On the winter solstice in December 2016, the Espoo-dwelling Irish native Andrew Newby found himself in Sonkajärvi cemetery in Eastern Finland with a shovel and a flashlight. It was only two thirty in the afternoon, but it was already pitch black. The historian was digging in the snow to find a monument for the famine years. He did realise he was quite the sight for any passers-by.
However, Newby was not indulging in a macabre hobby, but surveying monuments for his research project “Famine in Ireland and Finland”. As part of the project, Newby travels around Finland, looking for monuments of the famine.
“I originally became interested in the monuments because I noticed there were none. In Ireland there are so many monuments to the Great Famine that you can’t miss them. There are also monuments to the Great Famine everywhere in the world, as it is linked closely to Irish emigration,” Andrew Newby explains.
The famine years of the 1860s caused a major population disaster in Finland, just like the Irish famine did in Ireland. While the Irish famine stemmed from potato blight, Finland’s was the result of several consecutive years of failed crops. The worst years were 1867 and 68, i.e., 150 years ago.
“The famine is not a part of Finland’s national narrative in the same way as it is in Ireland. The anniversary years of the famine are also inevitably overshadowed by bigger events, such as Finland’s centenary this year.”
“My son’s track-and-field hobby has required trips to different parts of Finland, to areas I would probably never have otherwise visited. To pass the time, I went to the cemeteries of villages in Ostrobothnia and found monuments of the famine there. I realised that even though they may be no national monument, there are many local ones,” Newby explains.
He began systematically surveying the monuments two years ago. Andrew Newby has gone through archives, pored over old newspapers and talked to people. He has found the Suomen muistomerkit book and the archives of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities particularly helpful, as they led him to approximately 30 monuments. Geocaching has also proved to be useful for the researcher, as caches are often hidden near monuments.
Memorial in Veteli
“So far I’ve found 78 monuments to the famine around Finland. I haven’t had the chance to visit all of them yet, but the plan is to photograph every one. Sometimes it’s not easy to find the monuments. For example, I was at a cemetery in Ristiina and I knew there was a monument there, I even had a photo of it. But during the wintry day I spent looking, I couldn’t find it. I’ll have to go back to Ristiina.”
The monuments are most common in the areas where mortality was the highest: Ostrobothnia, Satakunta, Northern Karelia and along the railway connection between Riihimäki and St Petersburg. The tracks were constructed as a form of emergency aid.
The oldest monuments are in Varkaus and Iisalmi, and the biggest one is in Lahti. Several monuments were erected in 1967, the centenary of the famine.
The man from Espoo
Monument research is not without its dangers. Driving on a partially frozen road in spring around southern Ostrobothnia or Satakunta, Newby’s car hit a soft shoulder, flipped and landed in a ditch. A passer-by stopped and alerted a local farmer, who arrived with his tractor to pull the car back onto the road.
“I tried to tell them that I was from abroad and unused to gravel roads, and that we don’t have ditches like that in Ireland. But the locals didn’t seem to care that I was Irish – they found it hilarious that a man from Espoo had wound up in a ditch.”