Ireland: 1845 to 1996 — from Catastrophe to Confidence

A dhaoine uaisle agus a chairde. Is mór an onóir dom agus is mór an phribhléid liom a bheith anseo anocht. Laistigh de chúig bhliain sa tréimhse ocht déag daichead a cúig go dtí ocht déag caoga cailleadh os cionn aon milliún éireannach den ocras agus d’ imigh breis is dhá milliún eile ar imirce.

Is cinnte gur scéal é seo d’ fhulaingt agus brón , ach is scéal é freisin de theacht aniar agus féin chabhair.

Cé go bhfuilimid anseo inniu chun an tréimhse dubhach seo i stair na hÉireann a chomóradh, lig dúinn onóir a thabhairt do mhuintir na héireann ar fud an domhain agus an sárobair atá déanta acu ar mhaithe an phobail i gcoitinne pé áit in a bhfuil siad - bíodh sé ag tógáil cathrach nó ag cuidiú leo siúd atá ag fulaingt iad féin de bharr sciúrse an ghorta.

Is maith agus is mithid an tragóid ollmhór sin a thabhairt chun ár gcuimhne arís.

(Translation of the text above in Irish:

“Ladies and gentlemen and friends. It is a great honour and a privilege for me to be here tonight. Within five years during the period 1845 – 1850 over one million Irish people died of hunger and more than two million more emigrated. It is certain that this is a story of suffering and of sadness, but it is also a story of recovery and of self help. Although we are here tonight to commemorate this dark period in Irish history let us pay tribute to the Irish people throughout the world and the remarkable work they are doing for the common good wherever they happen to be – whether it be building cities or helping those who are themselves suffering as a result of the scourge of famine. It is good and timely to bring that enormous tragedy to mind again.”)

I would like to thank the organisers of the evening – the Wales Famine Forum and the Welsh Baptist Church – for their invitation to be here for this Service of Commemoration and Reconciliation.

I am deeply honoured and deeply moved, as Irish Ambassador, to be here.

This is my fourth visit to Cardiff since becoming Ambassador, and my second at the invitation of the Wales Famine Forum.

A year ago I was privileged to take part in another moving ceremony at Saint David’s Cathedral where the Archbishop of Cardiff celebrated a Memorial Mass for the victims of the Famine, in particular those who died in Wales.

This commemoration today, and another that will take place later this month in Saint John’s Church, the Church in Wales, remind us that famine, war, deprivation and poverty know no religious boundaries.

They respect no ethnic or geographic border.

In truth they are part of the experience of all humanity.

We are focussed today on the experience of the Irish people in that terrible event of 150 years ago, when more than a million Irish people died and up to two million left Ireland onto the uncharted waters of mass emigration.

But we cannot forget that throughout the world, as we speak, 800 million people, almost one fifth of humanity, suffers from chronic malnutrition; that almost 35,000 people die each day as a result of hunger and starvation: twenty four people a minute.

In the period of this commemoration alone, more than 2,000 people, mainly children, will have died of starvation.

So if there is a lesson for today in the Irish experience of the last century it is this – that we cannot let up in our unremitting efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition from the world. We cannot allow the failure of imagination and generosity of approach that brought such grief to Ireland then to perpetuate similar grief in our own times.

What else can we learn from the famine?

Well, one lesson is that however great the catastrophe the indomitable human will to survive will triumph, so that the Irish in South Wales have survived and are prospering in this thriving city we see today while Ireland is now a modern European nation with one of the highest growth rates in the world.

Our average per capita wealth is now 90% of the European average and will be equal to that of Britain in a few years time – one of the consequences of this is that we have put an end to the terrible scourge of mass emigration that took away some of our best and brightest in the years since the famine.

Yes, people still leave, but there are almost as many returning now as leaving, and those that do leave are by and large better educated and better trained than ever before.

This is a new Ireland, but it is not an Ireland that can afford to forget. That is why this Service of Commemoration and Reconciliation is so important.

The process of retrieving the detail of what happened and how it happened is not to open up old wounds. Far from it. In fact I think it marks our maturity as a people that our remembrance is becoming an act of self awareness.

I mentioned a moment ago our awareness of famine and deprivation elsewhere in the world. Wherever you find it – in Africa and Latin America and parts of Asia – you will also find Irish aid workers and Irish doctors and nurses giving of themselves voluntarily.

The other dimension to commemoration of the famine is that it reminds us of the diversity and range of the Irish diaspora of some 70 million people throughout the world. As our President, Mary Robinson, has reminded us, Ireland’s experience of emigration is not just a chronicle of sorrow and regret, it is also a powerful story of contribution and adaptation.

I am struck wherever I go in Britain at the number of civic leaders – Lord Mayors, Mayors, Councillors, trade unionists – that are Irish or are of Irish descent, who are contributing to building civic society in Britain just as the Irish built it physically. We can be proud of that contribution and in commemorating the famine we are celebrating that contribution too.

Here this evening we can recognise and celebrate the long established and dynamic communities in Britain and particularly in Cardiff and South Wales and the contribution that they have made to this area.

Before I finish I would like to thank and pay tribute to the choirs that have sung so beautifully here this evening – the choir from Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Grangetown, and Côr Plant Caerdydd, the choir drawn from the Welsh‑medium schools in Cardiff. But I know that you will forgive me if I have a special word of thanks for Cór and Ceoltóirí na hAislinge from Bray, County Wicklow. You were all marvellous!

Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sibh taitneamh as an ocáid spéisiúil seo. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir! (I hope that you will enjoy this interesting occasion. Thank you all very much indeed!)

: Mr. Ted Barrington, the Irish Ambassador, speaking during the ‘Service of Commemoration and Reconciliation’ conducted by the Minister, the Reverend Denzil John, at ‘Tabernacl Caerdydd’, the Welsh Baptists’ Church in the Hayes, Cardiff on Friday evening 18 October, 1996.

Published in The Green Dragon No 1, Winter, 1996.

Tabernacl Caerdydd