Mary Robinson

International Conference on Hunger Keynote Address - May 20, 1995

Mary Robinson
May 20, 1995— New York City
International Conference on Hunger
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This is a conference which brings an impressive gathering of expertise to a vital topic. I can already see from the great interest of today's discussions how much discipline it takes to make sure the expertise does not overwhelm the topic. And even more to remain focused on what matters. And so I feel I should begin as this conference intends to continue, and get straight to the point.

Although the agenda of this conference is very diverse, nevertheless simply by its existence and by your presence here you will, inescapably, have to address a single issue. It is the issue which underlies all contemporary discussions of famine, hunger and poverty. And it is the growing gap - not simply between rich and poor - but between the idea of hunger and the fact of it.

Let me give you, right away, an example of the fact of hunger and its companion circumstance which is poverty. And let me put that against the idea of it. In 1993, we are informed, more than twelve million children under the age of five died in the developing world. This in itself is a terrible fact. What is almost as terrible is that that figure could, according to the World Health Organization report, have been cut to 350,000 - almost one thirty-fourth - if those children had the same access to health care and nutrition as the modern Irish child does. Now how did the idea of hunger so fail the fact of it, that a vast waste of human life occurred in the midst of our knowledge, our understanding and our resources and yet was not prevented?

Hunger and poverty need to become realities. They became a reality to me when in Somalia I sat beside women whose children were dying - children whose mothers were dying. As a mother I felt the sheer horror of that. But as the Head of State of a country which was once devastated by famine I also felt the terrible and helpless irony that this could actually be happening again. And quite frankly I felt then, and I have never lost, a profound sense of anger and outrage and, indeed, self-accusation that we are all participants in that re-enactment.

And yet having begun like this, I want to make clear that I believe that ideas about hunger and poverty in themselves are both valuable and essential. It is only our capacity to relate the ideas to the reality that is in question. I am particularly aware of their value because this year has seen the start of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Irish famine. In this commemoration we are fortunate to see a real treasure of retrospect, from books of scholarship to school children's drawings, to a renewed interest in folklore, to the establishment of the famine museum at Strokestown, which allows us to look back at an event which more than any other shaped us as a people. It defined our will to survive. It defined our sense of human vulnerability. It remains one of the strongest, most poignant links of memory and feeling that connects us to our diaspora. It involves us still in an act of remembrance which, increasingly, is neither tribal nor narrow.

In fact, I think it marks our maturity as a people that our remembrance is becoming an act of self-awareness. It marks our maturity as a people and as a nation that we are able to break the silence on the disaster that overcame us in ways which are both rigorous and challenging. That silence is being broken in this commemoration by scholars and writers, with concerns about both Ireland and the diaspora. And for that reason we have a unique chance to look at the connection of the two. At home the Government is supporting a major historical research project which will study the workhouses where so many died. Historians undertaking this Project recognize that it is important, indeed imperative, that we the survivors, and future generations, should know about those who had no one to speak for them at the time of their greatest need and suffering. The story of the silent people should be heard. But the story is not confined just to Ireland. I think particularly of Charles Fanning's fine book, The Exiles of Erin which painstakingly lays before its readers the stories of those who escaped from famine and came to the United States and began to make a new present, which has now become a shared past.

And yet that past still contains questions and secrets and puzzles which we need to decipher. When we decipher them we will have gone some way to closing that gap between fact and idea. At the conclusion of a book which I have read with enormous interest, written by the main organizer here - The End of Hidden Ireland by Robert Scally - there is a striking and moving sentence. Describing the emigrants who set out on the desolate journey from Ireland to America he writes: "Peering from the stern rather than the bow of the emigrant ship, that backward glance at the incongruous palms and gaily painted houses along the shore near Skibbereen was not only their last sight of Ireland but the first sight of themselves".

It is the backward glance leading to self-knowledge which in this sentence is so striking. Let me take it here as the pointer to a further question. What if those helpless and defenseless emigrants, who stared out at the shore of Skibbereen, had not been able to take those ships? Terrible as those ships were they were vehicles of an economic migration which, for those fortunate enough to survive the rigours of a voyage that claimed countless thousands of lives, provided escape from something still more terrible. And with the people who escaped went the story. A story of devastation, yes. But also of survival and courage and endurance. A story which lives in this city of New York and in many cities of America shaped by those emigrants. And which also helped those who remained behind to break that silence which so often follows historic defeat and pain.

I should say here that last October in this city in the undercroft of St. Paul the Apostle Church I had the chance, in a very enriching way, to hear another chapter of that story. On that occasion, under the auspices of the New York Irish History Roundtable, I shared a symbolic famine meal and listened to a very detailed account by the historian, John Ridge, of the Irish coming to New York. For me it was a new chapter of a story I never get tired of. It is, for all of us in Ireland, not just history, but family history.

