Newry has played host to the eighth annual Famine Commemoration today, where wreaths were laid in remembrance of those who died.
The annual commemorative event is organised by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (DAHG) and this is the first occasion that the event has been held in Northern Ireland.
The potato crop, which was the key – and in many cases only – sustenance for much of the Irish population, failed to various degrees every year between 1845 and 1851 and in those years the Irish population fell by almost two million.
Emigration continued to plague the Irish people for decades to come and by the time of the 1911 census it had dropped to 4.4 million, some 4.1 million less than it had been at the outbreak of the famine.
The Northern Ireland Executive endorsed the proposal to hold this year’s Famine Commemoration in Newry.
This cross-party support recognised the important opportunity to increase understanding and raise awareness of a key period in our shared history and to promote inclusive approaches to remembering our past.
Expressing his appreciation that the event was taking place in the north, the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: “I welcome the fact this commemoration is being held in the north for the first time and commend everyone involved for making this a reality.
“The famine left an indelible mark on the island of Ireland, changing every townland, village, town, county and province forever. Today provides an opportunity for us all to pause and reflect on the pain and suffering of our ancestors.
“While we will never be able to fully appreciate the true poverty, starvation and horror suffered during that chapter in our history the actions and efforts of those during the famine remain a major source of inspiration for us to this day.
“The resolve and resilience of previous generations is ever present in society today as many of our young people continue to emigrate to make better lives for their families. The paths walked by previous generations have paved the way.
“Unfortunately there are people in the world who are still forced to leave home due to persecution, hunger and fear. We must always support those in greatest need. It is with this in mind we must extend the hand of friendship to people who want to come here and call Ireland their home.”
Culture Minister Carál Nί Chuilίn added: “‘The Great Hunger’ or ‘An Gorta Mόr’ is a time that should never be forgotten and as such this yearly commemorative event is an important template to help us appreciate what a terrible period it was for Ireland.
“The famine impacted on everyone right across the country and even now, some 170 years later, it is difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of hardship and suffering.
“In remembering those who lost their lives or were forced into emigration, in most cases never to return, it is timely to also remember the many people across the world who are presently suffering the effects of hunger or malnutrition, or who are being forced to flee their homelands due to conflict. In their time of need we should offer all assistance we can.”
The Minister also thanked the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council for their efforts in organising this event.
She said: “I commend the Irish Government for their foresight in bringing this event to Newry and thank the local Council on their trojan efforts in staging today’s event.
“The council has truly embraced the occasion by organising a range of related events throughout this week, some of which examined the impact of the famine in the locality.”
The keynote address was delivered by Heather Humphreys TD, Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, while wreaths were laid by both the deputy First Minister and the Culture Minister. Ms Nί Chuilίn also recited a contemporary account of the sinking of ‘The Hannah’, an emigrant ship that left Warrenpoint en route to Quebec, but sank in the Gulf of Lawrence on 29 April 1849 after hitting ice, with at least 49 passengers drowning.
Tomorrow a plaque will be unveiled in Warrenpoint in recognition of those emigrants who sailed from Warrenpoint to New Brunswick on another famine ship, ‘The Lady Caroline.’
The first famine commemoration took place in Dublin in 2008. It rotates annually between Ireland’s four provinces and was once previously held in Ulster, when Clones was the venue in 2011.
Illustration of Irish potato famine victims arriving in London which appeared in the Illustrated London News of 1850.
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