|A report in the newspaper ‘The Nation’ describes the scene at the Port of Drogheda and the plight of the Ballina family in particular.
“The number of mendicants in the streets is daily increasing, and very many of these are poor creatures from the western counties, endeavouring to make their way to England, On Thursday evening a family consisting of a man and his wife and two children, arrived here from the neighbourhood on Ballina, county Mayo. They had been three weeks on the road, and had but 7 ˝ day starting: when this was expended, they begged their way onwards, stopping from time to time for a few days to recruit in some degree their exhausted strength. On arriving here they discovered that the man’s brother who had come on before them had tired waiting for them and departed for England. The wretched family had no means of going further, and in passing down Shop Street, the woman fell exhausted by her sufferings – the child she carried in her arms evidently dying – a second carried by her husband presented an appalling picture of the ravages of famine, whilst the man himself seemed hardly alive. The mother and child lay prostrate on the side of the street, a crowd gathered around, and a small collection was made to preserve their lives. A lodging was procured, and nourishment provided for them. On yesterday the children died. The parents are, however, recovering, this is but one of the almost innumerable cases of destruction witnessed amongst the crowds daily arriving here from the west.”
This description matches the harrowing scenes which we still see on a regular basis of famine in Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, Haiti and so many other places around the world. And the response which it generates in our hearts this morning is that of generosity in our exceptional support for agencies such as Trocaire, Gorta, Bothair, Concern and Goal. Last year alone, the diocese of Killala contributed over €125,000 to the funds of Trocaire. The key to this generosity lies, I believe, in our DNA, as the shadow of the terrible plight of our ancestors in the past comes back to inspire us to respond to those who now suffer what our people suffered in centuries past.
One hundred and sixty five years may seem an eternity to us today. It comes much closer when we are reminded of the fact that this Ballina family came to Mass in this very building. The parents were probably married here and the children baptised within these walls. The Moy flowed in the same direction and they glimpsed its waters as they turned their backs on the grinding poverty in which they lived. The Ox Mountains presented them with the first of many obstacles as they trod their weary way to the Port of Drogheda and a hoped for better life. Nephin looked the same then as it does now and as it did on the day the families left Lahardane, en route to Castlebar, Cobh and the Titanic. Like many of the emigrants on the Titanic, the children of the Ballina Famine family never saw the distant shore and the fate of their parents lies unrecorded.
Silence was the experience of this community in the aftermath of the Famine, just as silence was the experience of those associated with the Titanic; the silence of the three survivors who never wished to talk of that dreadful night again; the silence of the families of the dead for whom the memory of that night was too painful to recall until relatively recent times. Silence too has engulfed the memory of the family whose experience, in particular, will be commemorated in this year’s National Famine Commemoration.
Silence has been a common thread running through the Irish experience of emigration. I have met many descendants of Irish emigrants who know little if anything of their roots and their Irish past. Why? Because their parents or grandparents found it too painful to talk of those whom they had left behind and whom they never saw again. Equally, in Irish families, I have met some people who only discovered in later life that they had an older aunt or uncle, grandaunt or granduncle. Why? For the same reason; the memory of the one who went was so dear to them that they simply could not talk about them. The fact that this family from Ballina are still unnamed, underlines the silence which surrounded emigration right throughout our history.
Life’s hard knocks are very often carried in silence and silence still surrounds the experience of many people in our country who, today, are marked by their own personal tragedies which are lived out in private grief. The fracture of migration and emigration is but one of the many fractures experienced in our world. The other fractures, which seem to occur almost everyday, include the tragic, violent deaths of our young in midnight outbursts of uncontrolled anger, which erupt in a flash and end in a flash, with a life taken and families and communities thrown into unspeakable grief; the devastation suffered by the families of some one whose private pain is so great that they take their life into their own hands; the breakdown in the relationship of trust between peoples and the institutions of both Church and State, the illness and death of a partner in marriage or a family member; the list is endless. Once more, the fracture occurs, the sadness engulfs and the silent grief penetrates.
The 2012 National Famine Commemoration allows us, once more, to mark the tragedies which are part and parcel of the human experience, as well as the Irish experience, no matter in what age, under what economic circumstances and no matter how developed our technology or our economy might be. It allows us to name and break the silence and to mark the tragedy.
Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ focused our minds on life and tragedy through the tragedy of his life and through his Cross pointed us in the direction of faith. Human tragedy, no matter how difficult it is to explain its why or carry its burden, must always be set in the Christian context of the Resurrection. This valley of tears, in which we live, despite all the modern advances in science and technology, is as enduring an aspect of all our lives as are the Ceide Fields or the Cliffs of Moher. In 1847 two children, born in this area, died in tragic circumstances, their parents experienced it too but our Christian belief tells us that having suffered they now enjoy the peace of God in a distant shore beyond the Port of Drogheda and beyond all human expectation.