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Reflecting on the Gorta Mór:  the Great Famine of Ireland - Some narratives, their lessons and their legacy

Fanueil Hall, Boston, Saturday 5 May 2012

I am delighted to be here in Boston, the capital of Irish America.  This is not my first time in Boston but it is my first time here as President and I cannot think of a more appropriate place to visit given the deep and historical connections between this city and Ireland. I know there are few sites in this great country which have been the setting for as much history as Faneuil Hall, and it is truly humbling to be speaking in the same spot as such pivotal figures as George Washington, Daniel Webster, Susan B Anthony and Frederick Douglass.  I am deeply grateful to the Mayor and City of Boston for the invitation to speak in this incredible building.

There is not a single narrative of the Great Irish Famine.  We are compelled to acknowledge the many different elements that make up the story of Ireland’s greatest disaster – its causes, contents and consequences.

Be it the trauma of the famine itself in the 19th century, the clearances of families that preceded or succeeded it, the emigrations for seasonal work across the Irish Sea that seasonally bled life from our ancestors as they sought to pay the rent and they and their families sought to survive, the tyranny of landlordism and the emergence, after the famine, of those elements in a grazier class, native predators, as acquisitive and cruel as any absentee landlord: from all this we have a legacy – many narratives, that have to be revisited, kept open, revised and made more inclusive of much that has been forgotten or perhaps deliberately avoided in a great silence amongst the survivors at home and abroad.

The inherited narratives can never be fully complete.  Thus, we must, given the complexity of the event itself, and its preceding and succeeding context, and the enormity, rapidity and devastations of the forces at work, be open to amending what we have taken as the iconic event – the master narrative – and add in some missing bits, drawing on the new scholarship, so much of it from scholars in the United States who have admirably stayed with the complexity of the Gorta Mór – the Great Famine of 1845-47.

It is when we acknowledge the facts of what has been omitted, and speculate on why, that we are best prepared to use our own Famine experience in such a way as would generate an appropriately ethical response to the obscenity of recurring famines in our own time in different parts of our shared vulnerable planet. 

The Irish Famine of 1845-50 was the greatest social calamity – in terms of mortality and suffering – that Ireland has ever experienced. It was also the worst social calamity based on crop failure experienced in Europe, indeed, in the ‘developed’ world, in modern times. The very terms in which it is described hint at its complexity, and at the different ways in which historians and the people at large have sought to describe and come to terms with the calamity:  it has been referred to as ‘the Great Irish Famine’, the ‘great hunger’, the ‘Irish potato famine’, an Gorta Mór and, in some Irish-language communities, ‘blianta an droch-shaoil’.

The salient facts of the calamity are not in dispute. From late summer 1845 a hitherto unknown fungus, to which there was then no known antidote, attacked and partially destroyed the potato crop in Ireland. In 1846 the blight was more severe and destroyed virtually the entire potato crop. The ravages of starvation and various diseases in 1847 earned for that year the grim description ‘Black 47’. Though the blight was less severe in 1847, the potato harvest was poor, as seed potatoes had either been consumed during the scarcity in 1846 or had simply not been set, due to panic and the disruption of normal life. The blight was again severe in 1848, especially in the areas of greatest poverty and population pressure in the south and west. The partial failure of the potato in 1849 and 1850 prolonged the crisis and the suffering into the early 1850s.

During the crisis years it is estimated that over one million Irish perished, from hunger or, more commonly, from hunger-related diseases. In the decade following 1846 – when the floodgates of emigration opened to a population fleeing a stricken land – more than 1.8 million Irish emigrated, more than half of these fleeing (more as refugees than as emigrants, as the historian Peter Gray has remarked) during the famine years of 1846-50.  The population of Ireland, which was close to 8.5 million in 1845, had fallen to 6.6m by 1851. It would continue to fall – due to the relentless drain of emigration – for many decades to come. 

