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The Famine memorial sculpture in Dublin. The story of the heartbreaking Irish experience is a lesson that needs to be shared within the school system. Photo by: Getty

Campaign to add Irish Famine studies to California school curriculum

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The Famine memorial sculpture in Dublin. The story of the heartbreaking Irish experience is a lesson that needs to be shared within the school system. Photo by: Getty

A campaign has been launched to have a more in-depth study of the Irish Famine added to the school curriculum in California.

Over 1 million Irish people died in the Famine and over 1.5 million more emigrated to the United States to escape certain starvation. A further 100,000 fled Ireland, but died in horrific conditions aboard ‘coffin ships’ on their journey to sanctuary in this country.

Millions of Californians can trace their Irish roots to the Famine. Consequently, the Famine is central to the history of California, and the United States, as well as Ireland. Curiously, it has very limited references within the public school curriculum in California.

John F. O’Riordan Vice Chairman of the California Democratic Party Irish caucus is leading the campaign to change this and explains that, “The Great Hunger in Ireland was a period characterized by mass starvation and emigration, tragedies compounded by a fundamentally unjust economic system and a criminally negligent British government response to the crisis.

“The full story of the heartbreak of the Irish experience is a lesson that needs to be shared within the school system in California.”

A delegation from the Irish American Caucus recently met with Tom Torlakson, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, to discuss the proposal to create a more robust discussion about the Irish Famine being added to the school curriculum.

The Irish American Caucus has been invited to meet with Tom Adams, Director of Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources, California Department of Education to further discuss the current role of the Famine within the school curriculum and how the Irish community would like to see enhancements.

The Irish American Caucus will recommend that the Irish Famine be taught as part of an integrated American ethnic studies program, employing the best exponents to teach points such as: the rights of a people to access to food in their own country; the role of racism in times of crisis; the impact of free market economic policies; the support of relief efforts by people in the United States; the mass migration of people to the United States; their subsequent success, and their integration with American culture. Most of these elements are currently lacking from the current curriculum.

Pat Uniacke, a past president of the Gaelic Athletic Association in North America, applauds the initiative.

Uniacke said “This represents an opportunity to share the story of the voiceless Irish people who perished during the Famine and those who survived to build a new life in America. It will also provide an opportunity to remind our children of our constant obligation to the poor and suffering throughout the world.”

From the devastation of the Famine, some heartwarming stories emerged. Americans responded positively to the crisis in Ireland. For example, when much of the world turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Irish people, the Choctaw Nation gathered funds for the starving people in Ireland. Also, the tremendous support of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in raising funds in the United States and distributing it in Ireland is an example of giving with no strings attached (very unusual at that time) and has acted as a template for relief efforts throughout the world ever since.

O’Riordan explains, “Like many parents, the wish my wife and I have for our two girls is that they will grow to be respectful, responsible and tolerant citizens with a broad understanding of a shared American history. This can be helped by the creation of an integrated ethnic studies program in California public schools, one that includes the study and impact of the Irish Famine.”

If you would like to add your support to the campaign contact Campaign Chair John F. O’Riordan at IrishBlack47@hotmail.com.

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