The Doolough Famine Walk 1849 – 1999

In March, 1849, several hundred starving people set out on a desperate walk from Louisburgh in County Mayo, Ireland. Weak with hunger and cold, they struggled across ten miles of windswept boggy moors and over the treacherous mountain slopes hemming in Doolough Lake.

Their destination was a mansion where dinner was being served to the Board of Guardians who had the powers to release food or issue certificates of destitution to give entry to the workhouse. The Louisburgh people were denied both. So they turned and headed home.

The weather worsened: hailstones then snow began to fall. People collapsed beside the track; malnutrition had made them easy prey to hypothermia. Some slithered down the scree into the dark, icy waters of Doolough. As many as a hundred children, men and women may have died.

In June, 1972, a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl ran screaming from a napalm attack on the temple where her family had sought refuge from the bombing. The photograph of this moment, taken by 'Nick' Huyng Cong, became one of the most enduring images of the Vietnam War and, more generally, of the horrors of civilian casualties in warfare. Her name was Kim Phuc.

In May of this year the 150th anniversary of the deaths at Doolough were commemorated, as they have been every year since 1988, by a walk from Doolough back to Louisburgh, preceded by songs and speeches linking the avoidable catastrophe of the Irish Famine with contemporary issues of hunger and war.

Kim Phuc was one of the leaders of this year's walk. She described exactly what happened the day that the world famous photograph of her desperate flight from her bombed village was taken; how she tried to brush off the burning napalm that had devoured her clothes and was burning her skin.

A wall of fire separated her from her parents; she only survived because the photographer got her to hospital where she endured fourteen months of treatment and seventeen operations.

But it was when Kim started to speak about the present, about Kosovo, that she broke down in tears.

"I turn on the radio and they are attacking again. I have a very simple message: stop the war, let the UN negotiate a peaceful settlement".

She ended by showing some of the shocking scars that cover all her body. "I can forgive the people who caused this, but I still suffer pain, so how can I forget?", she said.

The Doolough Famine Walks have brought people from all over the world to this wild and desolate edge of Europe: a cellist from Sarajevo, a refugee from Zaire, Mayans from Guatemala, children from Chernobyl and Archbishop Tutu from South Africa.

Each walk has been a reminder that millions of starving people walk in search of food and millions of refugees walk in search of safety and shelter today. The organisers, Afri, a Dublin-based organisation promoting peace, justice and civil rights, focused this year's walk on the issues of war and peace.

The Irish Government is currently considering joining NATO's 'Partnership for Peace', despite pre-election promises to the contrary and without putting it to the vote in a referendum. Afri is determined that the Irish people should decide the matter.

The numerous current bloody conflicts around the world were remembered, along with Kosovo. So many of them, as Afri pointed out, go unreported by the Western media though they are waged with weapons supplied by NATO countries.

At around three o'clock, the two hundred or so walkers set off between the 'Black Lake' shore and the sharp inclines of the pale green and grey Mweelrea Mountains. High up on the slopes where you could hardly imagine standing, let alone creating beds of soil, were the tell tale lines of old potato furrows.

Kim Phuc's simple plea "No more bombing! No more suffering children!" resonated in this harsh and barren landscape. But once the walkers reached the moorland, spring flowers and meadow pipits brought hope and determination – the latter, it has to be said, also inspired by the thought of pints of Guinness and a céili once Louisburgh was reached!

The last 'Doolough Great Famine Walk' took place on Saturday 15 May, 1999. Among those who walked were the late Kate Baillie, who contributed this report, and Andrew Jinks, both members of the Wales-based Democratic Left and Barry Tobin of the Wales Famine Forum. ©: Kate Baillie, 1999.

Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999