One piece of the missing narrative is perhaps our insufficient recognition of the fact that the famine and its later emigration impacted differently on different classes among the Irish population. When the potato failed in 1845, huge numbers were ‘at risk’, but some more than others.  Perhaps a million and a half landless labourers were virtually totally dependent on the potato, while it was a major component of the diet of a further three million (cottiers and small-holders) of the rural poor. 

The recently established Workhouse system was overwhelmed by the tsunami of the desperate. The voluntary sector of charitable organisations – churches, local relief committees, contributions from overseas – was likewise overwhelmed in the famine years. What of the government response? There has been bitter controversy and recrimination – at the time of the famine and since – regarding the state’s response to the crisis generated by the failure of the potato. This should lead us to reflect on the general issue, in our contemporary conditions, of the appropriate response of state and state-led institutions to the regular famines of our own times which scandalously repeat themselves. The failure of such an economic policy at global level to emerge as would take account of our interdependency, of sustainability or the diversity of paths to development stands behind the repetition of contemporary famines. To international relations, governments and the institutions in which generations place their trust, it remains one of the great unresolved ethical challenges of our time – the daily needless loss of life to hunger and preventable diseases.

While the context of the Great Famine is complex so also are its consequences. We must remember that while the Great Famine ushered in a great tide of emigration of the poor and the desperate, particularly from the West of Ireland, emigration from Ireland did not begin with the Great Famine. Emigration, in different forms, overwhelmingly seasonal from the west, had established itself. Seasonal migration was integrated into the agricultural economy of Britain and while migration to North America was heaviest in the North of Ireland, it was not confined to those areas.

While the emigrants to America after the Famine were fleeing famine and seeking survival, we should not forget earlier involuntary migrations – the fact that in earlier centuries, Irish indentured servants, vagrants and felons had formed a substantial part of the labour force of the Caribbean. In the late 1660s for example there were 12,000 Irish in the West Indies of whom 8,000 were in Barbados. Again 350,000 people left Ireland in the three quarters of a century before the American Revolution. While some scholars put the early decades of the 18th century as the beginning of significant emigration, Kerby Miller puts it a full generation earlier.

Seasonal migration of course which linked cottiers and smallholders, through the rent they paid to landlords, to the agricultural economy of the neighbouring island, drew up to 100,000 seasonal migrants from Ireland. Of course, their labours did not necessarily change their objective economic status, as the rents were adjusted to take account of their earnings.

While the Famine did not initiate emigration, neither did evictions commence with the famine, as they so often have done in the public mind. The clearances of smallholders had begun decades before the Famine when the economic yields of war, that required intense production, changed, and intense cultivation gave way to the yields of pasture. 

It is worth remembering, too, that different streams of migration reflected different types of migrants with different capacities – not only in terms of their source or motivation but in terms of their human and technical disposition. The 1.5 million who had earlier emigrated from Ireland, between 1815 and 1845 were, as Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh puts it, “Protestant and prudential”. While the emigrants of that period drew strongly from the northern half of the country, and included a sizable Protestant element, towards the end of the period the number of Catholics and the shared counties involved were increasing. Donald Arenson has asked us too to bear in mind that while the later flood of emigrants after the Famine would be to cities, Irish people were going to rural settlements right unto 1870. As Alan Munslow  in his study of the Boston Irish tells us:

“Of the 43 most populous cities in America in 1870 the Irish were the largest first generation immigrant group in twenty-seven and second in the rest.”

Standing behind our Famine experience and the adjustment to it, is the issue of land. The massive expansion in Ireland’s population of 75% between 1780 and 1821 was assisted by the phenomenon of “partible inheritance”, that is, with a low life expectancy, unions were formed, and children born, on tiny parcels as fields gave way to families. In the post-Famine adjustment the families would give way to fields with one male inheriting, one female marrying out and the rest of the females having to travel as Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball would put it almost a century later. Land hunger went on to dominate Irish society after the famine and it influenced Irish politics for all of the remaining century and the early decades of the twentieth.    

The late 19th century Ireland of conservative smallholders was both made possible, and assisted, through emigrant’s remittances. Land would be at the base of all of the struggles in the period that followed, often pushing other issues, both social and issues of national independence, into a secondary if not rhetorical place. The late 19th century would, for example, close in a confrontation between smallholders – the agricultural labourers and the cottiers having been virtually eliminated by the Famine and emigration – and a section of graziers who had come to hold land in greater volumes than the erstwhile landlords. These new native predators, however, enjoyed a formidable form of protection. They could claim to share a religion with their victims, and espouse too the nationalist cause of separatism, home rule or national independence with those whom by their grazier actions they excluded from a living on the land.

Incidentally, our migrant experience is at times better depicted in the fictionally and autobiographical literature of our times than in the early versions of Irish sociology. We have much to learn from the transience of our migrants, both in what they endured and what they faced. 

The long established seasonal migration to Britain had not been without difficulty. Not only because of their willingness to work for lower wages but for a complex set of reasons, they were faced with hostility. Rivulets of seasonal migration gave way to a new flood of Famine migrants and led to increased hostility towards the Irish. The Irish, fleeing hunger, were at different times depicted as disease carriers, at best inferior and perhaps the victims of the providential judgment of God. In latter decades attitudes towards the Irish were influenced by political events of the day such as at the time of perceived concessions by the English Government on Home Rule agitation. 

Frances Finnegan’s study of York is a valuable regional study of this transition. In 1846 itself, during the Famine, the news-reading public in York had been treated to regular recitals regarding Irish characteristics which were hardening into permanent – racial – features.  Stereotyped now as violent, lazy and dirty, the Irishman was presented as a menacing contrast to his ‘Saxon benefactors’.

“Englishmen have the reputation throughout civilized Europe of being the most enlightened, plodding, charitable nation on the face of the earth … Show us a case of apparent distress and do not our purse strings as if by instinct loosen themselves?”

Sometimes too the Irish were accused of a lamentable ingratitude.  Referring to the suspension of Public Works in Ireland the Gazette  commented:

“The Irish people are literally Irish in everything they do. Every act of their lives denotes their peculiarity.”

After the hunger of 1847 the British Government, who altogether spent £10 million on the Irish Famine in the entire period 1845-51, decided that famine relief should be funded from within Ireland.

Christine Kinealy Rogers refers to a Times editorial headlined “Why should the United Kingdom pay for the extravaganza of Ireland”. As Kinealy puts it:

“The Times again marshalled a vitriolic campaign against further assistance to Ireland pointing out to its readers the ‘total absence of gratitude’ shown by the Irish people and adding that this money ‘had broken the back of English benevolence’.”

It was this characteristic ‘difference’ in the Irish race which, it was suggested, led to and justified the suspension of the public works aimed at relieving poverty.

The London Times had, together with Punch and others, consistently developed a stereotypical version of the Irish as insatiable in their demands, ungrateful and disloyal. They supported the British government’s interpretation of famine response and policy that saw famine as a matter for local resolution or even providential in its cause. Yet the post famine exodus of men women and children created an ongoing memory of culpable neglect at best, and more usually, an abiding communal recall of the consequences of imperial degradation, a response that would now live on beyond the seas.

From Frances Finnegan, in her regional study Poverty and Prejudice, we get a wonderful insight into the mind of the regional press and the attitude towards the Irish in the City of York at media level. For example, in relation to the cutting of relief in 1848:

“in consequence of the infatuated and wicked conduct of the peasantry, who have obstructed the operation of those means of employment intended for their relief, and by a system of insubordination and outrage have endangered the lives of the officers and overseers appointed to superintend the works … Where is the people except in Ireland, who would by brutal force and violence assail the very parties who are engaged in laudable efforts to save a nation from famine and death?”


Racial and religious prejudice are combined in the Gazette’s extraordinary editorial of 10th July 1847, in the eye of the Famine, regarding the ‘fearful visitations to which Ireland has been subjected during the past two years.’

“Famine and pestilence have, we trust, taught wisdom and English benevolence conquered in some degree the prejudices of the Celt.  The Irish people are not so stolid as not to perceive that the acts of the Saxons give the lie to the ravings of the lay and clerical agitators, and that in the hour of need, when tens of thousands were falling victims to famine, the exciters of turbulence even if they were willing, were powerless to check its ravages until Saxon energy and Christian philanthropy stepped between the living and the dead.”

