Wednesday, 4 May 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
10. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if his attention has been drawn to the proposals for the designation of a memorial day for the Famine; if his Department has received representations on this matter; if he will consider the proposals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9240/05]
11. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if money has been allocated under subhead E of his Department’s Estimates, for commemoration initiatives, to commemorate the Famine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9241/05]
13. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach the commemorations of historic events for which his Department is responsible; if further commemoration initiatives are contemplated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11939/05]
I received correspondence last year and again recently from the committee for the commemoration of the Irish Famine victims. An interdepartmental committee to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine and the bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion was established by the Government in 1994. Significant public funding was made available for a number of worthwhile projects of major importance and permanent significance including the national memorial at Croagh Patrick and the restoration of Famine graveyards. The committee disbanded after successfully fulfilling its task.
These commemorations were the first of their kind since those tragic times and I have no doubt they will be commemorated again at appropriate future anniversaries. I do not however propose to designate an annual national day to commemorate the Famine. My Department has not received any application for funding for any Famine commemoration project this year. The last application received for such a project was in 2000 for a Famine memorial in Scotland and funding of €6,000 was provided. Funding of €25,000 was provided in 1999 for a Famine memorial in Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.
An amount of €65,000 was allocated under subhead E of my Department’s Estimates this year to support commemorative projects. This funding is available to assist individuals or groups in organising the commemoration of individuals or events of historic importance. My Department has not yet received any applications for the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls in 2007. I am aware that community groups are now beginning to make plans for the commemoration of this important historical event and I expect that my Department will receive applications for funding in due course.
Mr. Rabbitte: I understand the Taoiseach said he is not in favour of a day of commemoration of the Famine. Will he re-think that? The Famine is the most cataclysmic event in our history in its impact on this island and its effect on so many countries outside Ireland. Up to 1 million of our people poured out of this country at the time in an effort to stay alive. Would it be appropriate for the Famine to be commemorated in the manner suggested by the committee that wrote to the Taoiseach?
The Taoiseach said he did not support a commemoration day but the correspondence I have from the Fianna Fáil general secretary tells the committee: “On behalf of Fianna Fáil I support your call for a day of commemoration to mark the tragic loss resulting from the Famine.” He says that this followed discussions with the Taoiseach. In the light of that, will the Taoiseach reconsider and agree it would be appropriate to commemorate it, given the significance of the Famine and the resulting emigrant flow from that terrible event?
The Taoiseach: I have no great feeling one way or another on the issue. If people feel we should commemorate the Famine, we can do so. I have read the files on the matter and the debates which went on in this House for years between the political parties, and with Departments and agencies, about a national day of commemoration. Some 20 years ago there was a sense of a political decision being reached whereby all the different days commemorated, and those which people were requesting be commemorated, would all be subsumed into the national day of commemoration. That was to be broadly inclusive, and would serve also to remember Irish men and women who died in wars and in service with the UN, as well as being one proper, symbolic day of national commemoration. That decision was made for a good reason. Many well-meaning committees were seeking many different days of commemoration. I have experienced that, with people calling for special days. That carries on almost endlessly.
Clearly the Famine greatly affected this country. In recent years I have tried to hold the line, and bring the various groups together to agree on one day. I have spent time with many religious groups and others, urging them quite successfully to become part of the national day of commemoration. Currently we are trying to attract members of certain faiths to join in this year’s day of commemoration. I am not trying to detract from the merits of different commemorations but trying to involve all in one day. I would be open to including a Famine commemoration in that day but it is a good idea to try to have all the commemorations on one day.
Mr. Rabbitte: I see some merit in what the Taoiseach says but I regard the Famine as being quite an exception to the events noted regularly by many of my colleagues in their questions. I mean no disrespect to them in that regard. It is one thing to seek, as Deputy McGinley does, to commemorate the Flight of the Earls, but such an event is not comparable to the Famine. I suggest this was in the Taoiseach’s mind when he discussed the matter with his general secretary, who says: “I have discussed the matter with An Taoiseach—”
Mr. Rabbitte: The Ceann Comhairle is correct on both issues. If he had allowed me to quote, the letter would be seen to be very interesting. I am asking the Taoiseach what caused him to change his mind since his discussion with the general secretary of Fianna Fáil. The committee for the commemoration of the Famine victims is very earnest. It has furnished the Taoiseach’s Department and the various political parties with a cogent argument why this country, given its distance from the Famine, and relative economic affluence, should now be prepared to commemorate that event in our history, and why it should not be confused with other events which, as the Taoiseach says, might be commemorated in a single national day of commemoration.
