Tuesday, 27 March 2007
Dáil Eireann Debate
11. Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if his Department is providing financial support for the planned Famine commemoration in Dublin on 27 May 2007 and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2354/07]
I am aware that a commemorative event in respect of the Great Famine is being prepared for 27 May. While this is not an official initiative, it is associated with the proposal under consideration between Departments to establish a memorial day. I understand it is the intention of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to host a reception on the occasion of the Famine commemorative event. This is intended to reflect the ongoing role of Irish Aid in responding to global issues of hunger and food security.
The Great Famine had a most telling impact on Ireland both in the direct loss of so many lives and through the displacement of people and establishment of a pattern of emigration that continued for more than a century. I recall the official commemorative programme for the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine which took place across several years under the auspices of my Department. This intensive programme engaged a wide audience in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora.
There has been a sustained pattern of commemoration of the Famine for many years. The Famine Museum at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon, was opened in 1994. The national Famine monument was unveiled at Murrisk, County Mayo, in 1997 and replicated on the UN Plaza at New York in 2000. The Famine figures at Custom House Quay, Dublin were installed in 1997 and will be complemented this summer by a similar installation at the Irish Park in Toronto to be unveiled by the President. The many official and private initiatives regarding monuments and commemorations reflect the enduring significance of this tragedy for the Irish people at home and abroad.
I am positively disposed towards the establishment of a memorial day and have asked that the matter be considered at official level, having regard to the appropriate timing and location of a commemorative event; the possible nature of the commemoration, reflecting the terrible loss of life; the links to the diaspora and the continuing issues of hunger and food security. While I do not anticipate that an official annual event will be inaugurated this year, I am satisfied for the Government, through the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to be associated with the Famine commemoration being arranged for 27 May. The question of financial support for this event has not arisen.
Mr. Sargent: I am surprised to hear the Taoiseach state the commemoration will not have official status, given the presence and involvement of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan. I ask him to take into account the fact that the Opposition parties, various Independents, the Tánaiste and 30 Fianna Fáil Deputies and Senators all support the commemoration and hope it will have official status. Does he still consider, as he stated in the House on 4 May 2005, that he has no great feelings one way or another on the issue or has he had time to reflect on the matter? Does he consider that the commemoration should have official status, given that famine is still an issue of world significance and that the Irish Famine resonates with many around the world, particularly those of Irish extraction? Will he make a statement on this matter in order that there will be at least an expectation of official status for this year’s event?
The Taoiseach: As the Deputy noted, there have been many representations on this issue. As I stated in 2005 and many times since, it has been the practice that the principal events in our national history are marked by official commemorations on their significant anniversaries. However, because of our long history, it has not been the practice to organise official commemorations annually of the many people and events worthy of such commemoration. When the issue of a national day of commemoration was discussed at great length 20 years ago, the July date was used to bring them together. There has been much debate in this regard and the committee which has been working on this memorial has cited the example of Holocaust day among others. However, they are not official events. While the Taoiseach, Ministers and senior politicians might attend and participate, they are organised by representative committees which reflect the communities which suffered during such terrible events and there are many such days. I note that in the correspondence forwarded to me by Members they are being classified by the organising committee as being national or official days. However, they have nothing to do with the State.
As for the Famine event, many thought it should be examined. We held events to commemorate the 150th anniversary which were significant and a lot of effort was put into them. Through the Office of Public Works the State was involved in the commemoration in New York and the State provided €500,000 to this year’s commemoration in Toronto. We will also link in to the day of commemoration by having a reception.
As Deputy Sargent stated, there is a great deal of support for a commemoration. I asked officials to see how we could commemorate it through a national day, based on the three points I made, how we would best do so and in what circumstances we could do so. I am happy we should do it for reasons of links with the diaspora and continuing issues of hunger and food security in the world. We will consider how to best do it and on what date — it seems 27 May would be the annual date.
I repeat what I stated before — it is never a popular thing to say — every year, the number of anniversaries, commemorations and groups throughout the country which would like the State to be affiliated with has no end. Letters in my name go out every year stating we cannot do something and that raises a head of steam.