The Yorkshireman  refers to the unfortunate ‘difference’ in the Irish race to which I have already referred.  In April 1847 it stated:

“The Irish are a strange and unfathomable people.  Their ways are not such as other men – their motives are often past finding out.  They will neither profit by exhortation nor learn wisdom by the science which teaches by example.”

Irish ingratitude is referred to again and again as a subject for condemnation. In its editorial entitled ‘The Irish Begging Box Again’, The Yorkshireman  commented in 1848:

“Our readers will reconnect that during the last two years this country, while labouring under the deepest depression of trade and a declining revenue, came magnanimously forward … to arrest … the famine and plague in its sister country. Englishmen did this in the front of the deepest ingratitude. They gave upwards of 3 million in money, the recipients all the while thanking them with a gibe and menacingly shouldering a pike. England, however, laughed this mockery of rebellion to scorn and continued to pour golden gifts into the lap of the disaffected and miserable people. We had thought that there would be an end to this; and that Ireland newly emerged from the rebel field would scarcely have the hardihood to again appeal to the extraordinary charity and benevolence of the English Parliament. Irish beggary is importunate and its objurations and solicitations stereotyped. The inhabitants will take no refusal. Shut the door in their faces and ten to one a musket is levelled at the door. Remind them of the hundreds of thousands already distributed amongst them, and they will reply that they got no more than their own … The cry hitherto has been ‘Ireland for the Irish’. Let it be so. England will be the gainer by the bargain.”

Frances Finnegan has shown in such quotations the extent and type of prejudice to be found in two York newspapers even before the main influx of the post-Famine immigrants. But most virulently after their arrival.  She says of those stereotypes found in the written press:

“Their influence, of course, cannot be measured and would in any case have been confined to the comparatively limited newspaper readership of the well-to-do classes in York and the surrounding countryside. However, if such attitudes were not merely reflections of the public’s views, but also instrumental in forming them, then their influence could have been considerable – within that very group which was to be responsible not only for administering to and governing the Irish, but in the form of Reports, Minutes, letters etc., of leaving a legacy of descriptions and impressions concerning them.  That those in authority – magistrates, Poor Law Guardians, sanitary officials and governors of the Ragged Schools were prejudiced against the Irish is illustrated throughout this study. The extent to which this prejudice led them to make stereotyped, misleading judgements about them however, and even worse official reports containing evidence apparently, but not always in reality, based on facts, has rarely been considered.”

On the other hand, Frances Finnegan also tells us of some of the exceptional behaviour of concern and solidarity that came, even at the cost of life itself, from such as the Quaker Samuel Tuke.

Samuel Tuke voiced his enlightened but unorthodox, and no doubt unpopular, views in public as well as in private. Views which were in sharp contrast to what we have already seen of the opinions of those in authority in York and representative of the general myth surrounding the mid-nineteenth century Irish immigration. Addressing a meeting of Friends at Devonshire House in June 1847, for example:

“He entered into an animated apology for the Irish people, against the wholesale condemnation in which they are commonly involved. They are stigmatized, he said, as lazy, reckless, and regardless of human life. But the charge of laziness is disproved by the multitudes of those who come over to reap our harvests, and those who labour at the heaviest employments. They have been most thankful for work; they have undertaken it even in a state of destitution and depression of animal powers which might well have excused them from the task … It is said the Irish are reckless, yet a most interesting evidence of their thrift, their patriotism and their natural affection is to be seen in the remittances of the poor emigrants in America to their relations at home.”


