An Gorta Mór: Donegal prepares to host Ireland's National Famine Commemoration Day 2023

Final preparations are being put in place ahead of Milford in County Donegal hosting the National Famine Commemoration Day this weekend.

The 2023 National Famine Commemoration will take place this weekend on Sunday May 21 and will be presided over by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

The ceremony is to take place on the site of the old Milford Workhouse and graveyard from 2pm, and will also be broadcast nationwide on the RTÉ News channel.

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Inishowen’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue will represent the Government at the ceremony.

1846:  Starving peasants clamour at the gates of a workhouse during the Irish potato famine.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)1846:  Starving peasants clamour at the gates of a workhouse during the Irish potato famine.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1846: Starving peasants clamour at the gates of a workhouse during the Irish potato famine. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As in previous years, the ceremony will include military honours and a wreath laying ceremony in remembrance of all those who suffered or perished during the Famine.

Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, and Chair of the National Famine Commemoration Committee announced earlier this year that the event would be coming to Ulster for the third time.

It will honour the suffering and loss of the Great Famine and to remember those who fled to create new lives abroad.

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Schools around the country will be invited to hold a minute of silent reflection this Friday May 19 in memory of those who perished during the An Gorta Mór, while sporting organisations will be invited to observe a minute of silent reflection at sporting and public events taking place on the weekend of the Commemoration.

Milford Workhouse Fever Hospital courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.Milford Workhouse Fever Hospital courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.
Milford Workhouse Fever Hospital courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive.

Michéal Martin said: “The National Famine Commemoration is a special opportunity for the current generation to acknowledge the suffering, death, and anguish borne by the Irish people during that darkest time of our history.

“The choice of Donegal as host for the 2023 National Famine Commemoration is particularly welcome given the deferral of the hosting of the 2020 event in Donegal due to the pandemic. It is appropriate that the event will take place on the old site of the Milford workhouse, given the adversity endured by the people of Donegal in the face of poverty, hunger and emigration throughout the Great Famine and the 19th century.

"The Commemoration will reflect on this momentous event in Irish history and remember all those who suffered as a result of An Gorta Mór.”

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The Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council, Colr. Liam Blaney said: “We are honoured that Donegal will have the opportunity to host the National Famine Commemoration ceremony in 2023. We look forward to working closely with the Minister’s department and encouraging the active participation of our local community. Together we will ensure a fitting commemoration on this catastrophic time in Irish history.”

President Michael D Higgins.President Michael D Higgins.
President Michael D Higgins.

Workhouses during the Famine

It’s difficult to imagine what our ancestors went through over 175 years ago during one of the darkest periods of our history. It was at a time where millions across the island found themselves starving, sick and displaced with tough decisions to make. Some had no choice at all.

Many of us are here today because some of our ancestors survived the hardships and losses and forged new lives for themselves either here or in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, many did not, and on May 21st 2023 we commemorate all those who suffered and died during what became known as the Great Famine.

The National Famine Commemoration Committee was first established in 2008 following a Government decision to commemorate the Great Irish Famine with an annual national famine memorial day.

As well as workhouses in Derry, Strabane and Limavady among others in the north west, in Donegal there was a workhouse in each of the eight Poor Law Unions namely, Carndonagh in Inishowen, Dunfanaghy, Milford, Letterkenny, Stranorlar, Glenties, Donegal Town and Ballyshannon.

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For many, being forced to spend time in the local workhouse was regarded as the ultimate humiliation. Nonetheless, many people were driven there by desperation or following eviction. Some people spent short periods of time there; others were born, gave birth or died there.

The onset of famine in 1845 tested the poor relief system to its limits as more and more people tried to gain admittance to the workhouses. Many workhouses were forced to build extra accommodation. Supply of food was a desperately slow process. In August 1846 the Glenties Board of Guardians stressed the urgency of obtaining Indian meal through local ports:

The[re has been a]…. general and total failure of the potato crop throughout the union. Seeing every field and garden quite decayed and the tops withered down to the earth and in some places the people obliged to dig fifty or sixty yards before they can get a sufficient quantity of sound potatoes for one meal for a small family…..and [they] not fit for [work].

Relief granted to individuals was deemed to be a loan. However, in 1847 when the Famine was at its height, the right to relief of the destitute poor was recognised by law. At this time, to relieve some of the pressure from the workhouses, outdoor relief was sanctioned.

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Life in the workhouse was not easy. It was lawful for the Board of Guardians to punish ’refractory’ paupers for prescribed offences. These included absconding and abandoning family in a workhouse, drunkenness, insubordination to the officers of the union, disobedience of the rules prescribed or sanctioned by the Commissioners’, and for misbehaviour such as ‘attempting to introduce spirituous or fermented liquors into any workhouse’.

In the early years, the diet in the workhouse was monotonous, unwholesome and wholly inadequate as a letter from the Poor Law Commissioners concerning the in the Glenties workhouse testifies.

The Commissioners have communicated with their medical inspector Mr Phelan who is also of opinion, that the sameness of the proposed dietary is objectionable. He states that stirabout three times a week with buttermilk each time, tends to cause diarrhoea, especially if the Indian meal be not well boiled. 22 November 1849.

Workhouse food improved over the years, with the gradual introduction for adults and children of food with more protein and vitamins including bread, meat, eggs, milk and vegetables.

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For more information on the National Famine Commemoration and related records held by Donegal County Council please visit