Irish president Mary McAleese will visit the United States next week as part of a major American commemoration of the Great Irish Famine.

McAleese arrives in the U.S. on May 20. While in New York, she will speak at a special event at the Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park City, meet with Irish community leaders and place the Famine in the context of the role it played in creating the history of the Irish in America.

In 1998,  McAleese spoke in Australia about the Famine's impact there.

" My grandfather's mother was born during these years. He is only twenty years dead & he, like so many, carried inside him the fearsome grip of loss, despair & anger which characterised his generation,” she said at the time.

"Our foremost Irish living poet Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney wrote the poignant lines: ‘Stinking potatoes fouled the land pits turned pus into filthy mounds; and where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore.’

"The experience of that harrowing time still lingers not alone in our folk memory but in the warp & weft of our thinking, feeling landscape. And yet it is so hard to accept & to comprehend how such devastation, hardship & suffering was caused by the shortage of food in a land which we know as the ‘Green Island,’ where as the poet said, ‘so much beauty meets nature.’

"But between 1845 & 1850 the potato was destroyed by blight, the green land turned hostile & the lives of the people of Ireland were fundamentally changed. Out of a population of almost 9 million people, over 1 million died from starvation & related diseases. A further million emigrated, many under appalling conditions, & many of those indeed died on the journey or soon after landing on the shores of distant lands that held out the promise of a better life in abundance & in freedom.

 "My grandfather's cottage is now our holiday home, the little road leads past Ardcama graveyard [and] the ditch we travel past on our daily runs to shops was once lined nine-deep with bodies awaiting burial. So far & yet so near."

Irish America Magazine will publish a special famine issue to coincide with the president's visit. It will be available online here.

Meanwhile in Ireland, the loss of millions of Irish people to starvation and emigration will be remembered in Mayo this week. Mayo's population dropped from 400,000 to 275,000 in the first years of the Famine. 

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Pat Carey said the weeklong program “blends culture, history, music and song, and promises to be a fitting tribute to those who died or suffered loss in the Great Famine.”

The first national commemoration week was held in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, last year. About 5000 people are expected in Mayo for the event.