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Speeches from the Unveiling Ceremony 25/7/2021

Jane McCulloch, Consul General of Ireland in Scotland

A DHAOINE Uaisle, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you all for your welcome today, and for the kind invitation from Coiste Cuimhneachain An Gorta Mór to join you for the unveiling of this poignant and profound artwork remembering the Irish Famine.

I particularly want to recognise the commitment and dedication to realising this event and the installation of the sculpture, of the committee, led by Jeanette Findlay, as well as the generosity of the wider Irish community in ensuring its funding.  

To John McCarron, with the support of Maurice Harron, I wish to acknowledge the poignancy of your sensitive depiction of the human desolation wrought during, and after, those famine years in the 1840s—the suffering of those who died, those who fled, and those who were left without them.

Collective trauma
More than 170 years ago, the darkness of the famine in Ireland precipitated a collective trauma for the Irish people. For successive generations, it has cast a long shadow on the Irish across the world.   

In 1840, following a century of growth, Ireland was home to 8 million people. In the space of a decade, 1 million would die of hunger and of related diseases. A further 2 million left Ireland, destitute, and with nothing but hope to carry with them.

Astounding as these numbers remain, despite our familiarity with them, they are not simply numbers. They are all harrowing individual tragedies.

The Irish Famine’s toll on human life was significant in its scale, and in its detail. Across the island, in rural and in urban areas, in each province, hunger and disease did not decide between age, gender or creed.

Whether from towns and cities, or rural Ireland, in considering the stories of our families, of our communities, and of our people, we acknowledge that victims of the famine were from every corner of Ireland.

Shared story
And it is our shared story, with all its pain and tragedy, that binds us together as a diverse community of 70 million people around the world today. We must acknowledge, that from the tragic depths of despair and devastation, some positive consequences emerged.

The famine has led to important legacies, two of which define us as a people and as a country.

Just as the more than 100,000 people who arrived from Ireland to the Clyde in the 1840s shared the common suffering wrought by the famine, so too did the 2 million who fled to other parts of Britain, and to other parts of the world. But in each case, they were individuals, with individual stories, and with individual losses.

Those who left Ireland as a result of the famine were the foundation stone of our diaspora. And our diaspora, here in Scotland—in Glasgow and right across the country—as well as throughout the world, is one of individuals too. In all our diversity, we share that collective memory, which binds us.

When we commemorate the famine, we do so inclusively, whether on an all island basis in Ireland, or internationally, considering the broad legacy of emigration, cultural loss and the decline of the Irish language, together with the specific issues of food security and the strong commitment of the Irish people to humanitarian aid and relief. 

Memory informs empathy
Our memory of our great pain informs our empathy to our fellow human beings facing similar threats. As we stand here today, the threat of famine affects 34 million of our fellow global citizens.

It is the memory of the Great Hunger that has inspired generations of Irish women and men to dedicate their lives to improving the lives of others, as missionaries, volunteers, educators, health workers and in international development. Their legacy is part of Ireland’s global influence and reach—combatting poverty and hunger is one of Ireland’s flagship foreign policies.

Irish people see development cooperation as an investment in a better future, as an important projection of our values, and as a statement of solidarity with others who are less fortunate. Irish citizens, through strong support for our Official Development Assistance programme, have been instrumental in helping some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world to find new hope, and to build better lives for themselves and their families.

Through our bilateral partnerships, and our work through the EU, the United Nations and other multilateral organisations, Ireland can direct vital aid to people living in some of the most challenging and insecure environments on the planet. Our Overseas Development Assistance programme is widely regarded as one of the highest quality development programmes in the world.

Through remembrance and reflection, we can reach understanding, and not be bound by the past. And it is the collective understanding of a diaspora of 70 million people, though founded in tragedy, that enriches our shared present, ensuring that Ireland’s legacy of the Famine is one of care, compassion, kindness and solidarity.  

I take my lead from President Michael D Higgins, who, at this year’s National Famine Commemoration ceremony, at Glasnevin Cemetery on May 16, reflected on healing. President Higgins quoted the words of Sinéad O’Connor’s song, Famine:

And if there ever is going to be healing
There has to be remembering
And then grieving
So that there then can be forgiving.
There has to be knowledge and understanding.

May all those who suffered in An Gorta Mór rest in peace.

Jeanette Findlay, Chair, Coiste Cuimhneachain An Gorta Mór

A Aithreacha oirmhinneach, a Ard-Chonsal na hÉireann, a dhaoine uaisle, thar ceann Coiste Cuimhneacháin An Gorta Mór, cuirim fáilte romhaibh go dtí an teach pobail galánta stairiúil seo, ar an ócáid speisialta seo. Gabhaim buíochas le Sagart an Pharóiste, an Canónach Tom White, agus le paróistigh Naomh Muire, as a gcineáltas agus a bhflaithiúlacht, é á chur ar fáil don chuid eile de phobal na hÉireann i nGlaschú.

Monsignor, Reverend Fathers, Consul General of Ireland, Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of Coiste Cuimhneacháin An Gorta Mór, I welcome you here to this beautiful and historic church on this special occasion.   I thank the Parish Priest, Canon Tom White and the parishioners of St Mary’s for their kindness and generosity in making it available to the rest of the Irish community in Glasgow as a site for the magnificent memorial which is about to be unveiled to you.

Today is a very special day;  a very special and long-awaited day; a day when Glasgow joins the 140 cities around the world where our people arrived in great numbers escaping starvation, eviction and oppression.  Why it has taken so long to reach this day is another story; an important story that speaks to us of current realities; but a story for another day.

