Tears for Gaza in a desolate Irish valley

Ciaran Tierney
8 min readMay 24, 2024


A woman from Gaza flying the flag of Palestine in the Doolough Valley last year. Photo by Ciaran Tierney.

My friend made me cry last Saturday.

She stood in a hall full of Irish people, in a small rural town, and opened up about what it is like to be a young woman from Gaza in 2024.

The text messages, early in the morning or late at night, chronicling another funeral, another inconsolable loss, another apartment razed to the ground, or another person taken far too young in the screech of a late-night bombing.

The fear of picking up the phone.

The treasured five-year-old niece and the beloved brother-in-law. How they made their way through the designated “safe passage”, following the orders from the occupying army who told them they had to get out of their home.

Imagine getting that text or phone call.

The one that tells you that your five-year-old niece’s life has been destroyed. That her father, doing everything he could to protect her, to shield her, to love her, had been cut down alongside her, in full view of his own distraught family members, as they tried to escape to safety.

Except, in Gaza, there is no place of safety and nowhere to escape to.

How can you function after news like that?

How can any family just move on? When houses and entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed, hospitals, schools, and university buildings turned to rubble, and close family members are clinging to life in tents by the border, out of contact, and trying to protect their children from the missiles raining down.

It took great courage for a young woman from Gaza to stand and talk about her own life in a room full of West of Ireland people last weekend.

But, then again, she is no ordinary woman. If you are born in Gaza, you learn not to take things for granted, that you have to speak out, that the world is a very unfair place, and that concepts such as “justice”, “truth” and “equality” are not universally applied.

This cruel world teaches you that some lives are valued far more than others and concepts such as justice or the truth are not at all available to the wonderful, ordinary, down-to-earth people you grew up with on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Last week, I attended the Afri Famine Walk for the first time.

It seemed fitting, poignant, moving, that my friend from Gaza was asked to lead the walk just a few months after her little niece and brother-in-law were murdered and her father died of a mixture of starvation and a broken heart.

But my friend spent a year in Galway and knows quite a lot about our own history in this part of Ireland.

It was heart-breaking to stand at the back of the hall and see her tell Irish people about unimaginable tragedy, without any trace of hate, before we set off on a walk to mark an unimaginable tragedy of our own which occurred in 1849.

The memorial stone which honours the Co. Mayo men, women, and children who died of starvation after walking 18kms through the Doolough Valley in search of food. Photo by Ciaran Tierney.

In Louisburgh, she felt at home.

She knew the story of the place because she had visited the beautiful, but desolate, Doolough Valley as part of a day-long tour of Connemara during the dark days of Covid while she was studying human rights in Galway.

Four years ago, we stood at the plaque which marks Bishop Tutu’s participation in the Afri Famine Walk in 1991 and I joked that she, or one of her friends, might return to lead the walk as leader of a free Palestine some day in the future.

Little did I think my prophecy that she would return would come true so soon, in such appallingly sad circumstances, as we set off to retrace the footsteps of hundreds of impoverished Co. Mayo people who set off on a long walk in search of food back in 1849.

She may not have returned as leader of a new, free Palestine, but her speech captivated a packed hall as she spoke with such honesty and sadness in her voice.

In Ireland, we need to hear Palestinian voices. And last weekend’s Afri Walk linked the most tragic catastrophe from our own history with the appalling injustice in Palestine today.

In the West of Ireland, we tend not to talk about the Great Famine ourselves.

Perhaps it is easier to drown our emotions in alcohol, and perhaps it is not so easy to remember events which were too painful for previous generations of Irish people to take on board.

Here, in Galway, my late friend Mark Kennedy spent years campaigning with the city authorities before they agreed to dedicate a park to Celia Griffin, a six-year-old girl who died of starvation after walking into the city in search of food.

It does not surprise me that the Afri Famine Walk only began in 1988. Before that, it might have been just too painful for Irish people to retrace the footsteps — or even remember — those who took off on a fruitless 18km journey in search of food.

There was plenty of food on the island of Ireland in 1849, but not for the impoverished Irish peasants who were not considered human beings by the “great and the good” of the British Empire, just as the people of Gaza have been labelled “human animals” by the genocidal, far-right leaders who are in charge of Israel right now.

Leading the Afri Famine Walk at Delphi Lodge on Saturday. Photo by Ciaran Tierney.

