LONGEST ROAD The road through Doolough Valley, where many perished during the Doolough Tragedy, a memorial to which is pictured below. Pic: Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto
IT is 1997, the tenth annual Afri (Action from Ireland) famine walk, and the Hothouse Flowers’ Liam O’Maonlaí has just played a slow haunting air on the tin whistle. There is a sense of universal suspension in the Doolough Valley. It is as if the air stopped breathing, the birds stopped singing and the ghosts of the Irish Famine sat still on the edge of the lake in this natural amphitheatre, which evokes so poignantly and poetically the struggles of our impoverished forebears.
Two decades later and the the theme of the Famine Walk 2017, to be held on Saturday, May 20 next, is ‘From Hunger and War … to a Home and a Welcome?’ As Afri’s Joe Murray explains: “This year’s walk will link the experience of Irish people fleeing on coffin ships or being condemned to workhouses during An Gorta Mór in the 19th century with those crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy, rickety boats today, some of whom, if they survive, may end up in Direct Provision Centres for asylum seekers in Ireland.”
Murray, who has organised this symbolic walk from Delphi to Louisburgh for 30 years, says it is ‘a walk like no other, abounding in memory, music, history solidarity and spectacular beauty; retracing the steps of the dispossessed of the past and forging solidarity with the banished and dispossessed today’.
He refers to the litany of ‘extraordinary people’ – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Gary White Deer of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma, singer-songwriters Christy Moore and Declan O’Rourke – who have participated in this walk, which is a memorial to the pilgrimage undertaken by hundreds of local victims of the Great Famine on the night of March 30, 1849.
In desperation they walked ten miles south to Delphi Lodge in the hope of receiving rations of Indian meal from the Poor Law Guardians, who were dining in the historic house, once a hunting lodge owned by the Lords Altamont. Tragically, they were told there was no grain and, on a bitterly cold night, were forced to make the return journey northward. According to lore, many of them were so weak and emaciated they fell by the lakeside road and died.
Comparing the plight of refugees today, Joe Murray observes that: “Now Ireland is in a position to take a lead role in addressing the situation of refugees – one of the most urgent and critical issues facing our world today.”
He notes that UN refugee agency figures show that over 65 million people are displaced throughout the world today and ‘as many as 55 percent of these come from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan’.
“Drawing on our own experience of famine and exile, we must tackle this critical issue as well as forces that are bringing it about, especially incessant wars fed by an obscene arms trade and climate change,” he states.
From Delphi to Louisburgh
Famine Walk 2017 will be held on Saturday, May 20 next beginning at 1.30pm. This year’s leaders will include Zimbabwe native Donna Vuma, who has lived in Direct Provision in Ireland since 2014. A tireless advocate for asylum seekers, her convictions are underpinned by a belief that ‘seeking asylum is not a crime [but rather] a fundamental human right which should be safeguarded by all nations’. A co-founder of MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland), Ms Vuma is also a founding member of Limerick community group, ‘Every child is your child’.
Leader, Abjata Khalif, is a journalist working ‘to promote sustainable development and resilience in Kenya’. His interests include climate change, renewable resources and human trafficking and he is involved in a project in Kenya providing ‘solar-powered lights for schoolchildren, community groups and midwives’. Australian native and Irish resident, Danny Cusack has a specialist interest in the Great Famine, human rights and peace and justice issues. He worked for Afri for a time and produced a booklet with Meath County Council on the famine in Meath.
Musician Joe Black Ryder, is a singer-songwriter and activists from Crumlin, Co Dublin. He has been involved with the Giuseppe Conlon House in London and supports the Chelsea Manning cause.
To add to the musical dimension of the walk, a new CD, ‘Music from A Dark Lake’ , featuring many of the singers and musicians who have played on the walk since 1988, will be on sale this year.
See www.afri.ie about information on registering for the walk.