Speech by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD, at the Annual Famine Commemoration, Newry, Co. Down
As Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, it is a great honour for me to be here today in Newry at the Annual Famine Commemoration when we gather to honour the memory of the victims of the Great Famine.
This is the eighth staging of the Famine Commemoration since the conception of the event in 2008. In that time the commemoration has been held in each of the four provinces on two occasions. One of the main reasons for the holding of the Commemoration in a different location in each province is to highlight the devastating effects that the Great Famine – An Gorta Mór – had on people throughout the island.
As a proud Ulster woman, I am especially pleased that today is the first time the commemoration has been held in Northern Ireland. The previous staging of the event in Ulster was in Clones in my home county of Monaghan in 2011.
The Famine was undoubtedly one of the most significant events in our history. The failure of the potato crop during the 1840s not only led to enormous suffering and loss of life but also changed Ireland’s demographic and cultural landscape, the effects of which can still be felt today.
Today we remember all those who suffered as a result of the Famine, regardless of their creed, political affiliation or nationality.
In particular we remember those who suffered across the province of Ulster, especially those who made the arduous journey to Newry and Warrenpoint and the other ports on the North-East coast in the hope of finding relief from their sufferings.
By the time they arrived, most had experienced many hardships in the hope of securing survival for their families.
Your presence here today is evidence that we all share a deep respect for those that suffered during that time. Not only did those men, women and children endure the ravages of starvation and disease, they did so while also mourning their loved ones whom they lost through death and emigration.
Because in those times, losing a family member to emigration was in itself almost as final as death. Personal relationships were severed permanently by the departure of the emigrant to an uncertain future.
Northern Ireland was not immune to the catastrophe visited on this island during the grim years of 1845-1852. The stark reality is that the population of Ulster was reduced by about a quarter of a million during the Famine decade. That accounted for about one sixth of the population of Ulster. In contrast, the population of Ireland as a whole fell by one fifth.
Of the 130 or so workhouses in Ireland during the Famine, only two had a higher mortality rate than the workhouse in Lurgan. Soup kitchens operated in Ballymena, Lisburn and throughout Ulster. While the population of Antrim fell only slightly – due to the influx of destitute people into Belfast – all of the other counties of Ulster lost at least 10% of their population. Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan each lost more than a quarter of their population.
Losses on that scale reverberated through all sectors of society as illness, starvation, loss of work and land, and indeed loss of hope, took their toll.
Being here in Newry today, in such a bustling city, it is hard to imagine that this would have been the last town visited by many on their way to ships docked in Warrenpoint over 150 years ago. These people came through Newry in the hope of embarking for the New World on ships such as the Lady Caroline. Whatever their fears, they hoped that these ships would bring them to a better future.
Sadly, we know that many of those who set sail did not reach their intended destination.
The dangers and suffering endured by these desperate people is reflected in one of the Famine’s legacies to the English language – the term ‘coffin ships’.
The fate of The Hanna, recalled here today, reminds us that overcoming the dangers of the transatlantic crossing itself was no guarantee of survival. Indeed, the exposure to illness and the effects of hunger and deprivation on the ships, claimed the lives of many after they reached foreign shores.
While our primary focus today is to remember those who suffered during the Famine Years, other aspects of the Famine also deserve our attention. The clergy of all denominations were active in relief work, and some paid the ultimate price. In 1847 alone, 40 Protestant ministers died of typhus or Famine fever.
In Newry Workhouse, all the health professionals died of fever tending to the disease-ridden victims of Black ’47. There is a plaque in memory of a local physician, Dr. William Alexander Davis, in St. Mary’s Church of Ireland here in Newry. Throughout the country there are stories of individuals and groups who took it upon themselves to mitigate the suffering they witnessed around them.
The actions of these people remind us that, even in the bleakest of times, good nature prevails.
We should also not allow ourselves to forget the achievement of those who went abroad to escape the Famine. Tomorrow I will be unveiling a memorial in Warrenpoint to the many thousands who left these shores to travel to Canada and other places.
Next month I will be visiting New Brunswick for the International Famine Commemoration which will pay tribute to the contribution made by those people and their descendants in their new homes.
Amongst them were the Murphy family from Mullaghbane in South Armagh who lost two of their children in the sinking of The Hannah in the icy waters of the St Lawrence estuary in 1849 – in sight of their destination – and whose Murphy descendants still live in North Crosby, Ontario today.
We remember and respect their great resilience and triumph over adversity as we gather here today.
The National Famine Commemoration Committee is also conscious of the need to raise awareness about hunger and food security issues facing the international community today.
It is encouraging, therefore, that this weekend, world leaders have gathered to agree a series of new goals to end extreme poverty, hunger and under-nutrition.
For the Irish Government’s part, this means we will work to achieve the UN 0.7% target for development assistance, we will continue to focus our aid on the poorest countries, especially in Africa and we will work relentlessly with our partners for the elimination of extreme hunger and malnutrition by 2030.
Since I assumed the role of Chair of the Famine Commemoration committee, I have been struck by how the legacy and memory of the Famine is deeply ingrained in the collective memory of the host communities, such as here in Newry.
The hosting of the commemoration provides an opportunity to revisit and reinvigorate that local memory and to ensure it is passed on to future generations. In that regard I am particularly pleased to note the participation of so many schools in the Programme of events and the involvement of so many young people in today’s ceremony.
I am very impressed by the programme of events that Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and the local community have put in place this year. You have encouraged all sectors of the community to engage with the history of the Famine in the area and to develop a deeper understanding of the regional and local impacts of this seminal event in the history of our island.
The presence and participation of everyone here in today’s event is a testimony to the current generation’s deep appreciation of the suffering caused by the tragic events of the Famine.
I congratulate all involved.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the participants in today’s ceremony, to the local community, to everyone whose commitment has ensured that the victims of Ulster could be solemnly remembered and to those who ensured the local events held here were so thought provoking, moving and memorable.
In closing, I would like to acknowledge and thank the members of the National Famine Commemoration Committee for their work in developing the concept of an Annual Famine Commemoration. I would particularly like to pay tribute to Newry, Mourne and Down District Council for ensuring the success of today’s event.
I would also like to record my appreciation of the work done by the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure and all the members of voluntary and community groups who have given so freely of their time to ensure that the victims of the Great Famine are appropriately remembered at this event.
Finally, I would like thank the people of Newry and all present for your participation in this year’s programme of events.