Those of you who grew up in Ireland might remember the nuns telling you to eat all your lunch because there were millions of black babies in Africa who were starving. Personally, I never got the connection. Why would they care whether or not I ate all my lunch. Hunger in another world so far removed from my own didn’t concern the inner workings of this six-year-old’s mind. Yes, I dutifully went without sweets during Lent and collected money that went to Trócaire, who in turn were supposed to alleviate the hunger in Africa. I don’t get that connection either. [I have vague memories of TV personality Bunny Carr doing a runner with some money donated to Górta (Irish aid organisation). Late last year, Irish charity, the CRC, made the headlines when it confirmed that money donated by the public was being used to top up salaries of well-paid staff. It’s hard to know where your charity dime is going these days.]
But back to hunger. Between 1845 and 1852 a million people died from hunger in Ireland and a million more emigrated to escape a similar fate. We call it an gorta mór (the great hunger). I came across a number of memorials to the famine earlier this year – the old famine road in Mayo was one. Another is the memorial near the foot of Croagh Patrick in Murrisk, Co. Mayo.
This depiction by Irish sculptor John Behan is a graphic illustration of the coffin ships that sailed from Ireland, weighed down with the hopes of those seeking a better future. I hadn’t realised that the first coffin ships sailed for Quebec, Canada, where at one stage 40 vessels containing 14,000 Irish immigrants waited in a line extending two miles down the St. Lawrence.
In Mullingar, I spotted a sign for a famine graveyard and had to double back to check it out. I’m not sure what I was expecting. A field, perhaps, with lots of simple crosses? A mass grave with a huge monument? I was half-right… on both counts. I’ve tried searching the Internet for more information but to no avail. What little I know about it was gleaned from the rather innocuous memorial stone that was erected at the entrance.
It was a little surreal to stand in a field with one large tree and one small, plain, wooden cross knowing that the remains of hundreds, if not thousands, lay beneath the sod. Country hedges separated the mass grave from nearby houses and in a flight of fancy, I found myself wondering what it would be like to wake up every morning, open my curtains and look out onto this field. For many of us, the famine has become some abstract event that we are not allowed to forget. Memorials exist in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, all places that felt the effect of an gorta mór.
Have I ever been hungry? Yes. Have I ever known hunger? No. And when I see the chronic amount of food wasted each and every day, I am reminded of the millions who die daily because they have to do without. Will my eating all my dinner save a life in Africa? I doubt it. But I don’t have to go to Africa to find hungry people. There are plenty of them in Budapest. The Hare Krishnas alone feed over a 1000 every day in the city. I read somewhere recently about an initiative in Ireland that links restaurants and supermarkets with homeless shelters. All soon to be expired food and food left at the end of the day that won’t be sold the next are donated free of charge to feed the hungry. That’s an idea worth replicating.
This week, as I feel fuller than usual thanks to Italian hospitality, I’m grateful that I’ve never experienced hunger or known what it is to want for food. And I’m even more grateful for an abiding awareness of how fortunate that makes me.
The words of Buzz Aldrin come to mind… If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger. And with them, the words of St Augustine: Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.