At Delphi Lodge, we imagined the aristocrats enjoying a fine meal as they left the impoverished Louisburgh people waiting outside at the end of their long walk through the valley. They told their servants to leave the poor people waiting and then, after their meal, to go outside and send them back home.

The Doolough Valley is one of the most beautiful places on this island. On Saturday, it was also basking in glorious sunshine.

And yet it was hard not to be moved by the immense sadness surrounding the event we were commemorating — the despair, the hunger, the indignity of being turned away by the landlord class, and the terrible scenes which ensued as the poor Co. Mayo people began to resort to eating grass before many died of starvation at the side of this beautiful road.

Since 1988, the annual Afri Famine Walk has connected the tragedy of An Gorta Mór — many people argue that the “famine” in Ireland was man-made — and modern-day injustices across the world.

“If the difference between famine and starvation is that famine is caused by natural forces, while starvation is man-made, then An Gorta Mór was not a famine but a great and deliberate starvation, because there was no lack of food in Ireland at the time,” said Fr Niall O’Brien, a Columbian priest, at the first memorial walk in Doolough back in 1988. He went on to say, “be shocked but be not surprised, the same holds true in much of the global south today.”

There is something really moving about the realisation that Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to this desolate, remote valley in the West of Ireland to honour those who died after walking for hours in search of food.

Because South Africans took inspiration from the Irish struggle for freedom, just as Palestinians take some comfort from the solidarity of the Irish people today.

And South Africans have never forgotten the huge role Irish people played in bringing about an end to Apartheid.

It is unthinkable that the scenes of devastation in the Doolough Valley 175 years ago are being replicated in Gaza today.

There were no cameras about when hundreds of poor Irish people died due to the neglect of a bigoted landlord in this beautiful valley. But in 2024, we can switch on Al Jazeera English, and see racist Israeli settlers (and their children) destroying aid in food trucks destined for people who are currently experiencing starvation as a weapon of war.

Apart from a little monument overlooking this beautiful valley, there is little to tell the casual tourist that such an enormous human tragedy occurred in the Doolough Valley in the 19th century.

Saturday’s event was poignant and sad, but also somehow uplifting to see people from all over Ireland come together to show solidarity with the people of Palestine.

It is etched into our consciousness that we should stand up against injustice and speak out when people are subjected to colonisation, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing from their own land.

In Co. Mayo, the home county of Joe Biden’s ancestors, it felt so right to be walking together in solidarity with the oppressed all across the globe, but especially in occupied Palestine.

The Doolough Valley is in Co. Mayo, the ancestral home county of US President Joe Biden. “Genocide Joe” cartoon courtesy of Carlos Latuff.

A million people died of starvation in Ireland, and almost two million were forced into exile, while our people lived under one of the most powerful empires this planet has ever seen.

The 18km walk was tough going at times, but it just felt so appropriate and uplifting to be there.

If my friend can stand in front of a room filled with a few hundred people and talk so openly about how her niece and brother-in-law were murdered, then surely Irish people have a duty to connect our own suffering with the suffering of those who face injustice today.

I was proud to walk behind my friend Faten on Saturday, to remember her niece, her brother-in-law, and the more than 35,000 people murdered in the tiny Gaza Strip since last October, and to see so many Irish people around me who were no longer afraid to open old wounds.

If our people cannot speak out against injustice, then who can?

If our government cannot call out ethnic cleansing and forced starvation, then what European Government can?

The empathy I saw for my friend on Saturday did not come from a place of hate, but rather the shared suffering of two peoples who have known the unbearable pain of starvation, occupation, and colonisation.

A beautiful event and a day to be proud that we have refused to forget our own terrible history or what made us who we are today.

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, a leader of a free Palestine will return to the Doolough Valley and retrace this trail of tears.

In the meantime, last weekend, my young friend did a very fine job indeed as she filled a hall full of people with tears and linked our pain with the terrible pain being inflicted on the people of Gaza today.

Ciaran Tierney is a digital journalist, Irish language planning officer, and an award-winning current affairs blogger. Find him at https://www.facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia and on X /Twitter @ciarantierney

The beautiful, desolate, Doolough Valley, where hundreds of people died of starvation after walking 18kms in search of food in 1849. Photo by Ciaran Tierney.



Ciaran Tierney

A former newspaper journalist, with an interest in human rights, travel, and current affairs, Ciaran won the 2018 Irish Current Affairs Blog of The Year award.