Samuel Tuke died of an illness contracted helping Irish people in the direst of circumstances. His daughter’s diary entry is given by Frances Finnegan and is itself very moving:

“During this summer, my father’s heart has been full of the wrongs and sufferings of Ireland, and his head busy devising schemes for the temporary relief of the starving people. Many have flocked to York, as to other places, to escape the horrors of famine; and to find employment and food for these was my father’s unwearied care. They are dying of fever around us. One morning, a poor Irishman died of fever in a ditch. He and his wife and child had been travelling about for weeks, and at last being taken ill, had begged a lodging, but no one would take them in, so they sought shelter under a hedge. James took them a blanket and some old carpet, and William [Hargraves] some straw for the night; but in the morning the man died. My father and James attended the inquest. The former said it was most affecting (and I remember well how much he was affected in narrating it) to see the child – a girl about ten – saying she would never leave her bonny father and holding a large clasp-knife, kissing it, and saying it was her father’s knife. ‘A child full of sentiment’, my father called her; and the poor woman said the man had been ‘a beautiful husband’ to her. My father went to the Fever Hospital next day, to see the poor Irishwoman and her child. He found the woman living, but expecting to die. The child looked up at him so sweetly, he said, and he intends to take care of her if the mother dies.”

But I am speaking here in Boston which was the city towards which many of the Irish directed their hopes, some from Ireland directly and others who hoped to get to America from Liverpool. Their entry into Boston was not without difficulty. There had already been established a version of Boston life that reflected the values of earlier migrations – ones that were often hostile to the circumstances and beliefs of a new wave of impoverished Irish, different in beliefs and often in language.

We are here today, of course, and I remind myself, not only to commemorate the victims of the Great Irish Famine, but also to celebrate the lives that those who emigrated forged in this city from adversity, their achievements in creating enduring links between our countries which live on today. While those who arrived in Boston after the Famine might have the assistance of these networks of contact, they had to deal with the collision – in a cultural, economic, social and religious sense – of earlier settled Irish American migrants of the pre-Famine periods.

Neither was the media of their time universally favourable. The Punch cartoons, after all, crossed the Atlantic. In America, most Irish became city dwellers and, since they had little money for onward passage, settled in the cities of disembarkation. It is interesting to note that by 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the population in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Baltimore. Those who took that very long journey sought a new life and beginning.  

Although, there have been Irishmen and women in Boston since this city’s earliest days, it is in the aftermath of the dark days of the 1840s that famine emigration to the United States took place on a much larger and continuous scale, in particular to Boston and New York. In April 1847 over 1000 Irish emigrants landed in Boston on just one day, and over 37,000 arrived in that year alone to a city whose population was only 115,000.

The Boston evidence demonstrates the determination of the ‘famine Irish’ to overcome poverty and prejudice, to empower their children, and, they, in their turn, were dedicated to further, inter-generational, advancement and upward social mobility. They made an early and sustained commitment to serving the public good and contributing to the prosperity of their ‘new world’. This is evident everywhere in this country, in the great state of Massachusetts and in the proud city of Boston: in the services (police, fire services); in education (schools, colleges); in Business, industry and finance; in health, welfare and philanthropy; in all aspects of religious life of the community; in politics and public administration; in science, technology and innovation; in all branches of the arts, creativity and cultural expression.

Alun Munslow in his article “A ‘Bigger, Better and Busier Boston’. The pursuit of political legitimacy in America: the Boston Irish, 1890-1920” tells us:

“For the Irish Catholics urban politics was the primary means of negotiating the contracts of cultural dominance and subordination in the New World. Municipal politics became the key discourse that in Boston indicated the dominant Yankee Protestant and the subordinate Irish Catholic relationship.”

Boston was the second largest entry port (after New York) in the USA for the famine emigrants landing after the Atlantic crossing. By 1840 Boston still no great ‘melting-pot’, was strongly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant in its culture. Allowing for a railway line to the mill-town of Lowell, it saw itself as a confident, and orderly, cultural and social centre.

