Tag Archives: Great Famine

Catching up with modern Ireland: August

This month’s round up leads with two deaths, one on each side of the Atlantic, both connected to Northern Ireland: 1998 Nobel Prize-winning Irish politician John Hume, 83, of Derry, who helped forge the Good Friday Agreement; and journalist and author Pete Hamill, 85, the Brooklyn-born son of Belfast Catholic immigrants.

Hume

“Hume combined moral clarity against violence and strategic vision for what peace might entail with a politician’s embrace of life’s complexities, the need to compromise and to take risks, to find where power lies and to exploit it,” Tom McTague wrote in The Atlantic. “Hume was supremely successful in this effort, whether you agree with the ends he pursued or the tactics he deployed to achieve them; he was not a saint, but a man who made judgments that are not beyond reproach. He abhorred violence, but brought Sinn Fein’s leaders (who did not) to the top table of Northern Irish politics. In seeking out giants, we are too quick to seek out perfection, when no such thing exists. Hume’s legacy lies in the compromises he championed and the complexities he recognized.

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Hamill

“Hamill was among the last symbols of a bygone era, when idiosyncratic newspaper columnists like Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York were celebrities in the cities they covered,” Harrison Smith wrote in the Washington Post. “He was in the vanguard of the New Journalism movement, when writers such as Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Breslin applied the traditional tools of literary fiction to works of reporting, often while writing about ordinary people who usually never made headlines.”

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Also in August:

  • The Irish Examiner was first to report that more than 80 people attended an Irish golf society event in Clifden, County Galway, breaching COVID-19 restrictions in spirit, if not in fact. Three Irish politicians have resigned their posts. The scandal is emblematic of larger problems in the three-party coalition cobbled together four months after Irish elections, the Examiner’s Gerald Howlin wrote under the headline, “Golfgate shows the government has the wrong clubs in the bag“.
  • In the Republic of Ireland, 1,777 people died of coronavirus as of Aug. 30, and 142 new cases at month’s end caused health officials to warn of a second national lock down, The Irish Times reported. At least 871 people have died from COVID-19 in Northern Ireland through Aug. 21.
  • The North’s top tourist attraction reopened Aug. 1 with safety measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic. “But it could be months, possibly years, before Titanic Belfast is anywhere near back to delivering the sort of economic statistics which has earned it international plaudits,” The Irish News reported.
  • Next to the museum, Harland & Wolff has benefited from ferry and cruise ship firms using the famous shipyard’s dry docks to carry out maintenance during the pandemic shutdown. The firm is still fighting for its long-term financial survival.
  • One more from the North: “No United Ireland. Not Now. Not Ever,” says Briefings For Britain, which insists “the impact of Brexit on Irish unity remains unclear.” … U.K. and E.U. negotiators are still trying to reach a trade agreement before the Dec. 31 end of the Brexit transition period.  
  • Fitch Ratings affirmed an A+ Stable Outlook for the Republic, factoring the uncertainties of the pandemic, Brexit, and the coalition government.
  • The Republic’s population is on the threshold of 5 million, reaching an estimated 4.98 million as of April, according to the Central Statistics Office. Total population on the island of Ireland, including the North, reached 5.1 million in 2016, exceeding the 1851 post-Famine census total for the first time.

A road on Inisheer, August 2019.

Catching up with modern Ireland: May

I’ll be reducing the number of new posts and republishing some of my earlier work over the summer as I work on larger projects for the fall and beyond. Stay safe. Here’s the May roundup:  

  • At least 1,652 people have died of COVID-19 in the Republic of Ireland, with another 522 in Northern Ireland. Both sides of the border are beginning to ease some lock-down restrictions in place since mid-March.
  • “The Irish Blessing” – an initiative of 300 religious congregations from different denominations on the island  – is intended as a blessing of protection on frontline workers battling the pandemic. Watch and listen to the recorded version of “Be Thou My Vision” below:

  • U.S media outlets widely reported the COVID-19 relief generously supplied by the Irish people to the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation as repayment of a donation the Choctaw Nation sent to starving Irish families during the Great Famine.
  • Nearly four months after the general election in the Republic failed to produce a governing majority, coalition talks continue to grind forward. “Slowly, at times almost imperceptibly, Fianna FáilFine Gael and Green Party negotiators are crawling towards a government, conscious that public and political patience is running out,” The Irish Times reported. Party leaders had hoped for a deal by June. Now they wonder if one can be achieved by the middle, or even the end, of the month. “As always, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
  • The U.K.’s highest court ruled that the former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams should not have been found guilty of unlawfully attempting to escape from Long Kesh prison in the 1970s because his internment was not legal to begin with. The ruling is expected to prompt more than 200 additional challenges from other former internees, including loyalists, the Belfast News Letter reported.
  • Ireland is vying against Canada and Norway for a two-year rotating seat on the United Nation’s Security Council. The vote is set for June 17. Ireland last held the seat in 2001; and earlier in 1981 and 1962.
  • The Ireland Funds America named Caitriona Fottrell is its new president and CEO, effective June 30. She has been with the global philanthropic network since 1993, currently as vice president. The Fund has chapters in 12 countries.
  • Ireland’s first direct container shipping service to the United States is set to begin in June, with weekly crossings between the Port of Cork and Wilmington, N.C., and Philadelphia, according to Maritime Executive. Readers of my series about New York Globe journalist Harry Guest‘s 1920 reporting from revolutionary Ireland will recall the U.S.-based Moore-McCormack Lines operated a commercial shipping service between Philadelphia and Dublin-Cork-Belfast, from September 1919 until 1925.
  • Actor Matt Damon flew out of Ireland in late May after three months of unscheduled lock down at a €1,000 per night Dalkey mansion. … Irish-American actress Kate Mulgrew announced she might move to Ireland if Donald Trump wins reelection in November.

Famine remembrance exhibit returning to Dublin in April

The Irish Famine Exhibition is returning to the Stephens Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. It was initially curated in 2017 by historian Gerard McCarthy, a native of West Cork.

McCarthy says the Famine is a neglected subject in Ireland. “There are no dedicated exhibitions on the subject in our National State Funded Museums and there is rarely a mention of it in Ireland’s National Media,” he wrote in an email.

McCarthy hopes that his exhibition will contribute to keeping the story alive in the minds of Irish people and also educate tourists who have little or no knowledge of the subject. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the start of the Famine in 1845.

The exhibition is open from April 6 to September 25. It includes original artifacts from the period, such as the cast-iron pot below used to make soup, “perhaps the ultimate famine memorial,” according to the exhibit.

I’ve contributed two of my previously published Famine-related stories to the blog section of the exhibition website: www.theirishpotatofamine.com. One story, published in the U.S. National Archives’ Prologue magazine, is about famine-era children born at sea on their way to America; the other, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is about period correspondence with a Pennsylvania priest.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum to remain open

A flurry of news coverage this time last year, some that I linked to from this blog, reported the potential 2020 closure of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, Connecticut. A new administration at Quinnipiac University  supposedly was going to withdraw funding for the museum, the labor of love of president emeritus Dr. John Lahey.

There is no information about this posted on the museum website. In a recent call to the museum, I was told there are no plans or deadlines to close the museum, which continues to receive funding from the university. The museum is striving to become more self-sufficient. The 2019 media coverage was “blown out of proportion,” the museum representative said.

The media does hype matters, and gets things flat wrong, but I’m also skeptical of those who want to dismiss or blame press. Keep an eye on this.

The museum, and the related Lender Family Special Collection Room at the Arnold Bernhard Library on the university campus, are both great resources and worth the visit to central Connecticut, about a two-hour drive from Boston or New York City.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University.

Irish ambassador, film producer discuss “Black ’47”

“Black ’47,” a fictional big-screen treatment of the Great Famine, debuted in March at the Berlin Film Festival; opened in September in Ireland; and has shown since October on limited U.S. screens. The New York Times described the film as an “occasionally exhilarating action-revenge plot” set against the bleak historical period. John Dorney at The Irish Story wrote:

Essentially it is a kind of revenge western epic – imagine a cross between Clint Eastwood’s the “Outlaw Josey Wales” and Quentin Tarnatino’s “Django Unchained” – but set in Famine era Ireland.

Think of “Rambo” in mid-19th century Ireland, with single-shot pistols and rifles (which more than once fail to fire), rather than automatic weapons.

My wife and I attended a 2 December screening at the American Film Institute’s “European Union Film Showcase.” Irish Ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall spoke about the Famine before the lights dimmed, and Jonathan Loughran, one of the film’s producers, participated in a Q & A session after the credits rolled.

The Famine is “fundamental to any understanding of Ireland’s story,” Mulhall said, and also is the “origin story” of more than 33 million Irish Americans.

With more than 1 million dead and 1 million emigrated, it was “a food crisis of unparalleled scale,” he said, the last mass hunger event in the Western world. Ireland’s population was 8.5 million at the time, a level not expected to recover until 2045, nearly 200 years later.

Loughran, originally from Dublin, said working on the film “re-woke feelings I forgot” in leaning about the Famine as a child. He said reactions to the film have been better than expected, especially among the Irish.

“It stoked some republican feelings in people,” Loughran said.

