Honour Irish famine by showing empathy to suffering today, says Varadkar

Taoiseach attends National Famine Commemoration in Sligo

The best way we can honour those who suffered and died during the Great Famine is by showing empathy with those who are suffering today, the Taoiseach said on Sunday.

Mr Varadkar was attending the National Famine Commemoration in Sligo, a county which he acknowledged had suffered a particularly traumatic fate during the famine, when its population fell by a third.

Addressing a gathering which included 48 ambassadors or their representatives, the Taoiseach described the famine as “the single most traumatic event in Irish history”.

“It made a million people refugees, forced to flee their country for survival. And it left a bitter legacy for future generations,” he said.

One of those attending the ceremony along the banks of the Garavogue river in Stephen Street Sligo was a Co Sligo man whose family had a direct link with the famine.

Pat Ward from Keash, Co Sligo said that his great great grandmother's brother Patrick Kaveney was one of those forced to emigrate to Canada with his wife Sarah, five daughters and one son in 1847. As their ship neared shore, a storm blew up, the vessel sank and Patrick's five daughters aged from two to 10, perished along with many more of those on board.

A few years ago Patrick and Sarah’s descendants visited Sligo. “Today is a very emotional day. And it’s very sad when you think of all those who were lost during the famine . How many more were lost that we have never heard of?” said Mr Ward.

Local historian Joe McGowan who was instrumental in setting up a famine commemoration committee in Sligo after human bones were discovered in a famine graveyard in the 1990s, said Sunday was “a great day for Sligo”.

He said a group of local people were worried that development might take place on site of the famine graveyard where thousands of people were buried.

“There was no local knowledge abut the graveyard. It was in the grounds of the old workhouse,” he explained.

Sligo workhorse

The Taoiseach pointed out the Sligo workhouse had been built in 1841 to accommodate 800 people, but had to be extended twice during the famine and by 1848 more than 4,000 people were taking shelter there.

“I believe the best way we can honour those who suffered and died during the Great Famine is by showing empathy with those who are experiencing similar problems today, whether through natural disaster, war or oppression,” he said.

“We were refugees once and we recall the great compassion and the open doors shown to us around the world.

“It is seared in our collective memories as we work to assist today’s refugees,” added Mr Varadkar.

When the Taoiseach arrived in Sligo he was heckled by a small group of protesters from a local Cervical Smear Action Group.

Also protesting was local woman Rosemary McCaffrey supporting a campaign for improved pay and conditions for members of the Defence Forces. "In the last 48 hours they got an extra five euro a week, which after tax is 76 cents a day," said Ms McCaffrey whose son is currently serving in the Lebanon.

Many of the church leaders present reminded the gathering that others are suffering today.

Pastor Efosa Enabulele from the local Presbyterian church said one in seven of the world’s population was hungry, “while one third of all food produced is wasted”.

Imam Abbur Rahman O’Beirne said people from many lands were coming here, seeking refuge from famine, war and persecution. “Guide us to kindness, understanding and wisdom in our response,” he urged.

The Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran said sinful attitudes and unjust socio-economic structures had contributed to the deaths during the famine.

"Grant us now in our own time the wisdom and the decency to provide for those who are also at risk in our society and the wider world, the children born and unborn, the homeless the refugees the sick and the elderly," he said.