This year, the official commemoration programme is looking at the 400th anniversary of the flight of the earls, their story in Ireland at a time of change and their progress in Europe. We will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Irish college in Louvain where the earls found their initial refuge and the 350th anniversary of the death of Luke Wadding, the Franciscan scholar. This year will also mark two issues related to Daniel O’Connell. It is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade with which he was closely associated and on which he made his name internationally. It is also the 160th anniversary of his death.
We were able to put resources into the first two matters. If we were to commemorate everything every year what we would do for each would become meaningless so I attempted to hold the line. We have a great history, but the number of groups and committees would be endless if the State linked itself to all of them. It is not a popular line to take because one gets into the thick of all of them. If we went with everything we would have 20 or 30 commemorations every year with very limited resources. I allowed the committee to pick what it believed were the most significant.
We will consider a national day of commemoration for the Famine, which seems to be linked to 27 May. I asked the committee dealing with commemorations to see how we could do that in a meaningful way. Only a very small amount of money, amounting to a few hundred thousand euro, is provided every year to do something like what we did at the UN, and it is fitting for the country to have such a prime site for the Famine commemoration as the grounds of the UN building. The Toronto commemoration will also be on a prominent site.
Mr. Kenny: I would give the Government some credit for the allocation which led to the national commemorative Famine ship under the shadow of Croagh Patrick at Murrisk, which was a worthwhile endeavour.
The Taoiseach laid a wreath at ground zero in New York prior to St. Patrick’s Day but was there a reason he did not go to Battery Park, to Adrian Flannelly’s house two blocks away, which would have been appropriate with regard to Famine commemoration? I note the planned Famine commemoration is for 27 May, Whit Sunday. Is the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, likely to be on his own at the event or will it be a commemorative date for the ending of Fianna Fáil’s time in power after ten years?
Mr. Rabbitte: What is the Taoiseach saying? Is he indicating he is of a mind to have a commemorative day for the Famine and it might be 27 May? Surely he is not comparing the Famine to other meanderings that he has engaged in. It is quite a separate matter.
What is the event taking place this year, which is not official but has a Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, as a host? Is he paying for it himself or is it coming from State funds? Is this a Fianna Fáil solution to an Irish problem? If this is the way to deal with it the Taoiseach could send Conor Lenihan around to host the other events spoken about by him and nobody would pay any attention. Is this real or is it illusory?
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Does the Taoiseach agree that the best way to commemorate the great hunger visited on the Irish people is by taking the initiative, the leadership role internationally, in addressing the horrors of global famine today? Is the Taoiseach aware that some 16,000 children die every day from hunger-related——
The Taoiseach: I thank Deputy Kenny for his remarks on the commemoration event. With regard to visiting the house, there was no other reason for not doing so other than I had been there a few times before. That was the only reason I did not go and there was no particular link with a commemoration event.
The Taoiseach: The commemoration this year is being arranged for 27 May. The State is not officially associated with it as an official annual event, as is being requested. We are assisting by having an official reception around the commemoration event. I have asked the committee of people involved in the commemoration to consider whether we should have a national day under three criteria.
First, we should have an appropriate time and location for a commemorative event and 27 May has been designated by the people involved. Second, we should look at the nature of the commemoration, which should reflect the terrible loss of life. Third, we should consider the links to the diaspora and the continuing issues of hunger and food security. If we can put together a commemorative day that would embrace all the issues, which we have been asked to do, we could have a national day and I would support it.
I made a point about other commemoration days. The letters I have been receiving from Deputies have been indicating that the Holocaust memorial days, among others, were national days. My point was that none of these days, organised by large national committees, county associations or other powerful committees with many people on them, is a national day. There are committees far greater than the group behind the Famine day. It is a good idea but others represent thousands of people who would like commemoration days, and we cannot accommodate them all.
The Great Famine is of course an enormous issue but it does not take away from the many others. I checked this and approximately 39 different groups have a significant belief they should have a national day. We cannot have that range of days. I will support the Great Famine commemoration day and I have asked officials to draw up the outline of a commemoration. To show our support this year we will provide a reception around the event, which I know is considered helpful to the organisers.
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