Can the Irish Famine experience help other nations that are suffering similar tragedies?
I see and hear all the recent publicity surrounding the famine and wonder to myself, what’s this all about? Granted I’m not a history buff, but I mean it happened well over 150 years ago. Same with the Titanic. It sank, lets move on with our lives. Why all the hype? I just didn’t get it (past tense!).
I understand that it’s important to keep a historical account of things past, particularly important defining moments in our history. But why all the memorials, museums and monuments (and don’t get me started on awards!). I can see that it’s important to memorialize wars lest we forget, and to learn from the past so that we don’t repeat its atrocities. But it’s not like we’re going to have another potato blight that will force us all to emigrate in droves to the U.S. (an economic blight, yes!). And I suppose we could have another Titanic but do we really need a major Titanic Belfast project and building in Belfast to remind us? I’m sure the word Titanic itself will suffice to remind ship builders to provide enough lifeboats in future, and never ever again claim another ship to be unsinkable. And after all, the ship sank on its maiden voyage, hardly conducive to inspiring confidence in Belfast’s efforts to brand itself as a center of excellence, innovation and reliability (aside, I think it’s a great project…I’m just winding up some people reading this).
Incidentally, my uncle from Mayo bought a boat some years back, and it too sank on its maiden voyage, or more accurately, on its maiden float, as it sank the minute it was put in the water. And he bought it from a priest, probably thinking how could he go wrong…divine power and all that….as it turned out it was more like ‘divining’ power as it found and took on a lot of water very quickly 😀
But maybe there was divine power at work? After a year of repairs, he and my other uncle subsequently decided to sail it from Mayo to Cork, unbeknown to them via Iceland – after all, as we Irish know, who needs GPS when you have a divine boat. After a few days lost in the Atlantic on their knees praying to everyone they know in the afterlife, they finally made it back to the Irish shore, not sure where, but not very far from whence they left….I’m sure there’s a moral (or four) in there somewhere, but I digress…
Where was I…oh yes, I was getting to asking why we need to be reminded of these tragedies outside the reference of history books, by way of monuments, tribunals, museums etc? Are all these really necessary? I understand the utmost importance of memorializing recent events such as 9/11, but how far back should we go….the viking invasions! Further back?
It’s enough that we have to depart Shannon Airport and, as we’re walking through the emigration line, see artwork depicting
poor weary barefoot Irish leaving during the famine. Do we really need to be reminded of such a sad moment in our history as we’re sadly bidding farewell to family and friends on our journey to a new land. How about instead a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the logo ‘The American Dream’ painted all over it, or even a picture of the Donald (Trump), or something forward looking to calm the nerves aside from a Jameson. Maybe we as a nation need the reminder of tragedy in our lives, maybe that’s what defines or even motivates us?
I realize there are a lot of question marks in the preceding paragraphs, so the overriding question is how do I make sense of all this.
Well I was fortunate in that someone else made sense of it all for me by relating it to another tragic event, not a historical one, but a current one. I’m referring to the organ harvesting occurring in China. Our tragedy was a harvest we could not reap, theirs is a harvest that should not be reaped. I was told the following:
The Irish, as a people, have had their share of suffering from famine, civil
war, and occupation; resulting in a respect for others who suffer unjustly.
Since we have had our share of unjust suffering, we can deeply understand
and have the heart to protest against the unjust suffering of fellow human
The killing of thousands of innocent people for their organs is occurring in
China on a daily basis, and has been, for over a decade.
Over 10,000 organ transplantation surgeries are performed in China every
year and for each person executed, the amount of money that can be made from
their organs is up to $300,000.
The main source of organs (over 90%), used for organ transplantation in
China, is from executed prisoners.
Unfortunately, the people executed in China are often prisoners of
conscience, including spiritual and religious believers such as Falun Gong
practitioners and Tibetan Buddhists, as well as human rights activists.
A light bulb went off in my head (shouldn’t that be went on in my head?). I finally realized where the famine fits in to our collective consciousness today. In my mind it is no longer just about remembering and memorializing a tragic time in our history, but more about stimulating us to empathize with current tragic and horrendous events happening all around us. This way our memorials, museums and monuments have an even greater purpose, and are more an active remembrance of today’s tragedies than a passive remembrance of past ones.
On Quinnipiac University’s ‘Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum’ website, it states that “The museum will preserve, build, and present its art collection in order to stimulate reflection, inspire imagination and advance awareness of the Famine and its long afterlife in Ireland’s cultural memory.”
Certainly a worthy cause and statement that would seem to want to include awareness of the horrific suffering in China and elsewhere “inspire imagination and advance awareness of the Famine”, and maybe over time can be added to this statement a pragmatic element something to the effect of “and use it to stimulate us to empathize with other nations suffering similar tragedies today, and help them find solutions based on our experience and knowledge”. I realize that organ harvesting is a different kind of tragedy, but it is nevertheless a tragedy causing unjust suffering.
So lets not view the famine in an insular way (not that we are) that only applies to us Irish, but rather understand it in an outward-focused way that recognizes and brings awareness to the suffering other nations are experiencing, and use it to teach other nations the lessons we have learned from it as it applies to their situation. Perhaps organizations and initiatives including Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum and the Irish Famine Tribunal could in time find ways to more definitively include this perspective in their presentations, just like the lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process are communicated to other nations by politicians, policy makers, academics etc. in an attempt to bring peace to areas under similar conflict.