Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A dream of eliminating famine

If you haven't ever visited Strokestown Park in Co Roscommon, make the time when you next drive that way.

It's an 18th century Palladian mansion surrounded by 300 acres of parkland and traditional gardens. But Strokestown is also the memorial heart of one of the blackest periods of Irish history, the Great Famine. And thanks to the passion of one man, Jim Callery, that history is brought to life at Strokestown.

The plantation itself was described as one of the best examples of how a big estate should be run, back in the 1700s. But when the Famine began it became a classic example of how Irish tenant farmers found themselves at the starvation end of existence.

Much of our knowledge of the period is coming from the study of some 40,000 papers found in Strokestown House by Jim Callery after he bought it from the Packenham-Mahon family. Now being restored and curated at Maynooth, the small proportion so far available reveals extraordinary details of the lives inside and outside the house, and how they interacted, or didn't, to deal with the catastrophe.

That's partly why the National Famine Museum was located in a stable yard of the house by the Westward Group founded by Jim Callery, who have also been restoring the house and its gardens and parklands to what it once was.

Soup kitchen pots designed especially for famine relief work in Ireland of the mid-1800s.

It isn't just a repositary for the memory of the Great Famine in Ireland, it has the potential to provide a focus from which solutions to modern famines across the world might be developed.

Now in his late 70s, this is Jim Callery's final passion. He believes that Strokestown could become a global centre to fight famine by learning the causes and dealing with them. He says it will require a 'global effort' to establish and fund such an institute.

The bottom line is that there's generally a fixable shortage of food or water in the regions of Africa and other places where famine has become endemic. That was the situation in Ireland in the middle of the 1800s when a third of the population disappeared either through starvation or emigration.

Irish landlords were exporting food in large quantities during that period, making substantial profits while at the same time demanding full rents from their tenant farmer families starving because of the blight devastating their staple potato food crop. If they couldn't pay they were evicted, their cottages razed to provide fresh lands for grazing as the landlords shifted from tillage to pasture for raising beef.

I came out of a special tour of the Strokestown Famine Museum yesterday with feelings very similar to when I exited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem some years ago. Maybe I was taking it a little too hard? Maybe not. It is the case that we have only in recent years begun to come to terms with the Famine. Something about a collective 'survivor guilt' is suggested.

There are arguable parallels today. Banks demanding full repayments from their mortgagees trying to survive with very diminished incomes in the recession caused in large part by those same institutions. Evictions are happening, as is emigration of the best of our young people. Organisations like the St Vincent de Paul and Simon will tell us that there's also real hunger in today's Ireland.

But the Famine Museum makes strong argument that what is happening in other famine parts of our world also has direct reflections with the position of the Irish people in the mid-1800s. And that there are similar political and commercial reasons underpinning the perpetuation of those modern and all too enduring catastrophic situations.

There are many other, and very pleasant reasons to visit Strokestown Park too. And I'll put those down in coming weeks. But let's for the moment just think of how our nation's darkest period might become the impetus for preventing it happening to people today in other lands.

Before Jim Callery leaves us, wouldn't it be a really great epitaph to give him?