00:00 Saturday 17 January 2009  Written by Con Downing

Skibbereen to host National Famine Memorial Day

SKIBBEREEN has been chosen as the venue for the 2009 National Famine Memorial Day on Sunday, May 17.

Announcing plans drawn up by the National Famine Commemoration Committee, Mr. Éamon Ó Cuív, TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, said they agreed four main points for this year's commemoration:

It is proposed that the national event will take place in Skibbereen;

The parallel international event will be held in Canada;

That communities around the country should be encouraged to hold their own local events to commemorate the Great Famine; and

That all public and sporting events should observe a minute's silence on the National Famine Memorial Day.

Among those present at the announcement in Dublin was Cork South West TD, Mr. Christy O'Sullivan, who commented: "I'm delighted that the National Famine Memorial Day will be held in Skibbereen this year.  

"I have been pushing and lobbying Minister Ó Cuív for Skibbereen to be selected as the venue. Being my home town, I am all too aware of the long and painful history of Skibbereen and the surrounding areas during the time of the Famine.

"It was one of the worst effected areas of the country with thousands upon thousands of local souls losing their life during this period.  We all know about the mass graves that were found at Abbeystrewery containing as many as 10,000 victims.  This was only the tip of the iceberg."

"The Famine had a long lasting and immensely powerful impact on Skibbereen so I think the selection of the town as this year's venue is particularly apt.  I have no doubt that Skibbereen will put on a fitting series of events to mark this occasion and that everyone throughout the town will do their bit to suitably commemorate all those souls this country lost during the Great Famine," Mr. O'Sullivan concluded.

It is expected that the Famine Memorial Day will now become an annual event and will revolve between the four provinces.   It is envisaged that the 2010 commemoration will take place in Co. Mayo.

Minister Éamon Ó Cuív, TD, making the announcement, said: "I look forward to discussions taking place between my Department and relevant stakeholders over the coming weeks to make the necessary arrangements to hold the 2009 National Memorial Day in Skibbereen."

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Ms. Terri Kearney, manager of Skibbereen Heritage Centre, welcoming the announcement, told The Southern Star this week that she would be contacting various organisations in the town to build a weekend programme of events around the National Famine Memorial Day. Mayor of Skibbereen, Mrs. Catherine O'Keeffe, urged the townspeople and community groups to get behind the project and lend their support to it.

Gorta - The Freedom from Hunger Council of Ireland - also welcomed the announcement that an annual National Famine Memorial Day will be in inaugurated at Skibbereen on Sunday, May 17 next. CEO Brian Hanratty, a member of the National Famine Memorial Committee said: "The government's decision to hold this annual event is to be commended. The Great Famine - or An Gorta Mor - was Ireland's greatest humanitarian disaster.

"In remembering it, we also remember that in the world today, over 850 million people go hungry. As Minister O'Cuiv stated, this solemn event will stimulate people's consciousness regarding the challenges and causes of hunger in the world today.

"Ireland's own potato famine in the 1840s has embedded in our DNA a legacy that has resulted in a significant national recognition of food security globally, an understanding of the importance of humanitarian relief and a recognition of the right for everyone to achieve a sustainable existence."

Mr. Hanratty added that Skibbereen is a very fitting choice for the inaugural event, as the town and its hinterland suffered greatly during the famine. Today, local volunteers operate a GORTA charity shop in the town, supported by the people of the area.

"Not only does this demonstrate their empathy for the famine endured by their forefathers, but in a modern context, it epitomises the spirit of 'Active Citizenship' and compassion for those struggling to overcome hunger in the 21st century," he concluded.

EMIGRATION

The Great Famine also resulted in a disproportionately strong representation of the Irish among the nations formed through emigration in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. These diaspora communities - the Irish abroad - still demonstrate a significant affinity with their migrant predecessors of the Famine. Against this background, it was decided that an overseas commemoration should be held in parallel with the National Memorial Day in Ireland.

The 2009 event will be held on May 10 next in Canada, which became the new home of thousands of dispirited people who were ravaged by hunger and disease arising from the Famine. 

Although the majority of the Canadian Irish arrived well before the Famine, some 250,000 arrived between 1845 and 1855.  1847 was the high watermark, as close to 110,000 immigrants, most of whom were Irish famine refugees, made their way to Canada.  Some 4 million Canadians (12.5% of the population) claim Irish heritage today and Irish communities can be found across the country. 

2009 sees the 100th anniversary of the erection of a massive Celtic Cross, over forty feet high, which commemorates the 7,000 Irish men, women, and children who are buried on Grosse Ile near Quebec City. The island of Grosse Ile was a quarantine station, and became known by locals as 'L'Ile des Irlandais' - the Island of the Irish. 

Minister Ó Cuív expressed his gratitude to the members of the National Famine Commemoration Committee for their commitment in ensuring that the catastrophic events of the Great Famine are appropriately remembered and that the extraordinary contributions of those who emigrated, and of their many descendants abroad, are justly celebrated. 

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