The heavy influx of famine-Irish ‘refugees’ brought fear (and loathing) among many of the city’s settled population. As one historian has written of the city:

“Boston, which had prided itself on being a clean, healthy city and had not had a major epidemic of smallpox since 1793, suddenly found itself with slums where the pox flourished, along with … other diseases …..  The city was frightened by this horde of Irishmen loosed in its midst.  Before the arrival of the Irish Boston had been a community composed largely of tradesmen, artisans and merchants.  Now it harboured a seemingly inexhaustible supply of men and women who accepted …. working conditions that local labour scorned. In 1850, of the city’s boasted 136, 831 citizens, c. 30,000 were newly settled Irish immigrants, who brought with them a religion that was antipathetic to the religious convictions of the original English settlers”[1]

Remarkably, among these famished emigrants from famine-stricken Ireland, there were those who held a deep regard for the learning, lore and history recorded in the large corpus of manuscripts written in the Irish language, the language of a large percentage of the famine emigrants from the rural countryside. This lore was copied regularly and circulated among the Irish peasantry, and significantly shaped their historical consciousness. They treasured these well-worn manuscripts. The Boston Athenaeum (an independent research library) in this city holds several of these manuscripts, gifted to it by Thomas Graves Cary, President of the Athenaeum 1846-59, and, as it seems, acquired by him from famine emigrants.[2]

Among the most poignant evidence of the trauma of dislocation experienced by Irish emigrants in the famine years, are the letters written by some of them (or by ‘scribes’ – literate agents – acting on their behalf) to the Boston Pilot newspaper, seeking information on their ‘missing’ relatives and friends. These letters have been collected, edited and published by Ruth-Ann Harris, Donald Jacobs and Emer O’Keefe. [3]

There were, of course, casualties in terms of those who were lost. The Boston Pilot maintained a ‘Missing Persons’ column – as a service to readers in America and in Ireland – from 1831 to 1916.  In the period 1831-1850, some 5,655 ‘missing persons’ from Ireland were sought in these columns. Here are some examples:

May 1846 – Information Wanted

Of James Hurley, formerly of Waterford, Ireland, who left Boston on the 13th of May 1845, and has not been heard from since.  Any information respecting him will be thankfully received by his brother, Michael Hurley, addressed to him care of Mr. Nicholas Power, No. 20 Atkinson Street, Boston, MS.

28 November 1846 – Information Wanted

Of Patrick Curtis, who emigrated from county Clare, parish of Ogoneloe, last spring, and left his parents and family in Cabotville, MS, 11th of September last, and has since been seen in Boston. He is 17 years old, of a robust form, slightly pockpitted, sandy-coloured hair and curled locks; wore a grey frock coat of Irish frieze, with a velvet cape. Any person who finds him out will perform a charitable act by writing to his disconsolate father, Patrick Curtis, Cabotville, MS.


The legacy of the Famine includes a strong appreciation among Irish people of issues such as food security and a strong commitment to humanitarian aid and relief. It also resulted, through emigration, in the formation of many diaspora communities – the Irish abroad.

The emigration tide in the decade following 1846 deeply embedded a culture of ‘exit’ from Ireland, and as the generation of the famine emigrants settled in their new countries, they created networks of Irish communities overseas to receive, assist and sustain the chain migration of Irish people, following their family and neighbours across the seas to start a new life and find new opportunities. It is hard to fully recover how those ‘exiting’ and leaving Irish shores during the famine felt – their sense of loss, displacement and anxiety, but also their sense of hope for new beginnings and a new life. We celebrate those emigrants today for their courage, resilience, perseverance and for making new beginnings. We also pay tribute today to those who started their voyage to place afar during the famine but who perished on that journey. These memories are an ethical wellspring for our response to the migrants and famines of our times. We are challenged to place ourselves in the circumstances of the other by such memories.

During the worst of the Famine, emigration reached somewhere around 250,000 in one year alone, and I know far more emigrants left the West of Ireland, the beautiful place I settled in, than any other region of the country. Families did not migrate en masse but younger members of families did. So much so that emigration almost became a rite of passage, as evidenced by the data that show that, unlike similar emigration throughout world history, women emigrated just as often, just as early, and in the same numbers as men. Roy Foster, an eminent historian has explained:

“The emigrant started a new life in a new land, sent remittances "[reaching] £1,404,000 by 1851 back to his/her family in Ireland which, in turn, allowed another member of the family to emigrate”.