The Taoiseach: As I said, I have no strong feelings on this matter. There may be a cross-party feeling in the House that we should have a day to commemorate the Famine. A good case for individual days has been made by various groups. The committee seeking to commemorate 1798 made a good case. Such committees are formed for a period and then move on. The 1641 commemoration committee was another. There have been many such committees. It is good that people care about history and put forward their case. There has been a suggestion to commemorate the role of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Robert Emmet and others. I have been trying to focus on a single day of commemoration so that we do not return to proliferation. That happened prior to the decision on the national day of commemoration 20 years ago.
Historically, since the foundation of the State, we commemorate events every 25 years, 50 years, 75 years, on centenaries and bicentenaries. That has been the rule of thumb. A small committee worked on the issue in the mid-1980s, and bringing many different groups and days together was a matter of contention. Many groups and suggested dates were involved. Some groups were religious, some not. It was a matter of trying to bring everything together. Having researched the committee’s work, it is clear it was not easy.
I am not detracting from the importance of the Famine, but one can take it that as soon as a day is selected to commemorate any event, some ten or 15 groups will quickly make excellent arguments, backed by eminent historians, for commemorating other events. I have no objection to any commemoration but we should confine them to a single day. If someone has a very strong view on the subject, I will consider it. It is not a question of me changing my mind. People who have dealt with this for many years have pointed out the ongoing arguments and the battles that keep arising.
Mr. Kenny: I agree with the sentiments expressed by Deputy Rabbitte. The National Famine Memorial is at the base of Croagh Patrick and for a number of years there was a Famine commemoration walk from Delphi to Louisburgh to commemorate a tragedy there. Perhaps the matter should be considered again on an all-party basis. It might even be possible to do it in conjunction with world food aid day or the like. It is a central feature in the history of our country and its consequences have formed its people today. I met members of the committee mentioned by the Deputy and they are genuine in their appeal. If the Taoiseach does not have fixed views either way, he might take the lead on this issue and organise a group representing all parties and none in the House to consider this.
The Taoiseach: I hear what the Deputies are saying. However, looking back over the years and at the 1986 period, and I have made this point to these committees previously, there is nothing worse than organising commemorations when nobody turns up for them. It is almost disrespectful. That happened in the past, when only small numbers turned up. That is the reason I have fought to keep these events together on a single appropriate day. I am not saying that would happen with the Famine day. I will not go into detail but I recall one important day when only eight people turned up for the church service.
The easiest course is to give in on these issues but there must be sense. I am prepared to examine the matter but I believe combining these events, where people can come together and celebrate, is a more appropriate way of doing it than with bright ideas that become, within a short period, not well respected. That is my concern.
Mr. Sargent: I am glad the Taoiseach could clarify the situation. It was understood from the correspondence he was agreeable to a Famine memorial day and I have been informed that it is likely to be on 29 May. Is there a need to write directly to this group if it is embarking on organising a memorial day, supposedly with the Taoiseach’s goodwill? Should there not be some clarity and discussion of what the Taoiseach meant when he made known his views on the matter previously? Does he accept that it is inappropriate to put such a huge traumatic event in Irish history, when more than 1 million people died and another 1 million left the country, on the same level as other tragedies of much smaller scale in terms of the human impact? Should we not recognise this as an event of enormous significance worldwide both for people of Irish descent and for people who are suffering through famines at present and as a reminder that there are lessons to be learned? I hope we have learned those lessons.
Mr. Timmins: I listened to the Taoiseach with interest. Wicklow will celebrate its 400th anniversary next year. It is the youngest county in the country. Will he give an assurance that he will look favourably upon applications for funding from the baby county in the country to commemorate that important anniversary?
The Taoiseach: I like the garden county a great deal and I visited a beautiful part of it with the Deputy recently. The easiest thing I could do is agree to the national day suggested. However, 1798 is an enormous event for Wexford. What if somebody sought a designated day for that? Thousands of people died in Wexford. There are other parts of the country——
The Taoiseach: Yes. In Deputy Kenny’s constituency, people could talk about the passion associated with the Land League. It is not that any single event is not significant, and the Famine is significant in numerical terms, but there should be a way of combining them. That was done in 1986. We can embrace all these events. With no disrespect to the committee in this case, committees come and go. Twenty years ago, much thought was put into organising a national day of commemoration, respect and celebration. That should be considered. Otherwise, there could be a host of days of commemoration. It might be an important day but people will say, as Deputy Timmins just did, that some other day is more important for their region. Then one gets into an endless argument.
This group is a good group but so are all the other groups. It is good that there is a historical connection and if people wish to examine it, we can do so. However, we should combine these commemorations into a single event.
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