President calls for better treatment for refugees at UCC Famine Commemoration

By Olivia Kelleher

President Michael D Higgins called for a renewed commitment to support all vulnerable people in the world at the annual Famine Commemoration Ceremony at UCC today.

The Great Hunger, though not the sole foundation event in the formation of the Irish diaspora, must yet still be considered the single most important event in the formation of a distinct Irish American identity, President Higgins said.

President Higgins said it should never be forgotten that between 1846 and 1855, around 2.1 million people left this island, more than in the previous two and a half centuries combined.

"1.5 millon of those went to the United States. An editorial in the Times of London would later state that it is there the Irish Famine of the 1840s would become a central part of collective memory, with all the difficulties this ensues, and a significant component of American politics," he said.

The President spoke of our solidarity with migrants and refugees borne out of our historic experience. He paid tribute to the members of the crew of the LE William Butler Yeats who were present at the ceremony.

"That practical solidarity has been displayed, with unwavering courage and devotion to duty, by the officers and sailors of the LE William Butler Yeats, in the course of their humanitarian mission to the Mediterranean," he said.

"As President of Ireland may I commend and salute you for your service."

President Higgins added that given the "catastrophic dimension" of Ireland's history, "we must deliver not only charity but justice".

He said maintaining the commitments of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord cannot be "met with such an indifference as would mean simply abandoning and jettisoning millions of our fellow human beings".

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that it was a significant ceremony commemorating an event which had "such a shaping influence on this country."

"Don't forget that during that Famine period two million people emigrated," he said.

"Another million people died. It changed our population structures. It changed the way in which people lived.

"Even today Ireland is the only European country that has a population that has less today than back in 1850."

"The Famine is an extraordinary tragedy in Irish history. Don't forget that UCC was established and built during the period of the Famine.

"It showed the difference in the time between those who had privilege in Ireland and those who didn't."

To mark the commemoration, UCC staff recreated An Bothan, a mud cabin, a replica of a fourth class dwelling reflecting the horrendous conditions in which our forebearers lived, suffered and died.

Ross O'Donovan, who supervised the building of the hut, said that the conditions for inhabitants were very sparse.

"40% of the population were living in class four housing in the 1841 census before the Famine," he said.

"This is an example of a class-four house. The conditions inside could only be described as very basic. The potato failing caused economic and social disaster in the country."

Among the members of the public at the event were siblings John and Mary O'Callaghan from Cork City. Mary said she was prompted to go to the ceremony by John who attends the Cope Foundation in Togher in the city. The foundation assists individuals with intellectual disabilities.

John has had a lifelong love for history and having heard about the event on RTÉ's Nationwide, he was intent on being in the crowd.

John (62) said he "likes going way back" and is fond of attending old churches and graveyards. Mary said her brother possesses "an amazing interest in all things historical."

Meanwhile, UCC is launching a Famine Online Project which was born out of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine which was published in 2012. The project sets out to publish online the 1841 and 1851 famine database.

Today's event featured music by The Vanbrugh, Niall Vallely, Karen Casey, Massed Choir, Band of the Southern Command and readings by Lord Mayor Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, County Mayor Cllr Declan Hurley and UCC President Patrick O’Shea.

The choir included representatives of Cork Penny Dinners, the High Hopes Choir, Crosshaven Community Choir and UCC Choral Society.


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