President attends launch of atlas of historic Galway towns

Michael D Higgins says words used about migrants similar to those used during Famine

Language used to depict Europe's current migrant crisis was once applied to survivors of the Great Famine in Ireland, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Speaking at the publication of the Royal Irish Academy’s (RIA) historic towns atlas for Galway, Mr Higgins said that contemporary references to “swarms” of migrants had resonances with a similar negative depiction on the Irish western seaboard in the mid-19th century.

There were reports of Galway being “swamped . . . with wandering people” and there were stark contrasts during the growth of the urban environment, he said.

Galway’s union workhouse had to expand to give famine relief in the 1840s, and the jail population rose from 68 inmates annually to between 650 and 750. Most of them were people who had fallen on hard times, he said.


Mr Higgins extolled the value of maps in recording “layers of society” and highlighting stark contrasts in people’s fortunes.

He quoted writer and cartographer Tim Robinson, who had extensively mapped and studied Connemara across three decades, and who spoke of how "the flood of change threatens to bear away all such constructs of meaning, and it is the task of the topographer to shore them up".

‘Shared legacy’

As Robinson had said, without the “occasional renewal of memory and regular rehearsal of meaning, place itself founders into shapelessness, and time, the great amnesiac, forgets all”, the President said.

Mr Higgins emphasised the value of “shared legacy and heritage” as part of a European project after the second world holocaust to “encourage and facilitate” a “common humanity” in spite of historical diversities.

The new atlas of Galway by Jacinta Prunty and Paul Walsh dates back to the city's 12th century origins as an Anglo-Norman borough and seaport.

It is the 28th in a series compiled by the RIA, with Drogheda, Co Louth due for publication shortly.

Prof Mary Daly of the RIA said the project, conducted in partnership with the Office of Public Works, reflected the "best of scholarship" and facilitated "engagement with communities".

An exhibition based on the Irish historic towns atlas for Galway has been opened at the Galway City Museum.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times