Irish Famine reminds us of moral duty to asylum seekers, says President

Parallels between global migration crisis and An Gorta Mór 175 years ago ‘must not be lost on us’

President Michael D Higgins has said Ireland has a “moral and ethic responsibility” to welcome and support those in need from around the world.

The President made his comments as part of his speech at the National Famine Commemoration event in Co Donegal.

President Higgins spoke at the workhouse in Milford as part of National Famine Memorial Day in memory of those who suffered during the Great Famine and to remember those who fled to create new lives abroad.

The event saw President Higgins lay a wreath at the Famine workhouse while he also conducted an inspection of the 28th Infantry Battalion Guard of Honour as well as unveiling a commemorative stone and planted a Common Oak tree, assisted by local school students.


In his address, President Higgins said we must honour our commitments to those who have been displaced and seek asylum in Ireland.

“We have a moral and ethical responsibility to support our global family in dire need, to help with sustainable solutions to ending all famines, wherever they occur on our shared, vulnerable planet, and to provide a decisive response to climate change which itself is leading to an increased incidence of famines globally,” he said.

“Failure to act to prevent famines worldwide does not merely make an echo. It repeats and merely replicates the doctrines of inaction, moralism and laissez-faire policies that precipitated the Irish Famine, contributing to mass displacement such as that which we see now in Africa.

“Our migration too has parallels that are contemporary. In the five years between 2018 and 2022, according to a recent report by Caminando Fronteras, 11,286 people died trying to enter Spanish territory from Africa, almost all of them at sea. This excludes the many who die before they make it to the coast. The UN migration agency believes that two people die in the Sahara for every one who drowns at sea.

“The parallels with An Gorta Mór and the mass displacement it caused 175 years ago must not be lost on us. We have a moral duty and a great opportunity to continue to honour our commitments to those vulnerable and displaced who seek asylum and refuge on our shores.”

More than one million people died and a further two million people emigrated from Ireland during the Famine years from 1845 to 1852.

Their collective lives and their memories were recalled and honoured at the poignant ceremony in Co Donegal today.

President Higgins said it was an “honour and a privilege” to join with fellow Irish people, wherever they may be, and in whatever circumstances, as we mark what he called “the cataclysmic events” from our past.

“In particular as we recall the lives, deaths and suffering of all of those individuals who perished during that tragic event imposed on Irish people that we refer to as An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, the Irish Famine,” he said.

In his lengthy and considered address, President Higgins spoke of the many impacts the Famine had on Ireland then and now.

Looking to the future, he said we must “reflect on the best lessons we might take from such a recall and how it might influence our contemporary lives and the lives of others.”

The Government was represented by Jack Chambers, Minister of State at the Department of Transport & Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

He said it was appropriate that the commemoration was being held in County Donegal.

“It is particularly appropriate that today’s event is being held here in Donegal, where the impact of the Great Famine and its legacy of emigration shaped the lives of its communities and people for too long.

“But today is also an opportunity to honour the courage and determination of those who were forced to leave these shores. Despite the challenges and horrors they faced, they flourished and created a thriving diaspora which continues to maintain its connection to Ireland.”

Catherine Martin, Minister of Tourism and Chair of the National Famine Commemoration Committee, said the commemoration allowed people the opportunity to honour the legacy of all those who suffered, died or emigrated.

“The Great Famine fundamentally altered this country, and its people, in so many ways. Today’s ceremony allows us to solemnly remember the devastating impact on the millions of people who suffered, died, or emigrated. The National Famine Commemoration is a key event for ensuring that this legacy is honoured,” she said.

Wreaths were also be laid by His Excellency, The Most Reverend Luis Mariano Montemayor, Apostolic Nuncio, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps; and Councillor Liam Blaney Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council.