Chairman’s Opening Remarks, 17 March 2007

As Chair of the Wales Famine Forum I would like to offer condolences from the Irish in Wales to the family of a great Irishman, Seán Mac Réamoinn. Seá was a good friend to Wales and to the Irish in Wales, he will be sadly missed. Seán was always there with advice, help and encouragement during our formative years.

The Irish in Wales were and are usually overlooked by both the Welsh and the Irish, but not by Seán. When the Forum celebrated/commemorated the very painful Irish settlement in a very hostile environment and their later contribution to Wales on Saint Patrick's Day 1999, Seán was here alongside us. This was a real celebration: a remembering of things past but with a mind and heart to the future - Seán was there.

This was a commemoration of the Great Irish Famine, and of the thousands who crossed the Irish Sea in its wake: by the 1860s there were over 70 Irish ghettos in Cardiff alone, as well as several in the hostile industrial valley centres of the industrial revolution, then approaching its vigorous and often ruthless heyday. For those who fled hunger and plague, and for the generations who followed to make a life in the new towns and mining valleys, happy endings did not come easy. What we now call 'economic' refugees are rarely welcomed with open arms, especially in times of industrial and social stress and upheaval. In the South Wales of the nineteenth century (and later) the poor were often set against the poor; inevitably, there were street fights and, too often, violent death.

Mutual understanding was not made easier by differences in language and religion, as well as in lifestyle and outlook. There was little or no sense of the common Celtic heritage which had been long buried in the remote past. But common humanity was never really forgotten, and there are memories of caring and kindness and generosity on both sides.

The standing of the Irish in this city was attested to by the attendance of the then recently appointed Consul General of Ireland, Mr. Conor O'Riordan, at the unveiling of the Famine Memorial which is the centrepiece of the commemoration: a Celtic Cross in Irish limestone with commemorative plaques in Welsh slate.

Seán was also party to the launch of an Irish language magazine, An Briathar Saor, the first magazine in Irish ever published in Wales. It was launched at the Wales National Eisteddfod, Llandeilo, in August 1994 by Seán and Harri Pritchard-Jones, a doctor, writer and broadcaster from Cardiff. Seán spoke in Welsh and Harri in Irish. Alas, the magazine lasted only four editions but led to the formation of the Wales Famine Forum in 1995 which achieved so much.

John Sweeney, Chair, Wales Famine Forum.

Ceremony of Remembrance and Reflection 2007

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