Irish Famine Memorial Day

The Irish Famine: Scene at the Gate of the Work-House, circa 1846

As I was searching on the web to see if Ireland has something similar to our American holiday, Memorial Day, I came upon several articles about the Irish National Famine Memorial Day. Although there have been many observances of this sad occasion in the past, May 17, 2009 marked the first annual National Famine Memorial Day. The commemoration ceremonies were held in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, in the Province of Munster. The choice of this year's location in the Skibbereen area was because it was one of the most devastated areas affected by the Great Famine, with mass graves of between 8,000 and 10,000 famine victims at Abbeystrewery near Skibbereen.

On January 8, 2009, Éamon Ó Cuív, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, held a press conference at the Government Buildings and announced that the inaugural event would take place in Co. Cork. The communities throughout the country were encouraged to hold local commemorations and sporting organizations were asked to observe a moment's silence on the day.

Each year, the official national commemoration site will be held in one of the provinces, in turn, beginning with Munster in 2009, Connacht in 2010, and Ulster in 2011. The national events will include many government representatives, some of whom will speak.

Mr. Ó Cuív said that a "parallel international event" would be held in Canada on May 10th, 2009, with the exact location yet to be decided. There will also be an international commemoration held at a different place each year.

In May of last year, Mr. Ó Cuív also announced that the government had agreed to commemorate the Great Famine with an annual memorial day and the National Famine Commemoration Committee was established to decide on the most appropriate arrangements for the observance. The members of the committee include a wide range of interested parties, with government and non-government representatives, and individuals with special interest or expertise in the Great Famine.

In 2008, the National Famine Commemoration Day was held on May 25th, with an official reception hosted at the Custom House in Dublin by Minister of State at the Department of Community Affairs, John Curran. In his speech, he reminded everyone what resulted from the failure of the potato crop during the 1840's and that nothing before or since has impacted Ireland so devastatingly. He said, "That legacy includes a strong appreciation today among Irish people of issues such as food security and a strong commitment to humanitarian aid and relief".

The impact of the Great Famine on Ireland was catastrophic but it was felt globally in other ways. The influx of Irish people around the world during that period is without parallel. Most emigrants at that time were the famine Irish, the poorest of the poor, whose landlords had purchased their passage to other countries on the 'coffin ships'. Many died aboard ship because of cholera or typhus and were buried at sea. Others survived the journey but died upon arrival at their destination.

One of the most devastating stories of the famine Irish is that of their arrival in Canada. The Quarantine Station of Grosse-Île, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, is the last resting place for over 6,000 Irish souls. The Canadian authorities would not allow any of the sick into Canada, so they were kept there until they recovered, or were buried there if they did not survive. Including my great-great-great-grandparents, Michael Casey and Mary Ann (Denning) Casey, about 250,000 Irish people arrived in Canada between 1845 and 1855, with the 1847 count a startling 110,000.

In 1998, the Canadian government officially opened the Irish Famine Memorial at Grosse-Ile and included the monument in their state park system. Irish President, Mary McAleese, attended the ceremony. The Irish National Famine Memorial Day is celebrated in Canada, where four million Canadians claim Irish heritage today.

Learning this information a bit too late for this year's National Famine Memorial Day observance, I will mark my calendar for next year's event. I would like to invite all of the descendants of the Irish Famine immigrants around the world to join me at noon on May 17th, 2010. Let us bow our heads in a moment of silence for the lives lost during the Great Famine, as well as for the severe hardships endured by the many immigrants who successfully arrived on distant shores. Thank you.

On Board an Emigrant Ship at the Time of the Irish Famine

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