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Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly leads 1848 Famine Walk

Gathered for Ballingarry Walk 2017At the Commons:

Good afternoon to all gathered here – To Dr. McGrath and the Committee for the invitation to be present to participate in this year’s famine walk.

It is a commemoration of an enormous historic catastrophe – An Górta Mór 1845 – 1850.

One million dead, over half a million evicted and over one million who fled from Ireland.

The statistics of that great catastrophe, even after over 160 years, are sobering when read aloud.

Cardinal Tomás Ó’Fiaich who unveiled this monument was my Professor of History in Maynooth, it is a great honour to be here. I believe I heard the first reference to Ballingarry from his history lectures in Irish history.

We walk with one thing in mind to arrive at our destination it is not far and quite safe – a pleasant day with pleasant company. But with the memory of those who travelled similar roads around Ireland during the famine years and whose graves are along the “long acre”.

However, ours is not just a memory of the past. Ours is a journey of solidarity with those who at this moment are on the road – travelling seeking food and shelter, safety and security for family and friends, fleeing from war and strife.

Our journey is not meant to be undertaken in sadness but rather in awareness of a world beyond our own. A world where many – especially the young and the elderly suffer greatly – this thought is sobering and thought provoking as we travel the short distance to the Warhouse.

My thanks to the Moycarkey pipers who will lead the march from the Commons

BALLINGARRY July 29th 2017

It is a privilege to be part of today’s celebrations when we commemorate here in this beautiful landscape the dark years of the Great Famine 1845-1850. We recall the efforts made by William Smith O’Brien MP and his friends to stage a moral force revolution here in Ballingarry, in 1848.

In the mid-19th century distances between places were very significant but in our time distance is of little consequence as those who wish to travel anywhere in our world may do so. For that reason, human mobility is now a normal part of life – no longer to see the “other side of the hill” but truly now to travel to the farthest parts of the earth.

Today, as we recall the famine that scarred our land and our national identity up to the present, we also look beyond our own tragedy to where, in our world right now, human beings are faced with disastrous famine situations and the inevitable consequences – displacement of peoples whether internally or externally in a particular country, movement of peoples, refugees on the road seeking safety, shelter and food.

When we gather on such a beautiful day and in such a beautiful location it is difficult to bring to our mind’s eye the tragedy that is unfolding elsewhere in our world at this time.

Current Refugee Crisis

In speaking about the current refugee crisis in the world and, in particular in Europe, I would like to highlight two aspects of this situation around famine and civil unrest – East Africa food situation and the crisis in Burundi

What are the root causes of our current refugee crisis, there are four main reasons:

Famine-Hunger. 2. War and social upheaval. 3. Economic crises of many different types. 4. Persecution under different headings

To varying and different degrees these elements are present in all great movements of peoples in our time.

When Dr. McGrath asked me to speak here today I already knew that at this very time the famine in East Africa would be making headline news and indeed, sadly, that is the case.

Many will recall that last Sunday, Trócaire with the support of the Irish Bishops Conference took up a collection to alleviate the suffering due to this crisis, my thanks to those who supported the appeal.

East Africa Hunger Crisis

“Over 24 million people are facing malnutrition and the threat of famine across South Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia due to prolonged drought. Trócaire is currently reaching over 150,000 people across the East Africa region with emergency food, water, sanitation and healthcare.” Trócaire

Governments in the region are responding but they are overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. They have appealed for international aid to support their efforts. Trócaire is providing life-saving aid across Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. In Somalia alone Trócaire health centres are treating 19,000 people each month for malnutrition and associated illnesses.

Across the region Trócaire and the National Caritas organisations are providing food and water to hundreds of thousands of people.

Famine, whenever it occurs, is a tragedy for society and for the weakest in that society. You will find on the Trócaire web site accounts of where communities are left without their men folk as they journey to find suitable pasture land for cattle. And so, leaving children and the elderly vulnerable and without support at a critical moment. Famine creates movements of people and very often this is a life changing reality for thousands.

Secondly, a further situation that gives rise to large numbers of refugees is that of civil strife and instability as is the case right now in Burundi.

