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 for five years, the fungus caused the potato crop to fail, and millions lost their sole source of food.
In that first year, 1847, some 400,000 people starved to death, and as many as 1.5 million Irish died from starvation over just five years.
In the wake of the catastrophe, another two million people left Ireland for ports in Canada and the United States, sailing to the new world in “coffin ships,” so-called because many did not survive the arduous 3,000-mile, 40-day passage.
Those tragic events certainly have parallels in other places at other times; the recent disasters in Haiti and Chile give a current reminder of the enormous struggle the Irish faced.
The story of the Irish famine is now a distant historical moment, but in 1998 the city erected a memorial park to the Great Hunger at the corner of School and Washington streets to ensure that the long-ago stories of tragedy and triumph would not be forgotten.
At the site, two bronze statues depict two families. The writer Joe Leary describes them this way: “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 eight tablets, Boston College professor Tom O’Connor wrote a brief history of the famine.
The late developer Tom Flatley chaired the committee which erected the memorial, and shortly before he died, he said, “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.”
“Over a million people visit that site every year,” he said, expressing the hope that the number would grow.
The true message of the Famine memorial is best exemplified in the two words, tragedy, and triumph. The awful tragedy endured by the Irish people those many years ago, followed by their triumphant assimilation into the great American story of our wonderful country. The Irish people of today are descendants of those who survived, and our great country allowed these immigrants, and their children’s children, to live free from hunger and deprivation.
During this month of St. Patrick, I will visit Boston’s Irish Famine Memorial and reflect on the terrible struggles of those who came before us. It is quite an appropriate way to observe the feast day of Saint Patrick.
– Ed Forry