveiled a Celtic cross donated by the Glasnevin Trust to act as a permanent memorial to the victims of the Famine.

This country's national day of commemoration - an lá cuimhneacháin náisiúnta - commemorates all Irish people who died in past wars or United Nations peacekeeping missions. It occurs each year on the nearest Sunday to 11 July, which is the anniversary of the date in 1921 on which a truce was signed to end the Irish War of Independence, which had its tosach i Sulchóid Bheag, Contae Thiobraid Árann in January 1919. I fail to see why a similar date cannot be set aside to mark the millions who died during the Great Famine and the great acts of charity and compassion of the many people who tried to assist the victims of the Famine. We still have memorial tours and historical projects relating to the various workhouses and soup kitchens that people tried to establish.

While the National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017 calls on us to remember the great suffering of the past, we should not and must not forget the present. We are told we are living in a time of absolute affluence, but child poverty in this country has doubled over recent years. By drawing on data from the Central Statistics Office and the Growing Up in Ireland research, we can see that the proportion of children living in consistent poverty in Ireland almost doubled from 6.3% in 2008 to 11.2% in 2014. This equates to 138,000 children living in consistent poverty, or one in eight children going without a hot meal almost every day. The efforts of daoine ar nós the Capuchin Fathers and the Alice Leahy Trust, which was set up by a Tipperary woman, almost beggar belief.

We are happy to have new masters now. The Germans and our European colleagues forced us into penury when they imposed penal taxes on us as part of the bank bailout. This was supported and accepted by our Governments. As I have said before, we can blame many people for many things, but we should blame no one other than ourselves for the failings of modern democracy. We have our own Parliament, which we did not have when we were under the rule of John Bull and his massive empire. The sun never shone on some parts of the empire because it was so vast. Michael Davitt and many other people in the Land League did their best in poor impoverished times when people did not have the energy to stand up and fight. It is sad to say that a new Land League has had to be formed - I am a member of it - to try to assist people who are being evicted from their homes.

They are being terrorised by a third force acting for agents and so-called receivers. These companies see this money as manna from heaven. There are barristers and ex-gardaí at the head of this, out there doing the bidding of these forces. It is dirty work and blood money, passed on by the banks who are making misery for people. Banks are not giving a shilling to anybody. I have farmers and householders in my constituency who are living in fear and dread. These people are sick and ill and they are famished, with barely enough to eat because of the torture they get from banks we bailed out. These banks are laughing all the way to the bank. They have sold properties to vulture funds, which are in turn creating conditions worse than the Famine. It is a form of mental torture or psychological warfare that is driving down our people. They are being demonised and people are being left with a lack of self-esteem afterwards, which is outrageous.

The Minister is sitting there writing her notes or whatever while she and successive Governments, even one in which I was included, caused and allowed this to happen. When will we sit up and smell the coffee? We have our history and I am delighted we will have a day to commemorate it. Will we have days to commemorate the terrorism that is ongoing in the name of banks and the county registrars? What about what is going on at the Four Courts, with nobody to defend the ordinary people? It is a shame we are commemorating the Famine of the 1840s but we are in the middle of this famine, which is handmade and created by one world order. It is caused by bowing down to the rich and big business and to hell with the ordinary people.

I am very glad to get the opportunity to speak to this very important Bill before us. I thank Deputy Brophy for putting this Bill together to ensure the people who died so tragically at that time are at least commemorated once per year. It is very important to do that because if we do not know how we got here, we certainly do not know where we are going.

As a contractor I have been into practically every farm in Kilgarvan and the neighbouring parishes and I have often stood in amazement looking at the ridges that people worked at with their bare hands. Those ridges are there because they were never dug out, with the potato crop failing at the time. It was a different set-up for me on a machine working and it is hard to understand how those people existed and what they went through to turn these little ridges, only to find the gardens did not grow. They had to leave them behind and, in many cases, starve because they did not have potatoes to feed themselves or their families.

It must be remembered that there was plenty of grain and beet exported from this country to pay the landlords' rent in England. That was very unfortunate and unfair on the people who came before us as they had to watch all that going on while they could not get enough food for themselves in those very bad times to feed their families. I have a story from that time as I had a grandmother, who lived to be 97 and who died in 1993, who used to tell me that one of her grandmother's children died while being born at the time of the Famine. I have that little story from the Famine but it was so sad that so many people starved with the hunger and perished with disease. Many of them met a watery grave trying to get out of here and across to America in the coffin ships. When they could not stay alive they were thrown into the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Many people are suffering in our country today because of hunger or they have no homes. It is very sad to see that happening again. I say to today's Government, why do we not do what the Germans did? They did not finish paying loans they owed for the First World War until three or four years ago. They are demanding the money they gave out at 0.5% in the early 2000s be returned to them at 6% or 7%. What is going on is totally unfair and unneeded. We should stand together to demand that these loan repayments be put out over a longer period. As fellows say to me when they owe me, I should be satisfied that they will pay when they have the money. Those people in Europe should be satisfied for us to say we will pay when we have it. We should not let our people suffer in hospitals or on waiting lists because they cannot get into hospital for operations. We should stand together and make them wait for their money.