Today is our day, the day for the children of those impoverished and brutalised people who managed to reach these shores, to finally see that part of their history, that terrible part, acknowledged and remembered in a physical and permanent way.

So, in that sense, while it is a time for reflection on the awful reality of what they endured, it is also a time for celebration that they did endure, they did survive and, in large part, flourished in this city. 

They made that journey, dangerous in those times, in an effort to save themselves and their children and, in so doing, they peopled this city with their descendants – still a minority, but now a confident, vocal and proud minority who have kept alive in whatever way they could, the music, the sport, the language, the history of their native land and their great love for it.  The confident and vibrant multi-generational Irish community of Glasgow is the legacy of their endurance and their bravery and today we remember them and thank them for that.

Who can imagine what it must have been like to leave behind the dead and the dying and with almost no possessions of any kind, begin to walk with their children towards a port in order to sail from a rural existence to a strange and industrial place; a place already scarred with poverty and inequality.  I suppose the only people alive now who can really imagine that are those, in our city, who have arrived more recently to escape, war, hunger and oppression in their own countries.  And that is why, today, as well as thinking of our own people we should think of them.  This memorial should be a reminder to us that we owe it to our own ancestors to be the welcoming community to new arrivals in Glasgow,  that we wish our ancestors had met all those decades ago: and to treat them as we wish our own ancestors had been treated; and as they were treated by the honourable few.    This is a city still scarred by division of many kinds – class being the chief among them- but we should not fall prey to the forces that seek to divide us in their own interest – and when we feel that pressure to look upon other human beings as being less than us, as wanting to take from us, we should look to this memorial and feel the eyes of our ancestors on us and resist that pressure.

This day is a day of remembrance and we remember also all the generations between those terrible years of the Great Hunger and now.  All those who were born, lived and died in this city – who knew where they came from;  who maintained their Irish culture and their sense of themselves as Irish but who did not live to see this great day when their own history was publicly and appropriately marked in the city which became their home. Those of us still here today are lucky in that respect.   I have told this story many times and I hope you will forgive me if I tell it again.  I spoke to an elderly lady on the day of the public consultation to choose the design that would ultimately be built.  She arrived early to the public consultation and I offered to let her have a little peek at the macquettes.  I will never forget her words which made clear the very great emotional need that our community had for this memorial.  She said:  I have waited all my life for this to happen and I can wait another 45 minutes.

She doesn’t have to wait too much longer now to see memorial unveiled and I hope she is here today.   I hope she will be here, with all of you, to see the solid, physical manifestation of our existence as an Irish community in this city and this country.  Our recognition, too long withheld by many parts of society, including government, is encapsulated in this memorial to how we came to be here.  This is, on any view, a huge step forward for us.

I spoke earlier of the vibrant, confident community that we now are, and nowhere was that more evident than in the joyful, united effort of all of you to ensure that this memorial would be built.   From the initial idea, to the design competition, to the community consultation, to the search for a site, to the planning process and, of course, to the fundraising.  You were there, you were there from the start and you are here today (in person, in spirit and online).  The Committee, which was open to all, had people who contributed at the start, those who came in at later stages and those who were there all the way through:  everyone of them was vital to that effort and, on behalf of the whole community, I thank Joe, Paddy, Eddie, Chris, Grace, Marie, Carole, Danny, Tommy, Jonathan, Tommy, Gary, Aislinn and Anthony.  We remember especially, Helen Dunese Stewart, a stalwart of the committee whose tragically early death last year continues to devastate all who knew her and loved her.  I know she is somewhere waiting and sharing our joy in this day.

From the outset we agreed that this was to be a project for the community and by the community and that no individual, no matter how much they contributed financially, would be separated out and identified.  However, it would be difficult not to mention one or two people who contributed in other ways.  If I accidentally miss anyone here, please do not be hurt, what you did will be remembered long after today. 

Paul Cosgrove from the Glasgow School of Art was very important in helping us to set up the design competition which led to the selection of John McCarron’s wonderful statue which you are all shortly to see.  Kevin Smith who wrote our beautiful song which you heard performed here again today.  Kevin Creechan and his staff who printed the booklets which I hope will be a treasured keepsake for  you.  Wullie Brown who designed our website which kept everyone updated on our progress.  Tony Friel and Pat McFadden who made beautiful artworks to aid the fundraising and those who donated items for the last auction.  Zia-Ul Huq of Huq Consulting Ltd who very generously donated his engineering services. And  Maurice Friel, how can we not mention Maurice! And his team who made sure the statue was installed here, safely and on the right spot with many prayers said and not too many curses I hope…..Canon Tom and the Parishioners of St Mary’s who offered us a site when none was to be had anywhere else in the city; and, of course, John McCarron, the sculptor of this work,  whose vision and commitment to this project was unsurpassed.  I thank you and we thank you – you will not be forgotten.

Do gach duine agaibh anseo inniu /agus daoibh go léir – atá ag amharc air ar líne, /gabhaim buíochas libh go léir, seo bhur lá, seo bhur gcathair agus seo bhur gcuimhneachán.  

Bhí mana againn ón tús, agus is é sin, “Tá muid á Thógáil”: Thig linn a rá , go bródúil anois,  go bhfuil sé tógtha againn!

For all of you here today and all of you watching online, I thank you all, this is your day, this is your city and this is your memorial.  We had a slogan at the outset which was We are Building it:  We can now proudly say We have built it!

Go raibh mile maith agaibh

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