President Michael D. Higgins officlaly opened the upgraded Famine Museum in Strokestown this week. The Great Famine of Ireland or An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger) was a period in Irish history where there was mass emigration, disease and starvation of the Irish people between 1845 and 1852, largely due to the potato blight which was the main food staple at the time.
© The Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park
During the Great Famine, over 1 million people emigrated and over 1 million died, permanently changing the demographics of Ireland reducing the population by over 20%. Other political, religious, and social factors are also debated to have contributed to this tragic period in Ireland's past.
Here are the remarks made by President Michael D. Higgins at the official opening on MONDAY, 24TH June, 2013:
I am delighted to be here today in the magnificent surroundings of Strokestown House to officially open the newly upgraded National Famine Museum. I wish to thank the Executive Chairman of the Famine Museum, Patrick Kenny, for his kind invitation, I would also like to thank the boys and girls from St. Mary's and St. Patrick's schools here in Strokestown for such a warm welcome.
Is aitheantas d’fhoireann agus do choimeádaithe Theach Pháirc Béal na mBuillí iad na háiseanna seo atá á oscailt inniu, agus aitheantas chomh maith dóibh siúd a cailleadh le linn Gorta Mór na hEireann. Meabhróidh na háiseanna seo dúinn ar fad an méid a d’fhulaing muintir na hÉireann ó cheann ceann na tíre i rith Aimsir an Drochshaoil.
[The facilities being opened here today are a credit to the staff and curators in Strokestown House and are a fitting tribute to the victims of the Great Irish Famine – An Gorta Mór. They will also serve as a reminder to all of us of the pain and suffering of the people across Ireland during this tragic time in our history].
I had the honour of leading the official representation at the National Famine Commemoration in Kilrush, Co. Clare last month. The event was a very moving occasion and highlighted the impact of the Famine across Ireland and on Co. Clare, in particular, which – like Roscommon - suffered terrible losses.
As we know, the first potato blight struck in 1845 and destroyed 30% of that year's crop. Again, in 1846, catastrophe struck and the crop was devastated. Given the dependence of the poor tenant class at that time on the potato and no hope for the following year's crop, what followed represents one of the biggest tragedies of our times.
The overall statistics presented relating to the Great Famine are both sobering and staggering. During the crisis years of An Górta Mór, it is estimated that over one million Irish people perished from hunger or hunger-related diseases. In the decade following 1846, the floodgates opened to a population desperately trying to escape the horrors of famine and disease; more than 1.8 million Irish emigrated, with over half of these fleeing during the famine years of 1846-50.
Prior to the Great Famine, County Roscommon had a population of some 250,000 people. As a result of the Famine, it lost over 30% of its population. Indeed, 25 of the 69 parishes in the County lost over 40% of their population. What statistics fail to capture in emotional impact, narrative accounts often provide. A report in the Nation in March 1847 stated the following in pithy yet shocking terms:
“in Roscommon deaths by famine are so prevalent that whole families who retire at night are corpses in the morning”.
It is vital that we remember this period in our history and that we reflect on the effects of the Famine on the long-term development of Irish society. Indeed, more generally, it is crucial that we value history as a resource and a discipline that allows us to better understand our shared human journey. To have no knowledge of the past is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom. Knowledge of history is intrinsic to citizenship. It allows us to explore myths and challenge inaccuracies, as well as to expose deliberate amnesia or invented versions of the past. It helps us to understand the complexity of life; to recognise that we do not live in a binary world of black and white, right and wrong. It teaches us to appreciate the power of cultural identity; to respect diversity of opinion; and of the need to support assertions of view and interpretations with supporting evidence.
The displays and materials available here in the Famine Museum paint a devastating picture of what life was like during this period. The Famine Museum serves as a reminder of the daily experience of poor tenants as they lived with poverty and starvation and struggled to survive in a vastly unequal society.
We know that the landowning class left behind plenty of records of their views on the famine, but those tenants who lived in poverty left very little behind. It is up to us therefore to empathetically explore the evidence to see what life was truly like for the tenant classes during the Great Irish Famine. This is where the Irish National Famine Museum really makes an impact – by presenting the unique documents that were discovered in the Strokestown estate office, dealing with the administration of the estate during the tenure of the Mahon family.
It is through this collection, which contains harrowing pleas from starving tenants on the estate and the responses they received, that we can learn of the conditions of the poor tenant during this tragic time. I know that the Museum has undergone some major redesign and upgrade works which greatly enhance the display here and indeed access to the exhibits.
New technology means that even more documents from the Strokestown Park Archive are now accessible with the use of digitisation. In fact, the availability of digitisation has in many ways democratised the study of history. Digital resources like the 1911 Census and the 1641 Depositions are making accessible to citizens huge amounts of data on the social and political history of our country.
