Music, literature and especially history were the focus of a full day of activities at St. John Fisher College on Sunday May 19, 2013, recalling the Irish famine years known as The Great Hunger.
Several dozen members of the Rochester area Irish community attended the event, which was called “A Rochester Gathering,” to help connect it to the Irish Gathering 2013, which is taking place as a series of events around Ireland.
A focal point was the presentation of the Rochester Chapter of the Irish American Cultural Institute Eoin McKiernan Founder’s Award to Noel Kilkenny, Irish Consul General to the United States. In his remarks thanking the IACI for the honor, Kilkenny recalled the impact of the famine on his home of County Clare, and also offered encouragement for Fisher’s Irish Studies Program. Such programs at Fisher and elsewhere are helping a new generation of Irish-Americans keep connected with their heritage, he said.
Kilkenny’s remarks were followed by a keynote address by Drew University historian Christine Kinealy, who put the famine era into the context of hundreds of years of Irish history that led up to it.
Those centuries were marked by a growing legal, social, political and religious repression that ended up separating the poor tenant farmers who suffered the worst effects of the famine from the more prosperous parts of Irish society. This made them especially vulnerable when the failure of the potato crop led to the widespread hunger, Kinealy explained.
Other activities of the day included a famine remembrance Mass and procession to a famine memorial on the Fisher campus for a brief ceremony, plus a variety of workshop sessions.
One set of workshops on history included a second presentation by Kinealy on charitable works during the famine years, a genealogy talk by Dennis Hogan and a discussion by John Sullivan about whether the circumstances of the famine are such that it would be proper to label it as genocide.
Another workshop series on music included two sessions by Irish singer and lecturer from the National University of Ireland Galway Mary McPartlan about women's contributions to Irish music. They were sandwiched around a performance by the Rochester-area women’s trio Cuisle Mo Chroi.
A third track devoted to literature included a session led by Bernard Hart, director of the IACI’s Literary Roundtable; a presentation by Fisher adjunct professor Fionnuala Regan on the impact of the famine on County Mayo; and a third session led by event organizer and author Elizabeth Osta, featuring excerpts from her historical novel Jeremiah’s Hunger.
The day ended with a readers’ theater featuring 10 people presenting dramatic readings from The Flight of the Wretched: A Journey to the New World, a historical fiction work by Rochester author Mike McCarthy. The author, along with several friends and family members, acted out three scenes involving young Irish people making the difficult decision to uproot themselves from home and family to make the journey to a new life in America.
The event was sponsored by the Rochester Chapter of the Irish American Cultural Institute and St. John Fisher’s Irish Studies Program.
*Jack Rosenberry is a Journalism professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester.