International events to mark Famine
International events to mark Famine

Ireland is to officially recognise the Great Hunger - more than 160 years after British colonial policies coupled with the collapse of the critical potato harvest resulted in the death or emigration of some two million people.

The catastrophe also devastated the Irish language and triggered a legacy of emigration which created a worldwide diaspora in the US, Canada and Australia.

Government Minister Eamon O Cuiv has announced that annual memorial events will be held in Ireland and abroad, beginning with state ceremonies in County Cork and Canada in May.

The Irish event will take place in Skibbereen town on May 17 - one of the worst affected areas - where one graveyard contains up to 10,000 victims.

The overseas commemoration will be held at an undecided location on May 10 in Canada, where tens of thousands of Famine refugees arrived in the mid-1800s and where 20% of the population currently claims Irish ancestry.

Mr O Cuiv said communities across Ireland will also be encouraged to hold local events on the National Memorial Day, when a minute`s silence will be observed.

The Memorial Day will rotate around Ireland’s four provinces and is scheduled to take place in Connacht in 2010 followed by Ulster in 2011.

“There is nothing else in the history of the Irish people that can be likened to the Great Famine, either for its immediate impact, or its legacy of emigration, cultural loss and decline of the Irish language,” said Mr O Cuiv.

After strong pressure from lobby groups, the Dublin government established a high-level committee last May to investigate how to officially commemorate the Famine. The subject has long been taboo, with many mass graveyards across the island, known as [John] Bull’s acres, still lying unmarked and ignored.

Mr O Cuiv said he regretted that it had taken more than 160 years for the 26-County Government to officially recognise the Famine.

“For several decades after the Famine, generations of Irish people wanted to forget it happened,” he explained.

“However, as a mature modern nation now, I feel it is appropriate that we can fully respect the Famine’s place in the history of our country and its people.”

Mr O Cuiv also believes there may be a tourist dividend from members of the Famine diaspora coming to Ireland to explore their ancestral roots.

The government believes commemorating the Famine would create an awareness of the issue of hunger in many developing countries.

But he added: “History is history. We have to strike the right balance between properly respecting the event while also moving on towards our future.”

“The spread of Irish people around the globe during that fateful period in our history is without parallel. The Great Famine resulted in the formation of many diaspora communities, who helped to ensure the prosperous development of the countries to which they travelled,” Mr Curran said.

With regard to the Canadian ceremony, he said: “Some 250,000 Irish emigrants arrived in Canada between 1845 and 1855. 1847 was the high water mark, as close to 110,000 immigrants, most of whom were Irish Famine refugees, made their way to Canada. Four million Canadians (12.5 per cent of the population) claim Irish heritage today,” said Mr O Cuiv.

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© 2009 Irish Republican News