Féile na Beatha

Carlow College, St Patrick’s, in partnership with Afri, SETU Carlow, APA and Carlow County Council and CCDP developed Féile na Beatha, an annual event which commemorates An Gorta Mór and those suffering today.  

Féile na Beatha commemorates those in Carlow who lost their life to An Gorta Mór and acknowledges those around the world who continue to suffer a similar injustice today. Its ‘Grand Finale’ took place in Cobden Hall, Carlow College last evening. A wonderful mix of history, music, poetry, art and discussion did more than commemorate the past, it provided an opportunity to engage with the tragic period of An Gorta Mór and explore how it can inspire contemporary action that responds in a meaningful way to the challenges of displacement, unequal access to resources and human suffering.   

In welcoming attendees to Carlow College, John McHugh noted that the venue Cobden Hall, was being constructed between 1830 and 1835. He also referred to students and staff of the college at that time including 

  • James Fintan Lalor, Agrarian and Young Irelander rebelling against the system that he and others saw as the structural causes of the famine. 
  • Richard Dalton Williams educated at this college in the early 1840’s and used poetry to point to the injustice of the famine and its causes. 
  • John O Leary educated here from 1845 to 47 was also an active Young Irelander. 

Singer songwriter Joe Black opened with his own song about moving from home and yearning to return, contemporary themes with echoes to the past. 

The main speaker, Dr Ida Milne gave a condensed but very informative presentation that focused on Ireland of the mid 1800’s. Her ability to map out the links between moral and social thinking, policymaking and human experience brought the audience closer to the lived experience of the marginalised Irish poor then, and it could be argued now. 

An invited panel offered responses and reflections from a variety of modern perspectives, raising questions, making connections and reflecting on Ida’s presentation.  

Dr Denise Lyons, a social care worker in education based at SETU Carlow drew our attention to the work of local artist Jim Donnelly. ‘The Displaced’ is a collection of figures in wire and hessian that depicts the hardship and suffering of a people deprived of access to food. Denise introduced poet Denise O Grady who read her poem ‘Hidden’ based on the art work. 

Joe Murray, Coordinator of the peace and justice organisation Afri, commented on the importance of recognising in the tragedy of the great hunger, the lessons for the cotemporary world especially in regions where people are oppressed and suffering and often forced to leave their homeland. He also introduced an Afri commissioned painting by Choctaw artist Gary (Waylon) White Deer, “An Arrow Through Time” about the 1847 Choctaw donation to the victims of the Irish Famine.  

Stephanie McDermott of Carlow College and Carlow County Development Partnership identified the challenges that faced at local and global levels and drew parallels between Structural issues present in mid-1800’s Ireland and the causes of oppression and marginalisation in today’s world. 

Fr Eoghan Lambert of APA recounted his experience of working in Ethiopia in the 1980’s when famine took thousands of lives and forced many thousand more to leave their homeland. He was struck by Ida’s account of the presence of food sources for export in the Ireland of An Gorta Mór, and his experience of supporting local growers of corn in Ethiopia whilst that country also continued to export food. As he spoke, he often referred to the ‘accuracy’ of the gaunt and haunting figures of Jim Donnelly’s ‘The Displaced’. 

The evening concluded with the ‘magic’ of the Uileann pipes. Local piper Colm Broderick played on his set of pipes based on a design from the time of An Gorta Mór. The music reinforced the connection between ‘then and now’ but also provide a wonderful conclusion to a special event. 

 

– Dr John McHugh, March 2023

Afri commissioned painting by Choctaw artist Gary (Waylon) White Deer, “An Arrow Through Time” about the 1847 Choctaw donation to the victims of the Irish Famine.  

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