‘Nobody flees without serious reasons’: Famine walkers urge compassion for today’s refugees

Commemorators began 165km journey in Roscommon retracing odyssey of desperate, evicted tenants in 1847

A plea for compassion for those fleeing famine and persecution was made outside the gates of Strokestown House in Co Roscommon on Monday as a group of walkers began a 165-kilometre journey retracing the footsteps of 1,490 local tenants forced out in 1847.

The National Famine Way, which will traverse six counties before arriving at Dublin’s docklands next Saturday, is being led by the Ambassador of Ireland to Canada, Eamonn McKee, who pointed out that 80 Canadian first responders died in the summer of 1847 as they tended to the Irish disembarking from the “coffin ships”, many of whom later succumbed to typhus, cholera and other diseases.

The commemorative walk in honour of the tenants of Strokestown Park estate who were escorted by a bailiff along the Royal Canal before being placed on a packet steamer to Liverpool, is set to be expanded into a Global Irish Famine Way which Ambassador McKee said would be “the largest heritage trail in the world”.

Caroilín Callery, director of the National Famine Museum founded by her father Jim, and among those doing the six-day walk, said it was important to tell the next part of the famine emigrants’ story.


“Our emigrants did not stop in the quays in Dublin. Their journeys spread far and wide around the world and it is only fitting to tell the second part of their stories as they carved out new lives on foreign shores,” she said.

Pointing out that links had already been established in Liverpool and Canada, with plans to also commemorate those who left for Australia, South Africa and the US, she said the message from the global famine walk would be that “strangers on every shore must be met with compassion”.

“We would urge everyone nowadays to be like the Canadians in the 1840s were with the Irish”, she said. “Nobody leaves their family, their homeland, flees and leaves everything that they know, everything they have loved – nobody does that without really serious reasons. There is a lesson there for all of us.”

Fiona Ní Chuinn, director of services with Roscommon County Council, one of seven local authorities supporting the commemorative walk, said the Irish famine experience should resonate with us today. As a first-world country it was important that in Ireland “we show empathy and compassion to those today who like our ancestors are fleeing hunger and persecution”, she added.

The symbol of the famine trail are bronze replicas of children’s shoes displayed in the National Famine Museum, and earlier this month the Ambassador welcomed the arrival of 15 pairs which travelled by sea from Galway to Newfoundland for delivery to Grosse Île, and other Canadian locations where the Irish made new lives.

The names of the 1,490 tenants who left under notorious Strokestown landlord Major Denis Mahon’s “forced emigration” scheme were read out before the walkers left Strokestown by teenagers Méabh, Ross, Conor and Stephen Tighe, relatives of Daniel and Catherine Tighe. They were among the many Irish children orphaned before arriving in Canada, when their widowed mother and three siblings died at sea.

Local farmer Philip Tighe, father of Méabh and Ross, said he felt the walk was a way of completing a circle and remembering his ancestors and others who had left in what has become known as Black ‘47.

“I met Richard (Daniel’s great grandson) when he came here in 2013,″ he explained. “When Jim Callery went to Quebec in 2000 he met Leo Tye, Daniel’s grandson and thought he was the cut of my granduncle John”, said Philip.

Mr Callery was among those setting off on the first leg of the journey in the blazing sunshine on Monday morning. “I will walk a scatter of it. I walked it all before but I was younger then. I was only 87,” said Mr Callery who turns 90 in October.