The journey for our emigrants was no doubt treacherous and momentous, but the instinct for survival, the will to live, which had seen the famine emigrants survive the calamity and the ocean crossing, must have been extraordinarily strong. It must have been one of the main factors that enabled them, and in time their children, to put down firm roots in their new countries. This determination to survive and to succeed was passed on to later generations of the Irish of the diaspora, and must have inspired them as they made their mark and reached the top in every area of the new societies in which they settled.

As I have said, the effects of the Irish famine on Ireland, culturally, economically, socially and politically, cannot be underestimated. For a significant number of the Irish of the diaspora, the Irish famine has been an important part of their self-awareness. Some retained a close interest in their homeland. They brought out family members. They helped build churches for the devotional surge. They helped clear shop debts. They sought to contribute to their mother country’s progress and development. This would mean, in some instances, support for movements dedicated to achieving an independent Irish state, or for strengthening the various strands of Irish cultural identity: the Gaelic League, the Literary Revival, the Gaelic Athletic Association and so on. In more recent times, they have been to the fore with economic co-operation and investment, philanthropic work and, of course, supporting and consolidating the peace process in Northern Ireland. All of these commitments have marked the continuing interest of the Irish of the diaspora in maintaining the links with their ancestral homeland.

In recounting the terrible story of the famine, I should mention, in particular, the assistance that came to Ireland from Boston in those difficult times, in particular the remarkable career of Captain Robert Bennett Forbes. Robert and his brother John Forbes were instrumental in petitioning Congress for the release of the two naval ships that eventually took aid to Ireland in the spring and summer of 1847. 

They promoted this idea after attending a public meeting here at Faneuil Hall on 18 February 1847, a few weeks after the arrival of the news that Ireland was indeed facing the prospect of massive starvation. It was at this 18 February meeting in Faneuil Hall that the New England Relief Committee was formed under Mayor of Boston Josiah Quincy, and only a couple of days later that the petition to Congress was made to turn over the USS Jamestown which was in Charlestown Navy Yard and the USS Macedonian in New York to private hands so that food and aid could be sent to Ireland. The loading of the USS Jamestown began appropriately enough on St Patrick’s Day 17 March 1847 and was done for free by the mostly Irish Boston Labourers Society, and it was finished within nine days. Forbes and the other officers of the ship undertook this voyage pro-bono, as did many of the crew, and the others had their wages paid by contributions.

Upon arrival at Cobh on April 12, 1847, the cargo unloaded 800 tons of provisions and supplies. The New England Relief Committee funded a total of $151,000 out of the approximately $300,000 of recorded aid that went from Boston to Ireland in l847.

While in Cobh, Forbes met the local dignitaries, but seems to have been most impressed by the famous temperance crusader Father Theobald Mathew, who took him on a tour of the poorest areas of Cork city. A local committee was appointed to oversee distribution of the cargo to Cork City, Cobh, Kinsale and Skibbereen. This is one of the very first examples of a United States naval vessel being turned over to civilian control to enable humanitarian relief to be given to desperate people facing hunger and disease – a good and early example of turning swords into ploughshares.

Captain Forbes' efforts were greatly appreciated in Ireland, and he received testimonials from the Corporations of Dublin and Cork as well as a beautiful engraved Silver Salver Tray in gratitude now at the Forbes Museum in Milton. As we in our time recall this act of humanity and generosity, I am delighted that there are descendants of Captain Forbes here with us this morning.

This was not the only effort that was made here in Boston. The Charitable Irish Society, the oldest Irish organisation in the Western Hemisphere, of which Captain Forbes was a member, was also instrumental in sending aid, even to the extent of cancelling their annual dinner and sending the cost instead as aid. On February 7, 1847, the city's newly appointed Catholic Bishop devoted his first pastoral letter to the plight of the Irish:

“A voice comes to us from across the ocean; the loud cry of her anguish has gone through the world….”

He urged his parishioners to give unstintingly.                             

“Apathy and indifference, on an occasion like this,” he said, “are inseparable from crime!”

