Taoiseach Enda Kenny this evening remembered those who died "slow starving deaths in the fields around here" as he led the National Famine Commemoration at Strokestown House, Co Roscommon.
Mr Kenny unveiled a memorial wall bearing the names of the 1,490 people from the Stokestown estate who left Ireland for Canada on the coffin ships commissioned by local landlord Denis Mahon in 1847.
When the ships “rampant with cholera and typhus” arrived in Canada “the dead and living were huddled together”, and bodies were pulled from the ships with boat hooks, the Taoiseach told an audience which included 43 ambassadors , Government TDs, returned emigrants and up to 2,000 local people.
It has been estimated that 700 of these men, women and children from Strokestown died en route, but one Canadian academic present at today’s sombre ceremony believes the death toll was much higher.
Prof Mark McGowan from the University of Toronto who with Dr Ciarán Reilly from NUI Maynooth is investigating the fate of those who made it to Canada, pointed out that the figure does not take account of burials at sea and the children who never made it to the new world. "I believe the real figure may be as high as 800," he said.
The ghosts of those who were driven from Co Roscommon during the Famine and those who died in the ditches, lanes and fields around Strokestown seemed to be present as the ambassadors lined up to lay wreaths near the entrance of Strokestown House. No one was more conscious of this than businessman Jim Callery, who bought the estate in 1979.
One of the first things he found in the Big House among the 40,000 musty documents which were to form the basis of the Famine Museum was the Cloonahee petition of 1846 - a plea from the tenants for help as they faced another winter of starvation. “We cannot much longer withstand their cries for food,” they wrote.
Mr Callery, a native of Cloonahee, found the document in the “smoking room” of the crumbling house he has since restored.
“I was speechless and I can tell you I read it more than once,” he said. “We are not for joining in anything illegal or contrary to the laws of God or the land, unless pressed to, by hunger,” the tenants had warned.
The museum Mr Callery opened on the estate 20 years ago contains many such poignant documents and records of torrid events including the murder of Major Mahon a year after he sent hundreds of tenants to their deaths on the coffin ships.
Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan, who pointed out that more than 1 million people died during the Famine, stressed the event still casts a shadow. "I am frequently humbled by the respect and empathy Irish people - at home and abroad- have for the victims of the greatest tragedy in our history," Mr Deenihan, the chairman of National Famine Commemoration committee, said.
Today’s ceremony concluded with prayers for those who “knowingly and unknowlingly turned their backs on the starving”. The ambassadors lined up to show solidarity with those who died.
Many of those who died chose to lie down in the corners of graveyards so that their skeltal remains would rest in consecrated grounds , the Taoiseach noted.