Over the last year and a half, some 300,000 Burundians have fled their homeland to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

So far, this unfolding refugee crisis and the escalating political situation in Burundi have received little attention in the mainstream media.

Violent clashes between protestors and police began in Burundi in April 2015 when incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intension to run for a third term – a move deemed unconstitutional by his opponents.

Nkurunziza stood for presidency again and was re-elected in July 2015, despite opposition parties boycotting the election and the African Union and United States asking him to stand aside. Approximately 450 people have been killed in Burundi as a result of the political unrest.

A report of the United Nations Independent Investigation in Burundi (UNIIB) published last month, describes “abundant evidence of gross human rights violations,” possibly amounting to crimes against humanity, by the Government of Burundi and people associated with it. In response, Burundi’s government barred UN investigators from the country and this week, it made history by becoming the first government to vote to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In their report, the UN investigators also warned of the danger of genocide from the escalating violence. It is only ten years since the end of the Burundian Civil War (1993 to 2006) between the Hutu and Tutsi populations, in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is warning that neighbouring countries Tanzania, Rwanda, the DRC, Uganda and Zambia are struggling to host the 300,000 Burundians who have fled the violence.

UNHCR spokesman William Spindler stated that “the reception capacities of these host countries are severely overstretched and conditions remain dire for many refugees, most of whom are women and children.”

Giving hope to the displaced

At a time when a record number of people around the world are displaced by violence, the international community needs to stand behind international law to ensure safety for people who have been forced to flee as a result of famine or civil unrest.

UNHCR reports more than 81,000 Burundian refugees now live in Rwanda, with children making up half of the refugees there, many of whom are unaccompanied.

About 50,000 of these people are living in the Mahama refugee camp which lies on the Tanzanian border and was set up to provide emergency shelter, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), health facilities and lifesaving assistance.

New refugees continue to arrive into Mahama camp every day and the deteriorating situation in Burundi means that Burundian refugees do not want to return home.

With support from Irish Aid, Trócaire is funding a project at Mahama camp to support pregnant and nursing mothers, people with disabilities and single mothers to meet their essential needs. This includes providing technical support to our partners Caritas Rwanda to ensure the response is carried out in a safe and dignified manner.

UNHCR is urging the international community to step up efforts to resolve the political unrest in Burundi, and to increase aid contributions to those affected.

As the numbers seeking refuge increase, so must expand our aid efforts. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated recently in the aftermath of President Trump’s Executive Order, “We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope.”


As a consequence of famine, war, and social unrest refugees are on the move in our world in extraordinary numbers. We remember what happened in Ireland during and after the famine – a great movement out of necessity, what other choice do parents have? You move with your family and your tribe to safety to a different place and that is, at its simplest, what happened here in Ireland as a consequence of famine.

Which leads us to the Refugee reality of our European World, not very far away!

I will soon visit the coast of the south of Spain for a short break, perhaps like many people here, for a few days. There early in the morning I can gaze across the Mediterranean towards North Africa and looking a little to the west – although I cannot see the land there are two Spanish enclaves in North Africa – Cueta and Melilla, both lie within the territory of Morocco. I know that there are thousands from sub-Saharan Africa waiting for an opportunity to reach Europe. That is one of the closest points of North Africa to Europe. A crossing point of hope for so many.

Now if we were to send a drone along the coast of North Africa many more thousands of people would be observed waiting for the opportunity to cross. That is the story in many locations along the coast. A situation that is not going to change in the near future.

We read continually of the numbers coming across from Libya and the numbers are high. The most recent development is that Italy is now feeling isolated without little support from her European partners and left with an enormous burden. Ireland, through the presence of our Navy has rendered considerable help to many thousands who attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. However, the question must be asked should we be doing more for those whom we rescue?

A recent report from the UNHCR indicated that 88% of migrants arriving in Italy started their Mediterranean journey in Libya, on Africa’s north coast. So far this year Italy has taken in more than 85,000 migrants coming by boat from North Africa.

Soon after his election, Pope Francis on his first visit outside of Rome, went to the little island of Lampedusa, in July 2013, following reports of many deaths through drowning, of those attempting to cross from Libya.