His words remain equally powerful today. The Bishop and his relief committee quickly raised $20,000. Christine Kinealy’s chapter “Potatoes, providence and philanthropy: the Role of private charity during the Irish Famine”, published in volume six of The Irish World Wide series, gives an illuminating account of those who sprung to the assistance of the Irish people, ranging from the young Sultan of Turkey, Abdülmecid, who sought to give £10,000, to the Choctaw Indians and the 17 shillings collected in pence and halfpence from prisoners of the ‘Warrior’, a prison hulk moored in Woolrich.

Given our Famine experience, hunger has a deep resonance with the Irish people. Our experience of famine has echoed through the generations and has shaped the values and principles that are embedded in our people and also in our development programme today as it should. Ireland’s aid programme, known as Irish Aid, is based on a partnership with the developing world. It is clearly focused on poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. The programme prioritises the poorest and most vulnerable communities, building self-respect, dignity and hope. A major priority of the programme is to support global efforts to reduce hunger. In addition to addressing the immediate needs of those who are victims of natural and manmade disasters, Ireland is also working to address the root causes of hunger.

I am proud to say that Ireland has become a leading global advocate in the fight against hunger and has committed to spending 20% of its overseas aid budget in support of activities that can improve access to food and reduce under-nutrition in the world’s poorest countries. In addition to Government efforts, Irish non-governmental organisations are leading the way in ensuring that the issues of hunger and under-nutrition are placed high on the global agenda. We do this, not only urged by memory, but because it is right. It is an example of the Irishness we wish to be known by, ethically taking our share of global responsibility.

Building on, and learning from, our shared experience of famine, Ireland and the US are working in partnership to lead efforts to combat under-nutrition around the world. Since September 2010, Ireland and the United States have been leading the 1,000 Days of Action to Scale Up Nutrition. This innovative movement aims to prevent the irreversible effects of under nutrition on children during the critical 1,000 days between pregnancy and age two.

As I have already said, the effects of the Irish famine were profound. The large scale emigration during the period of the famine in Ireland has of course resulted in the strong and enduring links between this city, Boston,  and Ireland – President Kennedy when he was in Ireland on his famous 1963 visit , the first ever by a sitting US President, said in Eyre Square that “nearly everyone in Boston is from Galway”. Now far be it from me as a former Mayor and national parliamentary representative for Galway to deny the truth of that statement but certainly the ties that bind Boston and Ireland are especially strong with regard to Galway and the west coast of my homeland.

I would like to thank the community in Boston for honouring the Irish Famine victims here today in such a dignified and respectful way. I understand that there are a number of events planned to mark the Irish Famine throughout this month and I congratulate all those involved in organising these.

I would also like to mention the National Famine Commemoration Committee, which was established by the Irish Government in 2008, and which is chaired by Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, whom you heard earlier. I would like to congratulate that Committee for their work over the last number of years in commemorating and paying tribute to those who suffered loss, death and displacement during the Great Famine years, and also for the way they have linked respecting the memory of the Irish famine with raising awareness of food security issues in the world today. 

Sunday 13th May 2012 will mark the fifth National Famine Commemoration Day in Ireland and the occasion will be marked in Drogehda, Co. Louth, which has great links with this great city here in Boston. Drogheda was the second largest port of departure for over one million people who were forced to emigrate during the famine. Some travelled only as far as Britain while others became known as ‘two boaters’ – travelling onwards from the UK to North America, including Boston.

The links between our countries, although forged out of tragic circumstances, have endured, and I know will continue to deepen and prosper, through the strength of our shared experiences and vibrant communities.


Go raibh míle maith agat.



[1] Howard, Brett. 1976. Boston. A Social History. NY: Hawthorn Books, pp. 57-8.

[2] Cf. article by Dr. Cornelius Buttimer in Pádraig de Brún et al (eds). 1983. Folia Gadelica. Cork.

[3] Ruth-Ann Harris, Donald M. Jacobs and Emer O’Keefe (eds). The Search for Missing Friends. Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot. Vol. 1, 1831-1850.