The first Irish Famine Memorial Day commemoration took place in Skibbereen in west Cork last Sunday, May 17th.
Victims of the ‘Great Hunger’ of 1845-1848 were remembered in a town which was particularly badly affected by the tragedy, losing up to 28,000 of its inhabitants.
The failure of the potato crop during the 1840s, coupled to the enforced export of most other crops to Britain, created a catastrophe which was largely ignored by the London governmment.
A debate continues today as to whether the event can properly be termed a ‘famine’, as no shortage of food existed at the time.
However, its effect was devastating, and the population of Ireland, which exceeded eight million in the census of 1841, was reduced by approximately two million through death and emigration.
Long considered taboo, the famine was officially commemorated only for the first time this week and only following a prolonged campaign.
Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Eamon O Cuiv, who is chairman of the National Famine Commemoration Committee, led the walk from O’Donovan Rossa Park to the main formal event, the State flag and wreath-laying ceremonies at Abbeystrewery Cemetery.
He told the gathered crowd that Skibbereen was at the epicentre of a “great tragedy”.
“The Skibbereen area was one of the worst affected, and the mass graves of between 8,000 and 10,00 famine victims at Abbeystrewery Cemetery are testament to this.
“Today let us remember and honour all those who died or suffered loss during the Famine, which is one of the greatest tragedies in our country’s history.”
Prayers were read by representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church and the Society of Friends.
Rev Moba Mwanzele of the Methodist Church said the memory of the Famine taught Irish people to share with the starving in developing countries.
He said not only did the Famine kill people, but it led millions far from their homelands to foreign countries with “all the complex feelings of living far from home”.
There were readings by the mayor of Skibbereen, Catherine O’Keeffe, and Jerry O’Sullivan, secretary of the Skibbereen Famine Commemoration Committee.
Music was provided by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann and Cor Chuil Aodha.
Ms O’Keeffe’s reading was an extract from An Gorta Mor (‘the Great Hunger’) by Peadar O Laoire, while Mr O’Sullivan delivered an extract from an open letter to the Duke of Wellington by Nicholas Cummins, a Cork magistrate, published in the Times on Christmas Eve, 1846.
Cummins had visited the coastal district of Skibbereen and wrote of the “horrible images” that were fixed upon his brain.
He said in his letter to the Duke of Wellington that the scenes which presented themselves in the hovels of Skibbereen were such as “no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of”.
Mr O CuIv said the planting of a rowan tree was particularly symbolic as he spotted a number of trees of this type growing near the quarantine site at Grosse Ile in Canada when he visited the country this month for a related Famine commemoration ceremony.
Tens of thousands of Irish people emigrated to Canada during the Famine years.
A number of events have taken place in connection with the new memorial day across the world, particularly in the US, where the next official famine commemoration is expected to be held.