Walkers retrace steps of historic famine pilgrimage in Co Mayo

More than 200 take part in Afri Walk, and show solidarity with those displaced by war

Since 1988 the Afri Famine Walk in Co Mayo has commemorated the catastrophic experience of starving local people who made a 10-mile pilgrimage on the night of March 30th, 1849 to Delphi Lodge.

They walked in the hope of receiving rations of Indian meal from Poor Law guardians. As the guardians dined, the locals were turned away, many of them dying or falling into the lake on their return journey.

Last weekend, more than 200 walkers retraced the steps of these wretched individuals on the walk – while remembering those facing similarly hard journeys in countries in the midst of war.

Praising Ireland's solidarity with the people of Ukraine, whilst citing other unjust wars, Independent TD Catherine Connolly, who led the walk, said: "Government policy cannot be simply developed around our geographic proximity to a country, which clearly has been subjected to an illegal, unacceptable and horrific war."

She also emphasised the importance of examining the connection between “global warming and global warring” which was the theme of this year’s annual Afri Famine Walk.

“The title of this year’s walk is so appropriate because these issues are ‘fite fuaite’ – intertwined with each other,” Ms Connolly said. “We must begin to analyse the role of war in climate change.”

Two-year hiatus

Also leading the walk, which has returned after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, was Homayoon Shirzad, deputy national co-ordinator for Places of Sanctuary, who said "the end of every war in Afghanistan has only been the beginning of another". He moved to Ireland from Afghanistan five years ago.

He said that when he was a small child his family was destroyed when the mujahideen were in the ascendant, after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

"An Gorta Mór really resonates for me. My father fled to Iran, one of my uncles was killed and the others were jailed for refusing to join the mujahideen. We had nobody to provide for us and my granny took to picking grass and boiling it to feed us," he said.

Joe Murray, the long-time Afri co-ordinator, also observed: "It is interesting to note that the first Afri walk here in Louisburgh was in 1988 just as the Soviets began to withdraw from Afghanistan."

Robbie McVeigh, an author and researcher with a specific interest in Irish Protestant identity, reflected on the present debate on “the union” in the context of historic British imperialism.

“As we enter a new phase of intense reflection on the value of the union [Act of Union 1801], An Gorta Mór should always frame our analysis.”

After a tree-planting ceremony at Delphi Lodge, it was a sean-nós interpretation of a Séan Ó Ríordáin poem by singer Patrick O’ Laoghaire that concluded the memorial event and set the scene for the walkers.

Áine Ryan

Áine Ryan is a contributor to The Irish Times