Famine conference a prelude, more to follow

The Great Hunger is "the hole in the heart of Irish America," author and film-maker Mary Pat Kelly declared at a "Famine Echoes" conference held over two days in New York last weekend.

"Irish America is good at celebrating our achievements, but we also need to understand the pain which lies at the heart of our experience," Kelly said.

"And while it's important to remember the victims, we should also acknowledge those who survived and beat the odds by coming to America. If we want this hole in the heart of Irish America to heal, we have to talk about the Great Hunger."

Organized by Owen Rodgers and Deanna Turner of the newly-formed Irish Diaspora Committee, the conference - held in the historic Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Lower Manhattan, where many immigrant Irish found succor in the wake of An Gorta Mór - was addressed by leading academics and activists.

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Drew University professor Christine Kinealy, author of "The Great Calamity," told the Saturday and Sunday conference that the issue of the Famine had been avoided in Irish discourse.

"There were more books published in the years 1995-1997 (to mark the 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger) than in all of the previous 150 years," she told the Irish Echo.

"It's only by exploring this issue that we can learn the lessons applicable to other situations. Prime among those is that famine is never about food shortages and always about political decisions."

Professor Kinealy, who said she was persona non grata with revisionist-leaning Irish universities, criticized Irish politicians who avoided discussion of the Great Hunger on the basis that it would provide what one academic described as "psychological bullets for the IRA."

Other contributors and organizers included Brehon Law Society co-founder and retired general Jim Cullen, author and curator Sinéad McCoole, author and activist Michael Patrick MacDonald, and Ruán O'Donnell, head of the Department of History at the University of Limerick and visiting Patrick B. O'Donnell Chair of Irish Studies, Notre Dame University.

Organizer Owen Rodgers described the conference as "a good start" and promised similar events in the future.

"We need to hear more about what I believe was effectively a genocide directed at the Irish people," he said.

"It's estimated that the Great Hunger claimed over one million lives with a further 2.5 million fleeing Ireland. Ireland is the only country in Europe with fewer people today than it had in 1840," said Professor Kinealy.

"The cause of that astonishing demographic profile deserves to be talked about."

Among supporters of the conference were the law firm O'Dwyer and Bernstien, the Irish Echo, Irish America Magazine, Beckett's of Stone Street, O'Lunney's Times Square Pub, Rosie O'Grady's, Sean Coakley Plumbing, The Brehon Law Society, the Kinsale Tavern and L T B Mechanical.

The conference coincided with the launch, held at O'Lunney's on Friday evening, of Kinealy's new book, "War and Peace, Ireland since the 1960s."

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir