Remembering the victims of the Great Famine should encourage Irish people to intervene wherever there is injustice and hunger around the world, the President has said.
Michael D Higgins attended the national famine commemoration in Kilrush, Co Clare, where he honoured and grieved for our ancestors who suffered and perished.
The President warned commemorating the Great Hunger should not be a form of self-absorption in victimhood, or an inward-looking exercise in nostalgia.
“Rather, at its best, contemplation of our famine should encourage us to intervene in the contemporary world everywhere that we find injustice, poverty and hunger,” he said.
Mr Higgins said one million died and two million emigrated in search of survival and a better life during the famine, from 1845 to the early 1850s, and for decades after.
“Their migrant experience was far from easy, but from the most humble and challenging of beginnings, the Irish made new lives in their adopted homes and played an integral part in the history of Britain, Canada, the United States and Australia,” he said.
“It is appropriate, therefore, that today we should honour the memory of those who were forced to emigrate to survive and celebrate the immense achievements of our Diaspora communities.
“We know that this resilience and courage has permeated through the generations and resonates today – albeit in different circumstances – many young Irish men and women are compelled to emigrate to make better lives for their families.”
Mr Higgins said that within Munster, the county of Clare was the most severely affected during the famine when the potato crop failed because of disease.
“Kilrush shares the unhappy distinction of being one of the three areas worst hit by death, disease and evictions,” he said at the formal State ceremony.
“In fact, it is estimated that Kilrush lost 50% of its population between 1846 and 1851.
“It is very fitting therefore that we should gather today in Kilrush to honour the memory of its Famine victims.”
The President told dignitaries, including Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht minister Jimmy Deenihan and ambassadors, that many Irish people died believing their lives were of no value and that they counted for nothing.
“By our presence here today, we honour their lives, we remember their suffering and we grieve for them all,” he added.
Schoolchildren across Ireland held a minute’s silence to remember those who died in the Great Famine on Friday, with sporting organisations around the country holding one today.
The move is a mark of respect and to reflect on the current issue of famine and hunger worldwide.
The International Commemoration of the Great Irish Famine will take place in Sydney, Australia, in August.
Delegates will remember those who emigrated to Australia, in particular 4,412 young Irish women and girls who travelled from the workhouses of Ireland between 1848 and 1850 under the Earl Grey Scheme in search of hope and a new beginning.
The event in Kilrush featured a programme of music, theatre and poetry as well as military honours and a wreath-laying ceremony by Ambassadors to Ireland.
Mr Deenihan, chair of the national famine commemoration committee, said the presence of President Higgins showed the level of respect we have for the victims of this terrible time in our history.
“It is not only the victims of the past which we honour here today in Kilrush, we should also seek to raise awareness of hunger and food security issues worldwide,” he said.
“Our experience of famine in the past means that we are pre-disposed towards helping those suffering the effects of hunger.”
In previous years the national commemoration has been held in Skibbereen, Co Cork, Murrisk, Co Mayo, Clones, Co Monaghan and Drogheda, Co Louth.