The national Famine commemoration yesterday was a poignant reminder of our history.
The presence of diplomats from 30 countries emphasised the international significance of the catastrophe.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the ceremony at the North Quay in Drogheda. It was the latest in a series of national commemorations conducted around the country in recent years. Previous commemorations were held in Dublin; Skibbereen, Co Cork; Murrisk in Co Mayo; and Clones in Co Monaghan.
Famine reports of the horrors in Skibbereen prompted an international outcry at the time and sparked a global relief campaign. People were dying in the midst of the rotting corpses of family members, because they were too weak to dispose of the dead.
The foreign aid did much to turn Irish eyes abroad and sparked the massive migration, especially to North America, which had been so generous with relief supplies. Within the United States there remains a powerful cultural memory of the Great Famine. People who know little else about Ireland know that their ancestors fled this country, and even ardent American nationalists retain a distinct level of gratitude towards those ancestors and hence towards Ireland itself.
The North Quay in Drogheda was the second largest port of departure for emigrants from this country during the Great Famine.
In times of strife, or economic woes, it is important to remember there were times when things were much worse. This helps to put present problems in a proper perspective, and it also acts a wake-up call for society to act effectively before things become much worse.
It should be remembered that the Famine resulted from the failure of just one crop — the potato — on which so many people were dependent. Other crops continued to grow, even flourish, and this country actually exported food during the famine.
As a society we blamed the government in Britain for its appalling insensitivity in allowing food to be exported while people were starving. This memory became a driving force in the demand for home rule and independence, which were eventually attained with considerable support from the children of Irish emigrants scattered around the globe.
Our independence was hard won, but it is clearly threatened by our current economic problems. We are again witnessing massive migration among our young people. It seems all the more ironic that Irish exports are currently flourishing in the midst of the economic downturn.
Descendants of Irish emigrants scattered around the globe have long demonstrated their affection for this country, but we should not expect them or others to rescue this country from the economic destruction which it has wrought upon itself. We had our independence and cannot blame others for the dreadful way in which we have failed the current generation.
We must resolve to help ourselves without expecting others to rescue us from the destruction of our own greed and bungling.
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