The Famine changed the face of Ireland forever. People existed between the rocks and the bogs, with small gardens to feed their families. They had to emigrate or die and there is no sign of them except in many instances the ridges that remain. They are little mounds of earth around the hills that were left behind when gardens did not grow and the potato crop failed. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. We should not let the same happen to the people we are in charge of now and who look up to us. We should try to do better and make these fellows in Europe or the banks who demand the money wait for it.

The order of the House states there would be ten minutes for each group. Deputy Ó Snodaigh has indicated he wishes to make a short contribution so is it agreed he can have a few minutes to speak? Agreed.

Will debate on the Bill resume after tonight?

It will conclude this evening.

We have had 90 minutes of debate. If others do not speak when the Minister concludes the debate, it may be necessary to suspend the sitting.

I welcome the Bill and I have no problem with whoever produces it or gets it through the House. That was the intention of Mr. Michael Blanch when he first wrote to me and others many years ago. He wanted to get at least one day per year with a designation to remember an droch shaol. We should do more than just remember and that is part of what is missing in the Bill. It is very easy in some ways to remember but we must also tie this to what is happening in the world today in order that when young people remember, they can equate it to today's events. That could be added to the Bill.

I know there are suggested allocations for the day in question but we should also try to work with the Department of Education and Skills to encourage greater concentration among young people. That would enable them to make the linkages we need as a society and show the world what I hope we have learned from the famines in Ireland over the years. It is about understanding the need to help and reach out to those in South Sudan, for example. That is very important. It is also about recognising those who helped us in our hours of need, such as the Choctaw nation and the Quakers, who played a tremendous role in Ireland. I understand that as I love history, but many people have no understanding of what Ireland went through. We lost an eighth of our population through death and another eighth immediately through emigration. That led to bánú na tíre and we have never recovered fully from what happened in those five years of an Gorta Mór. There were also famines and periods of huge starvation and misery thereafter, including occasions when the potato crop failed. I will engage on Committee Stage of this legislation as well.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister for giving me a little of her time to respond to the debate. I was very careful in my opening remarks and contribution.

I did not want to engage in any way with the politics - or what I would call "unhelpful politics" - that marked some contributions. I have no problem regarding from where support for the Bill comes or with acknowledging that other people have advocated in respect of this matter.

There was an effort at misleading. From the first day I was elected and had an opportunity to meet Michael Blanch, his committee and family, who are here this evening and who have done incredible work, I gave a commitment that I would work to introduce the Bill and bring it forward. Today is the representation of that work. It was the first matter I spoke on in the House. I welcome any contributions people have made through Bills or otherwise. My Bill is the only Private Members' legislation on this subject currently before the House. Regardless of all the issues that divide and separate us in the context of the immediacy of our lives here, the people we represent and the issues we tackle on a day-to-day basis, we owe it to the 1 million people who died in the Great Famine and the millions who emigrated to seek to keep this about the memory of them and what happened to our country. That is the key issue.

I thank Deputy Brophy for bringing forward the Bill. He is very passionate about it and has raised the issue on an ongoing basis through Topical Issues and parliamentary questions. I also acknowledge the contribution of the other speakers who have participated in the Debate. I want to make it very clear to Deputy Tóibín that the Sinn Féin Bill was not selected from the Private Members' business lottery and, therefore, it was never debated in a Private Members' business slot. I never had the opportunity to reject or accept his Bill.

The national Famine commemoration should be a fitting memorial to the vast swathes of our population who were lost to death and emigration. It is estimated that up to 1 million people died and another million emigrated during the Famine years. The Famine, therefore, had a profound and devastating impact on every part of the country and this should be reflected in the national commemoration. Achieving this goal - as well as the other objectives of the national Famine commemoration committee in terms of local community participation, highlighting the historical perspective of the event and communicating issues surrounding famine, hunger, food security and aid in the modem world - requires a great deal of planning and work. My Department has received a number of proposals from communities wishing to be considered as hosts for this year's national Famine memorial day. Department officials have been on contact with the relevant local authorities and we will shortly revert to the national Famine commemoration committee subgroup. A full meeting of the committee will be held to confirm the venue for the 2017 event. It is likely that this year's event will be scheduled for either Sunday, 1 October, or Sunday, 8 October. It will be decided in consultation with the local community where the venue will be located.

