It hasn’t taken long for newly elected SNP councillors to make their mark on Glasgow politics. This week, Feargal Dalton will put forward a motion to full council, calling for a memorial to the victims of famine to be built on the city. The memorial will commemorate the Irish Potato Famine, the Highland Potato Famine, and victims of past and current famines from across the world.
There are famine memorials, particularly associated with the Irish Potato Famine, already in many cities in Ireland, the UK and further afield. Cardiff and Liverpool, which acted as a major transit point for both Irish people arriving in England and departing the UK for Canada, the US and Australia, both have memorials. There are statues in New York, Boston, Sydney, Philadelphia, Montreal, Toronto and many others.
Glasgow, of course, was also a major receiving city of Irish immigrants. Most people in the West of Scotland have some ancestral link to the Potato Famine (in my own case, family legend has it that a Dunn landed on these shores to flee the famine, and converted to the Church of Scotland in order to help him find work).
The Glasgow memorial will also be dedicated to those affected by the Highland Potato Famine. The potato blight did not just affect Ireland; it affected many countries across Northern Europe, including Scotland. In both Ireland and Scotland, the famine was compounded by the inaction and neglect of landlords, some of whom saw it as an opportunity rather than an entirely avoidable crisis.
It is estimated that over 1.5 million people left the Highlands because of the potato famine there, although many will also have moved from the glens and long coastline to the towns and cities of the Central Belt and Lowlands, or used Glasgow as a transit point on the long road to Australia, the Americas, and other far-flung places.
The people who fled famine in the Highlands and in Ireland have had a massive effect on Glasgow, most of it for the better. They helped the sporting, cultural, religious and economic life of the city to flourish.
And immigrants still come here, and enrich the life of the city. The Memorial in Glasgow should be just as relevant to those who come here for refuge in modern times, as it is to the descendants of those who arrived here 150 years ago. It should also be a symbol for the willingness of Glaswegians, both past and present, to help those oppressed by hunger.
Cllr Dalton said, ““The Great Hunger saw thousands arrive in Glasgow from both Ireland and the Highlands and Islands and they gave this city its Celtic characteristics. And when they arrived Glaswegians gave generously. Today, Glasgow continues to be a beacon for people fleeing hunger and famine across the globe.
“Yet, Glasgow is the one major world city where there continues to be a large Irish diaspora which has no permanent memorial.
“There is no fixed idea as yet, but a commitment to a memorial is an important step. This motion will take us closer to marking the sacrifices of the past up to the present day, while recognising the positive benefits brought to our city by migration over many years and our shared heritage as we look forward to a positive future together, acting as a beacon of hope to others.
So far, the administration of the council has seemed receptive to the idea of a memorial to famine victims. Hopefully, council will agree that it should go ahead. For, to paraphrase the Proclaimers, victims of famine are part of Scotland’s story, and we are all worth the same.