This past Sunday, Irish around the world observed the first ever Famine Memorial Day in commemoration of The Great Irish Famine, or “An Gorta Mor” (The Great Hunger).
The Irish government declared Sunday, May 17 “National Famine Memorial Day,” which this year was officially held in Skibbereen, County Cork and on Grosse Ile, Canada’s Ellis Island. The government is also encouraging Irish communities worldwide to host local ceremonies and events to commemorate the day.
Skibbereen hosted a variety of commemorative events last week, including lectures, historical walks and concerts.
“The mass graves of between 8,000 and 10,000 famine victims at Abbeystrewery near Skibbereen are testament to the tragic consequences of the catastrophic failure of the potato crop in the area during the 1840s.”
All of Ireland observed National Famine Memorial Day, and all public and sporting events took a minute of silence on Sunday.
The Irish government plans to rotate the location of the annual event between the four provinces of Ireland. It is expected that next year, the official ceremony will be held in County Mayo, another area greatly affected by the Great Hunger.
Meanwhile, a parallel international event will be held each year to represent the Irish abroad whose ancestors were Famine refugees. This year’s overseas commemoration was held on Grosse Ile in Canada, which thousands of Irish immigrants ravaged by hunger and disease passed through between 1845 and 1855 in search of a new home.
Grosse Ille honored the 100th anniversary of the erection of their forty-foot Celtic Cross, which pays tribute to the 7,000 Irish men, women, and children who are buried on the island. The Canadian location was a quarantine station during the Famine years, and became known by locals as ‘L’Ile des Irlandais’ – the Island of the Irish.
The likely choice for the next international Famine Memorial Day is the U.S., where 40 million people of Irish heritage reside.
This year, Americans are answering Ireland’s call to commemorate their Irish ancestors on and around May 17.
In Chicago, the Galway Committee of the Sister Cities International Program, the American Ireland Fund and Old St. Pat's Parish in cooperation with the Consulate General of Ireland hosted a wreath laying on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the Grainne statue, a figure of an Irish woman which evokes the courage and faith of Chicago’s Irish ancestors and Famine survivors. The city also held a reception and presentation by singer Catherine O’Connell and writer Mary Pat Kelly, a frequent Irish America magazine contributor and author of “Galway Bay,” an historical novel based on the life of her great-great grandmother, Honora Kelly, who survived the Famine and emigrated to Chicago.
Roseann Finnegan LeFevour, Chicago Regional Director of the American Ireland Fund, told Irish American News of Chicago that Mary Pat Kelly’s book “recalls the central event behind the Irish Diaspora – The Great Famine. There is a direct line between the stories imagined on those pages and what we do at The American Ireland Fund. While one million died in the famine, as Honora Kelly says in the book, two million escaped, one reaching back for the next, rescuing each other. The American Ireland Fund continues to reach across the sea to give back to our ancestral land in this same spirit."
In New York, the Consulate General of Ireland is contributing to Ireland’s commemoration of the Famine with its An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) Public Lecture Series. Over the course of three days, lectures are being presented at the Consulate General, while poetry and music reflect the thoughts and emotions of those who experienced the Great Famine.
The series’ organizer, Irish Deputy Consul General in New York Breandán Ó Caollaí told IrishCentral: “I thought it appropriate that each evening we give voice to those who were afflicted or died during as a result of the Great Hunger but had no or were given no voice in the history or contemporary accounts of the famine.
“Songs and music and traditions in the Irish language are thought by some to retain echoes of their voices so we are adding some music, song or poetry to accompany each night's lectures.”
The first event was held on Friday, May 15, New York, and was entitled “Glórtha ón Ghorta/Famine Echoes." The event featured a talk from radio producer and Great Hunger expert Cathal Póirtéir, a reading from none other than Mary Pat Kelly, a reading of Walt Whitman’s poem on the famine, “Old Ireland,” and music from a uileann piper.
On Monday, May 18, the New York Consulate will host “The International Response to An Gorta Mór,” featuring Professor Christine Kinealy of Drew University, introduced by Dr. John Lahey, President of Quinnipiac University, home to one of the most extensive compilations of literature and artwork on the Great Hunger. Staff members from the Consulate General will perform the "Famine Song" in both Irish and English.
Finally, on Wednesday, May 20, “Teaching the Great Hunger” will feature Maureen Murphy, professor of Hofstra Unifersity, who will speak on the development of the Great Irish Famine Curriculum. Murphy will be introduced by Anne Garvey, former President of the American Irish Teacher’s Association, who was instrumental in the implementing the curriculum in the New York school system. Traditional Irish music will be featured.
From Ireland to North America, major Irish locations around the world will ensure that on May 17, the catastrophic events of the Great Famine will be remembered, and the remarkable contributions of its survivors are celebrated.