The first national Famine commemoration to include both local input and a formal State ceremony was held in Skibbereen in 2009. Since then, the event has been held annually in a similar format right across the country including many different locations. Deputy Eugene Murphy mentioned Strokestown. I had the pleasure of visiting the Irish National Famine Museum in Strokestown, which is a wonderful addition to the town. One of the strengths of the national Famine commemoration is the fact that the event has been held in a different location and community every year. When the commemoration was held in my home town, Clones, in 2011, it was a source of enormous pride for the local community and all of County Monaghan. While many of the State ceremonial events are traditionally held in Dublin, it is important that we do not lose the local community involvement which is unique to the national Famine commemoration.

The international Famine commemoration has also been held in a variety of locations including Toronto, Quebec and the US. This event has been consistently successful not only in terms of commemoration but also in providing a locus for the coming together of the Irish community and diaspora abroad. The national Famine commemoration committee was established in July 2008 to oversee the arrangements for the commemoration. The committee, which I chair, includes representatives of a number of Government Departments including the Departments of the Taoiseach, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Education and Skills, as well as the Office of Public Works, academics and representatives of NGOs and the philanthropic sector who give freely of their time on a voluntary basis.

While the national Famine commemoration committee has endeavoured to hold the ceremony on the second Sunday of May each year, it has been the experience to date that a degree of flexibility has been beneficial for a number of reasons. For example, the availability of the President or Taoiseach to lead the official representation at the commemoration has been a factor in deciding upon the date of the State ceremony. The importance the Government attaches to the event has been signalled by the level of support demonstrated by an tUachtarán and an Taoiseach in making themselves available to preside at the annual commemoration. Each year, the host venue and community have also been consulted on proposed dates to cater for particular circumstances which may arise around the arrangements and to allow organisers to develop a fitting programme of locally organised events, many of which have been tied in with dates of important local significance.

To further illustrate this point, following consultation with the host community in Newry, the 2015 commemoration was held in September. This was the first time the commemoration was held in Northern Ireland and it proved to be a great success with significant cross-community representation. It would not have been possible to hold the ceremony in May of that year given that the local authority had prior commitments regarding the delivery of a major sporting event at that time. Similarly, last year’s commemoration was held in Glasnevin Cemetery in early October due to the volume of events under the 2016 commemorative programme held in April and May. The 2015 commemoration in Northern Ireland had no military involvement. Including a statutory requirement for the inclusion of military ceremonial elements, as proposed by the Bill, could create difficulties for organisers in future years. The religious component of the 2015 commemoration was significantly reduced by agreement with the local organisers. This demonstrates the value of retaining some flexibility and discretion for the national Famine committee in the organisation of each year’s event in collaboration with local interests and concerns.

The proposal that the Taoiseach would designate a central venue for the holding of the annual commemoration is also a potential cause for concern. As I have already outlined, a particular feature of the commemoration since 2009 has been that it is largely a community event in which local communities and interested parties took the lead in organising events that represented their own historic experiences of the famine. Designating a single venue for future commemorations could result in the loss of this unique aspect of the commemoration.

I am conscious that the question of establishing a fixed date for the national Famine commemoration has been raised by a number of Deputies across all parties. Fixing a date for the annual commemoration is a matter to which I have given consideration in recent months. While recognising that it could pose some challenges, I am of the view that these could be overcome. Fixing the date for the Famine commemoration will illustrate that the State views it as a very important commemoration for Irish people and our diaspora to reflect on that terrible period in our history and remember the horrific impact it had on this island and its people. By fixing a date, we are saying, without hesitation, that the Famine has left an indelible mark on Ireland, and can never be forgotten. As I have already illustrated, it is important that particular care is taken in the selection of such a date.

Deputies Brophy and Ó Snodaigh alluded to the importance of educating our children, not just on the Irish Famine but also in respect of the issue of world hunger, which persists today. That is a very important point. There is some good work going on in our education system in this regard. For example, the vast majority of primary and junior certificate students study the Famine, in local and national contexts, at an age appropriate level, in history. Our children and young people learn about modern famine, poverty and the challenges of developing countries through social, personal and health education, civic, social and political education, geography and a range of other subjects.

As recently as last December the Department of Education and Skills hosted a very successful national forum on education for sustainable development and was lauded for its efforts by a representative from UNESCO. That is an example of some of the positive work that is going on in the Department of Education and Skills and we should look to build on that.

I reiterate that I am happy to support the reading of the Bill on Second Stage and I look forward to working with Deputy Brophy and others to ensure the necessary work is done to ensure the benefits of setting a fixed date are fully realised before the Bill proceeds further.

Question put and agreed to.