When we think about Ireland’s Great Hunger, we often focus on the devastation it wrought in the counties that would become the Republic of Ireland. In Belfast, however, a new cross-community initiative called 'Sharing the Past' aims to stress that the Famine impacted the entire island of Ireland and its whole population, regardless of religion.
"This is education from the ground up that breaks down the myths and the shibboleths surrounding the Famine. Ulster – all of it – was hit very badly, not just Donegal,” Dr. Francis Costello, a lead historian behind the project told BBC Northern Ireland.
The Famine and the damaging policies that came with it lasted from 1845 to 1854 and saw Ireland lose 1 million lives and 2 million citizens to emigration.
"It was a calamity that struck across all classes and all faiths and no faiths," Dr. Costello explained.
By 1846, he said, one in five people living in Belfast had been touched by a Famine-related disease. The Ards Peninsula in Co. Down experienced heightened devastation, and thousands of people fled from there to Belfast, bringing disease with them. The city’s previously booming linen industry went into decline because of widespread illness.
In the midst of all this there were also gestures of charity and aid. "In Belfast, then with an overwhelmingly Protestant population, the evidence shows there was a rekindled ardor of the early Christian Church characterized by charity and alms and the desire to alleviate starvation and illness,” he said.
"This saw people across traditions and classes coming together to support the poor.
"In Howard Street in Belfast, the local merchants fed 2,000 people a day at soup kitchens. The Society of Friends, the Quakers, did tremendous work and butchers and vegetable growers helped."
'Sharing the Past' will bring together people from inner-city Belfast and from Larne, a port town on the east coast of Co. Antrim. Together they will examine how the Great Hunger and all the tragedies that came with it affected the entire population.
They will explore the legacy of the Famine through visits to workhouses and important historical sites on both sides of the border, and Dr. Costello will lead a lecture series on the Famine. At the conclusion of the program, participants will produce booklets and curate an exhibition on their findings.
"What is rewarding about this project is that it is driven by the grassroots up. There are very harrowing stories about people's ancestors from Larne and the Shankill [Road]," Dr Costello said.
The project is organized by Building Communities with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.