Remembering the Great Hunger in Our Port 'o Call

Ed Forry

Ireland's great Famine, also known as the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mór) took place in the middle of the 19th century, caused by a blight on the potato crop in the Emerald Isle. Beginning with the harvest of 1846, and lasting fully for five years, the fungus caused the potato crop to fail. It was devastating to huge numbers of poor Irish families. A family of six could be fed for a year on one acre of potatoes; the vegetable provided all the nutrients needed to preserve life.

In that half decade it is estimated as many as 1.5 million Irish died of starvation, and because these tenant farmers were unable to provide crops to their landowners, scores of families were evicted from their meager homes. In 1847 alone, 400,000 Irish men, women, and children starved to death, a 12-month span now known known as "Black 47."

In the wake of the catastrophe, another two million people left the island, with many heading to ports in Canada and the United States in so-called "coffin ships" because many of the passengers, having been squeezed into steerage, did not survive the arduous 3,000-mile, 40-day passage.

The tragic events and human suffering during those years certainly have parallels among people in other places at other times, the earthquakes that caused devastation in Haiti in January and in Chile just last month two recent disasters that give a picture of the enormous struggle the Irish faced.

More than a century and a half have passed since those terrible days, and the story of the famine has largely fallen into the background. In the 1990s a local group established a Boston memorial to the Great Hunger to ensure that the long-ago stories would not be forgotten. A committee headed by the late Tom Flatley erected a memorial park on a small parcel of downtown land at the corner of School and Washington streets.

Writing in these pages in 1997, Joe Leary described the site: "The bronze statues depict two families, each standing on three-foot-high bases. One shows the terrible effects of destructive hunger, a father beaten down, a mother raising her hand to the sky in supplication with her forlorn child hanging her head beside her. The other shows strength, health and resolve, the father and son striding confidently towards a new world with mother looking back wistfully at the devastation they are leaving behind." On the site, eight tablets with words by Boston College professor Tom OConnor give a brief history of the famine.

Three years ago, I interviewed Tom Flatley shortly before he passed away, and he talked about the memorial: "One day I got a call from Mayor Tom Menino, who had just returned from Ireland and he had visualized the memorial in Dublin," he said. "He had heard that I would be interested in working on one of those and putting it together and he said he would be fully supportive if we decided to do it. That was the best call we ever got."

Flatley said he turned to two longtime allies for help. "I immediately got a hold of Mike Quinlin, and Mike Cummings, who was with me, and we went in to see the mayor. I then went out that afternoon and we walked the Freedom Trail, all through the city. We went back to the mayor within a few days and told him we believed we had found the site, which is the park where it now exists." Flatley then turned for advice from friends and business associates who had developed the Holocaust Memorial near Faneuil Hall.

"We talked to them and learned a lot from them on their memorial and the way they did it," he said. The Irish Famine memorial was dedicated in June, 1998. "Over a million people visit that site every year," he said, and he hoped that number would grow. "It is a place for people to come, read, and find out that other nationalities and nations throughout the world, who are going through hell on earth, are able to survive in this great nation, as Ireland did and Irish immigrants. That's what it's all about. The key to this," said Flatley, are two words: From tragedy to triumph.' "

During this month of St. Patrick, I will visit the Memorial and reflect on the terrible struggles of those who came before us. It is quite the appropriate addition to the observance of the Saint's feast day.