Is it time London, the seat of government which ruled Ireland during the famine, acknowledge Ireland’s greatest tragedy? Professor Christine Kinealy, Director of the new Great Hunger Institute based at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, thinks so.
She asks: “So why is there no monument to the famine in London, the capital of Britain?
“Ireland was governed by London at the time, the fact that there is no memorial there tells you something about the Irish in Britain and how they see their history, it’s very different from the Irish in America.”
Since the 150th anniversary of the Irish famine in 1995, memorials have sprung up across the United States, Canada and Australia, but Britain has only one monument marking the devastating blight that saw more than one million people die. Professor Kinealy says it is time for London to step up.
“By any standards the Irish famine was the most lethal famine in modern history,” said Professor Kinealy told the Irish Post.
“What also makes it remarkable is that the Irish population has never recovered. To this day its smaller – that makes Ireland unique, and it also shows people something about the destruction and the enduring impact of that famine.”
Professor Kinealy, a Liverpool native born to parents from Mayo and Tipperary, has spent 30 years researching, writing and teaching about the famine.
“It’s amazing when you think that the only famine memorial in England is in Liverpool,” said the mother of two, who moved to the United States six years ago.
“If you go to America, there are famine monuments in prime locations all over the country. In New York, Philadelphia, Boston, everywhere. That tells you that Irish Americans have arrived in America; they are visible and want people to know about their background.”
When Professor Kinealy takes up her directorial role at the newly founded Institute in September, she will organize global seminars and conferences on the famine, to push the issue further to the international forefront. She also plans to invite academics and scholars to share the space to undertake further research.
“It’s very flattering to be offered the role of Director,” she said. “It’s also very satisfying in that I have been researching this topic for 30 years and when I first started there was very little written about it and very little interest.”
Professor Kinealy said she would like to see a famine memorial erected in London and for accounts of the period added to the school curriculums on modern British history.
“This period changed the history of Ireland, of America and of Britain and in particular the modern history of Britain cannot be understood without understanding Irish history.
“This tragedy is interlinked with Britain – the blight could not have been prevented but the treatment of the Irish by the British could have been better, there were so many unnecessary deaths.
“Another part of the tragedy of the famine is that the British Government refused to keep records of the deaths in Ireland.
“So we don’t know precisely the number of people who died and we don’t know their names, we say approximately one million died and one and a half million emigrated, but they are just cold statistics that disguise the fact that each one of those people represented a human life.
“To not keep records of their deaths really says something about the way they were regarded by the British establishment.”
Professor Kinealy told the Irish Post she believes it’s never too late to address those tragedies.
“It would be a great achievement to see more Irish history taught in British schools, and see Irish history integrated more into British history,” she said.
“And I would love to see some sort of monument to the famine, if not an Irish museum, in London, as the capital of Britain. So, yes a permanent monument, erected now, would be wonderful – it should be there already.”