I believe the details of the story are of crucial importance. Poverty, as I have said, is the companion of hunger. But so is silence. Breaking that silence allows us to see the past, not only in its suffering, but in its complexity. And allows us to ask such questions as that one I just posed about the coffin ships. Let me return to it again and now in an international, as well as a national, context. Ironically the economic migration on which the Irish embarked in their hundreds of thousands, was not only a painful necessity, it represented a vital freedom, a second chance of survival. But would a people today, enduring the devastation of famine, and needing exactly that refuge from it, to the same places, under the same circumstances, be able to avail of it? The answer must be no. The door which was open for the Irish, through which they entered into the cities and circumstances of a new life - and I am not minimizing the hardship of that entry - is now closed.

It is closed, I should say, in the West. It is closed in the very places which have the resources to make the entry through that door sustaining. But in much poorer places - where the cost of opening those doors is huge - they stand open. Why is it that the neighbours who are themselves hard-pressed, who have so little to give, give it more freely than those who have more and will not part with it? Is it simply that they retain that empathy that comes from recent experience? And, if so, we need to ask what it is that makes us lose that human empathy?

The fact is that a number of relatively poor countries of Africa have opened their borders to a large number of refugees. On a recent visit to Tanzania I went to the camps in Ngara where almost 800,000 men and women and children had taken refuge from the situation in Rwanda. And in Zaire I visited the camps where there are well over a million refugees. These acts of generosity, where desperate people are received by people who are scarcely less desperate, have occurred, as I have said, at enormous cost. To sustain the refugees in the most basic elements of survival such as cooking, shelter, heating, trees have been cut down, the landscape degraded, and local populations put under enormous pressure.

And yet for all the pressure, for all the poverty of the camps, their very existence denotes an act of neighbourly generosity which is simply not present elsewhere. Yet we in Ireland should understand the importance of that generosity. We have both given and received it. And the famine commemoration is rich in the symbolism of both. Earlier this month in Louisburgh, County Mayo, one of the participants in an annual commemorative famine walk was a member of the Native American Choctaw tribe, Gary White Deer. His presence there reminded me, and it is something none of us should forget, that this tribe - rich in its own history, its culture, its past - was able to look beyond them to the suffering of another people, with whom it had no obvious links. In April 1847 this tribe raised a collection and sent over the sum of $170 - a huge sum in the context of their own hardship - for the relief of the Irish famine victims.

I say no obvious links. And yet the Choctaw were able to perceive the real link between a Native American tribe and the inhabitants of a small island thousands of miles away. No more and no less than a shared humanity.

Before he went on that famine walk Gary White Deer came to see me in Dublin. He described his sense of the symbolism for the Choctaw people as 'completing a circle", which reminded me that we also as Irish people during this commemoration are completing a circle. We are revisiting our past. And how we do so is of crucial importance to our self-awareness, both past and present. It is appropriate that the famine walk in Mayo also serves the practical purpose of raising funds for Third World agencies.

We need to reflect carefully on the purpose of commemorating an event such as the famine. The terrible realities of our past hunger present themselves to us as nightmare images. The bailiff. The famine wall. The eviction. The workhouse. And yet how willing are we to negotiate those past images into the facts of present-day hunger?. How ready are we to realize that what happened to us may have shaped our national identity, but is not an experience confined to us as a people? How ready are we to see that the bailiff and the workhouse and the coffin ship have equally terrible equivalents in other countries for other peoples at this very moment?

For every lesson our children learn about the Famine Relief of 1847 they should learn an equal one about the debt burden of 1995. For every piece of economic knowledge they gain about the crops exported from Ireland during the famine years, let them come to understand the harsh realities of today's markets, which reinforce the poverty and helplessness of those who already experience hunger. As they learn with pride how we as a people clung to education, the folklore of the hedge schools, how we held on to poetry and story-telling in the midst of dire poverty, let them become acquainted with the declining literacy rates of the most vulnerable countries in our modern world. Let them learn, too, from the influence the famine has had on contemporary Irish poets. When Eavan Boland reflects sadly on the limitation of the science of cartography because the famine road does not show up, or Seamus Heaney writes:

"and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore"
they are drawing inspiration from that dark moment of our past.

They remind us that famine in our contemporary world also silences the culture of peoples who are portrayed to us all too often as mere statistics. That portrayal makes it easier for us to distance ourselves, to switch off.

I began by noting the gap between the idea of hunger and the reality of it. I recognize the difficulty of finding a language to close that gap. But if we are to account for the sheer horror of the disparity between twelve million children who died in one year and the few hundred thousand it could have been if the world's resources were better distributed, then we will need to send young people into the world who have been prepared, through the challenges of education on this topic, to close that gap between the idea of hunger and the fact of it. We need to help them to face the future with the understanding that famine is not something which can be understood only through history. It must be understood with every fiber of our moral being.

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