And there in his homily he asked some pointed questions that are still valid today:

“Adam, where are you?” This is the first question which God asks man after his sin. “Adam, where are you?” Adam lost his bearings, his place in creation, because he thought he could be powerful, able to control everything, to be God. Harmony was lost; man erred and this error occurs over and over again also in relationships with others. “The other” is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and my comfort.

God asks a second question: “Cain, where is your brother?” The illusion of being powerful, of being as great as God, even of being God himself, leads to a whole series of errors, a chain of death, even to the spilling of a brother’s blood!

God’s two questions echo even today, as forcefully as ever! How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another! And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed.”

Pope Francis has taken a special interest in the area of Migrants and Refugees. He has established a new Congregation in Rome to oversee the situation: “The Dicastry for Promoting Integral Human Development”: he himself is head of that Department.

Today, there are more migrants more refugees and more human migration than at any time in history. (78 million refugees and 245 million migrants around the world with the likely hood that this number will continue to grow)

What is going to Happen, What of the Future?

  1. Climate change is a reality and not some kind of fiction. Droughts, flooding etc. with all the consequences for peoples who live in vulnerable locations. These natural climate situations are predicted to be a definite part of future climate realities.
  2. Sub-Saharan Africa has never been treated correctly or fairly by its original colonial masters or its new colonial masters – the old powers plus the great multi nationals, who are still exploiting its wealth, in particular mineral wealth. It is children like the children here present with us who are mining this this metal. We in Europe need to have a far wider understanding of the consequences of decisions that we make often for very good motives. But, the picture is far wider!
  3. “After three decades, Mobutu fell. But the policy of colluding with Congo’s elite to strip ordinary citizens of their birth right has gone on unabated. The West has poured in billions in peacekeeping and aid. But foreign mining companies have extracted billions more in gold, diamonds, coltan, copper and cobalt.” David Pilling
  4. There is a strange irony where we in Europe commit ourselves to having electric cars by 2040. Yet the important ingredient of cobalt which is a critical element in Lithium-ion batteries necessary for such vehicles is mined particularly in the Dem. Republic of the Congo – 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Dem. Rep. of the Congo(size of Europe). The best intended aims of driving an electric car can mask a terrible reality within a mining area – poverty, exploitation and oppression.

Where do we go from Here?

I quote Oliviero Forti Director of Caritas Italia

Europe’s approach to migration is not working.

“Europe must stop wasting money. Paying to strengthen borders only makes security companies and criminal traffickers richer. It would be cheaper and wiser to invest in efficient integration policies and to set up teams of civil servants that would boost asylum application processes in member states facing large numbers of arrivals.”

“The European dream is based on solidarity and respect of human dignity, Europe can show strong global leadership and contribute to a fairer and more humane world by investing in a modern and dynamic welcoming Europe” Caritas Europe

That is a challenge that we must continue to strive to live up to.

Africa, as you know is a particular interest of mine, so we may ask: What about Africa?

Just a quick glimpse at some statistics about population realities will guide us to a continent that will have a growing population over the coming years and with that growth increased likelihood of people wishing to move to Europe.

I take one country which I know and where I have lived – Nigeria.

Nigeria in 1960, at independence, had a population in the region of 45.14 million people, at the end of 2016 official figures put the population at 185.95 million. I first landed in Nigeria in 1978 and the population then was 60 million approx. when I went to live there in 1984 it was 80 million.

I simply present these statistics as an indication of the reality of one country and there are over 45 countries in sub-Saharan Africa with growing populations. That is the future, Europe must engage more realistically with these facts. Right now only temporary solutions are being applied.

What can we do:

Inform ourselves
Follow with interest what is happening in the wider world but also here in Ireland.
Engage with the groups who are working for Human Rights and support real efforts to help those in need. Trocaire /Medicins Sans Frontiers/Concern/Gorta Self Help Africa Ireland and many different humanitarian groups helping in the present crisis.

Solidarity among peoples is key to our ability to build a world of justice and peace. I would like to finish with the words of Saint Pope John Paul II

“Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly, SMA