In this exciting and interactive way, I hope that more and more people will visit this wonderful facility at Strokestown – and other digitised resources - and make their own discoveries. I am confident that the materials on display will encourage reflection and debate among all who visit here and help us to understand better the tragedy of our past, as well as its significance to our present and for our future.
However, while acknowledging the past we must also use our experience of famine to create a greater awareness of hunger issues worldwide. I know that this is an important dimension of the work here in Strokestown. While we look at aspects of our own history here in Strokestown, the issue of hunger and the problems resulting from it are not unfortunately consigned to history. Our historical Famine experience is etched in the collective consciousness - and perhaps even sub-consciousness - of the Irish people. The memory of that experience has given us an authentic understanding of, and generosity towards, the vulnerable and the weak. It has motivated the people of Ireland to give so freely to those with so little. Even during these difficult economic circumstances, Irish people are among the most generous international donors and dig deep to alleviate suffering around the world today.
Ireland's harrowing experience of famine has been a crucial part of our commitment in the fight against global hunger. It is important that we continue to use this empathy to raise awareness of food security worldwide and to fight hunger where it exists. I commend the National Famine Museum's efforts to link the Great Famine of the past to current instances of famine worldwide.
The display which contains the replica of a famine ship is also a poignant reminder of yet another legacy of the Great Irish Famine. It is estimated that 1.8 million Irish emigrated in the decade following 1846. In this context, Irish communities were founded all over the world as so many, in desperation, left behind their families, homes and country to travel to distant shores in search of a better life or just human survival.
We will never forget those who welcomed the exhausted Irish arrivals so sympathetically. The Irish made new lives in their adopted homes and played an integral part in the history of countries such as Britain, Canada, the United States and Australia. But neither should we should forget the perils, hardships and human sadness of the journey of exile.
I know that the National Famine Museum is twinned with the Irish Memorial National Historic Site in Grosse Ile, Quebec, Canada. Major Denis Mahon, the landlord at the time initiated emigration schemes whereby tenants from the estate were given passage to Gross Ile. The conditions on board the ships as we know were woefully inadequate and, even prior to departure, the passengers were already suffering the effects of the famine. Inevitably a tragic number of deaths occurred during the voyages and on arrival in Gross Ile.
Grosse Ile was the first overseas location chosen for the commemoration of the Great Irish Famine in 2009. We know that there were over 5,400 burials on Grosse Ile in 1847 and most of these were Irish people who emigrated during the Great Irish Famine. This makes Grosse Ile the largest resting place for Irish people outside Ireland and it is fitting that the National Famine Museum of Ireland here in Strokestown maintains strong links with communities there.
Tá sé ceart, mar sin, go dtugaimid meas agus urraim do na daoine a raibh orthu imeacht ar bhád bhán thar sáile chun maireachtáil, agus go ndéanaimíd comóradh ar na mórghníomhartha atá bainte amach ag an Diaspóra ar fud na Cruinne. Tá meas mór tuillte ag an Diaspóra ina dtíorthe nua cónaithe de bharr a gcuid oibre sa seirbhís phoiblí, san oideachas, sa saol gnó, sa pholaitíocht, sa daonchairdeas agus sna healaíona
[It is appropriate, therefore, that today we should honour the memory of those who were forced to emigrate to survive and celebrate the immense achievements of our Diaspora communities. Indeed, the Irish Diaspora are respected worldwide for their contribution to their new home countries – in public services, in education, in business, industry, political life, philanthropy and the arts].
We know that this resilience and courage has permeated through the generations and resonates today - albeit in different circumstances – as many young Irish people are forced to emigrate to make better lives for their families. The Irish global family to this day maintains a loyalty to its heritage and cherishes their living links with Ireland. I know that many of them will continue to come to Strokestown to pay their respects to those who suffered during the Famine and to remember their ancestors who left these shores hoping for a new beginning.
In cherishing the memory of those Famine emigrants and their struggle for survival in foreign lands, we should also reflect on the contemporary experience of those who today are forced to leave their country in order to simply survive.
It is estimated that 1.6M people have fled the conflict in Syria and are now in refugee camps in neighbouring States. The magnitude of that figure resonates even more strongly when we consider that this broadly correlates with the number of Irish who emigrated in the decade after the Famine. I know we would all share the wish that the humanitarian response to the plight of these men, women and children meets the standards of decency and solidarity that we would like to be accorded to our own emigrants.
In conclusion, the National Famine Museum has grown significantly over the years and this latest upgrade represents a further enhancement of our understanding and analysis of this tragic time in our history. I would like to thank the staff and Chairman of the Museum for inviting me here today. I wish the facility every success in not only attracting visitors, both nationally and internationally, but also in enlightening them about the importance of the Great Famine in terms of historical memory and contemporary relevance.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.