National Famine Commemoration - Dr Tom McGrath, Local Historian, speech from the state event at the Famine Warhouse 1848

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Dr Tom McGrath

Dr Tom McGrath addresses the crowd

Dr Tom McGrath's speech from the National Famine Commemoration state event which was held at the Famine Warhouse 1848 on Saturday 30th September.

The formal State ceremony included military honours and a wreath laying ceremony by Ambassadors to Ireland in remembrance of all those who suffered or perished during the Famine. These wreaths have since been placed in Ballingarry parish graveyards and in graveyards in surrounding parishes where famine dead lie.

"A thaoisigh agus a dhaoine uaisle. This house, Famine Warhouse 1848, is part of Irish and European history. In the middle of the Great Famine, the Young Ireland Rising took place here in 1848. That event was a reaction to the Famine and was inspired by Europe’s Year of Revolutions. In 1848 there were revolutions in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest.

The Young Ireland movement was initiated by Thomas Davis. The Young Irelanders were a group of interdenominational cultural nationalists who sought Irish self-government. They published The Nation newspaper which was founded by Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon. They were exasperated by the British government’s management of the famine and heartened by the revolutions across Europe. In the last week of July 1848, after the suspension by the State of the Habeas Corpus Act which meant that citizens could be imprisoned without trial, the Young Irelanders under the leadership of William Smith O’Brien, M.P., raised the standard of revolt. Police and military forces were ordered to capture O’Brien and other leaders. O’Brien was an O’Brien of Thomond born in Dromoland Castle and a descendant of the O’Brien High Kings of Ireland. He was M.P. for County Limerick and the leading critic of the famine policy of the government in the House of Commons in London.

What happened here? On the morning of 29 July 1848, O’Brien was with his supporters in the nearby village of The Commons. The Callan police were the first to arrive into Ballingarry and seeing barricades ahead of them in The Commons they veered up the road by which you have arrived here. Spotting this newly built house on the hill, not then surrounded by trees, they decided to take it. Forty-seven heavily armed policemen seized the house and took as hostages five Mc Cormack children who were sitting around the fireplace in the kitchen (the right front window). The rebels, men and women, pursued the police from The Commons and they surrounded the house. It was raining heavily.

Europe’s year of revolutions had been relatively bloodless and O’Brien hoped he could affect a similar result in Ireland. O’Brien himself a landlord wished to unite landlord and tenant in protest against the famine and British rule and to carry out a bloodless revolution. With a million people dying in Ireland and another million fleeing the country O’Brien felt that an act of protest was called for – it could not be more than that because the people were debilitated, not least here in Ballingarry, by successive years of famine and they were in no position to carry out a full scale rising which would certainly have been defeated with heavy loss of life – so what O’Brien was trying to do could be no more than a moral protest in the face of the greatest social catastrophe of nineteenth century Europe.

O’Brien actually shook hands with the police through the parlour window (the front left window) telling them that if they gave up their guns they were free to go. O’Brien did not want blood to be spilt. He wished to negotiate the safe withdrawal of the police. However, the police opened fire and from the upstairs windows killed Thomas Walsh and Patrick Mc Bride and wounded others. The rebels crouched beneath these walls. They were out-matched. One policeman, Head Constable George Frederick Mc Donough looked out from the upper left window and saw women collecting stones in their aprons to bring to the men beneath the walls. Once the police opened fire the limits of moral force were reached. And O’Brien’s inoffensive Rising was at an end.

The British press ridiculed and sneered at the failure of O’Brien’s ‘bloodless revolution’. No State forces had been killed or injured. Nonetheless, there was a State trial for High Treason held in Clonmel before leading judges with the Attorney General prosecuting. O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Terence Bellew Mac Manus and Patrick O’Donohoe were sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. After a special act of parliament, the sentences were commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land. Subsequently the Young Irelanders who escaped to America from Van Diemen’s Land would lead the Irish diaspora, the famine Irish, in the United States.

Across Europe all the revolutions of 1848 had failed by 1849 but what they stood for lived on - ideas of national self-determination, representative government and liberal democracy. James Stephens, John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny who were in Ballingarry in 1848 were the founders of the IRB which was responsible for the Risings of 1867 and 1916. The ideology of The Nation and the extensive literary legacy of the Young Irelanders had a huge influence on the Irish-Ireland movement and on people such as Arthur Griffith, Padraig Pearse and the 1916 generation.

Like the tricolour flags of Germany, Hungary, and Romania, the Irish national flag is a flag of the 1848 Revolutions. It was brought back to Ireland from Paris by Thomas Francis Meagher and tradition states that it was flown in the village of the Commons during the Rising. It flew over the GPO in the 1916 Rising.

Famine Warhouse 1848 is now a heritage museum. It is part of the national patrimony as state property under the OPW, and a national monument and an education and visitor attraction midway here between the Rock of Cashel and Kilkenny city.

Go raibh maith agaibh."

Dr Thomas McGrath, Historian.