He praised Australian actor James Frecheville, who plays former Connaught Ranger Martin Feeney, for learning Irish, which is spoken by various characters the film, their words either interpreted by others in the scene, or shown in subtitles.

“Black ’47” is said to be the first feature film about the Famine, and Loughran thinks there is room for more treatments. “It could become its own genre, there are so many stories to be told.”

Here’s the official trailer:

A few of my previous posts about the Famine:

Swimming across Walden, remembering the shanty Irish

I was swimming west on Walden Pond
towards the ghosts of pre-Famine Irish workers
near Concord village in the sun on the first day of September.

–After Paul Durcan’s “On the First Day of June.”

In late June 1844, New England newspapers reported that service on the Fitchburg Railroad had reached Concord, Massachusetts, birthplace of the American revolution. A new noise replaced “the shot heard round the world.”

The repose of that quite venerable town … was suddenly broken by the shrill note of the engine and a hundred passengers alighted from the train of freight cars laden with materials for the line. The route from Boston to Concord is most picturesque and pleasing, passing [among other locations] the clear waters of Walden Pond. The regular trains will now commence running to Concord, and the track is rapidly progressing towards Vermont, and Canada.

A year later, Henry David Thoreau moved into the cabin he built near the pond’s shoreline. As noted in his book, Walden, he procured the boards for his abode from the “uncommonly fine” shanty of Irish railroad worker James Collins, who was moving up the line with the transportation project.

Irish railroad workers, former slaves, and other outcasts lived in the Walden woods for years before Thoreau. And it wasn’t all bucolic wilderness, either, as many nearby acres had been cut for timber and cleared for farming and the railroad. As Thoreau noted, the Fitchburg Railroad “touches the pond about a hundred rods [a third of a mile] south of where I dwell.” He continued:

The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk over a farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous county traders from the other side.

Thoreau’s 1846 survey of Walden Pond. Note the unfinished Fitchburg Railroad line at top right. His cabin was located about where the arrow’s fletching is at the middle right. I swam from A to B, and back.

In another passage, Thoreau mused on the term “sleepers,” the wooden ties that support the railroad tracks, as a metaphor of the workers’ oppression and their potential redemption:

Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them and they are covered with sand, and cars run smooth over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. … And I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.

Waves of unskilled Irish arrived in America during a “forgotten era” of immigration before the Great Famine of the late 1840s. They were cheap labor for the dirty and dangerous work of building the nation’s canals and railroads. A decade before the Fitchburg line was laid, 57 Irish railroad workers died of cholera–though some were probably murdered–at Duffy’s Cut, near Philadelphia, where they were buried in a notorious mass grave.

Irish people are referenced throughout Walden. Thoreau described the “clumsy Irish laborers” who cut blocks of ice on the pond in winter, and “Poor John Field … born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty.” He wrote, “the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” Scholars have debated whether Thoreau was prejudice against the Irish. One University of Notre Dame professor blames such interpretations on “hasty reading” of the book.

Swimming Walden

I visited Walden on the first day of September, as near to the autumn equinox as the date of Paul Durcan’s poem is to the summer solstice. With the air and water temperatures each about 80 F. (27 C.), I welcomed the challenge from my wife and some friends to swim the half-mile length of the pond. In the book, Thoreau made several mentions of bathing in the pond during summer, even “swimming across one of its coves for a stint.”

I am a confident, year-round pool swimmer, but I rarely get the chance to stroke through open water. Given Walden’s smooth surface and historical significance, this was an exhilarating opportunity. I entered from the sandy beach at the east end of the 65-acre oval.

Aerial view of Walden, with commuter rail right-of-way at bottom right, which is west. Photo: Walden Pond State Reservation.

For the next 20 minutes, I alternated between freestyle and breast strokes, the former to cover the distance more quickly, the latter to make head up navigational adjustments. There are no lap lanes across Walden Pond.

About three quarters across, during a stretch of breast stroke, I watched a train streak left to right on the horizon ahead of me. It was the commuter line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority on the former Fitchburg Railroad right-of-way. There was no shrill whistle; no belching smoke from a coal-fired locomotive; only the sound of steel wheels on steel rails, riding over the sleepers kept down and level in their beds by gangs of men. The rapid, unbroken notes drifted over the water:

“kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. … ”

Then silence. Then water rippling around my ears. My breathing. I dropped my head and stretched forward my right arm to begin the final segment of freestyle to the shore. There, I rested a few moments.

I thought about James Collins, John Field, and the other Irish who lived at Walden more than 170 years ago. Perhaps this spot is where Thoreau salvaged “a raft of pitch-pine logs with the bark on, pinned together by the Irish when the railroad was built.”

A raft for fishing? A raft for sledding blocks of pond ice? Or perhaps, looking eastward as I was, a raft for their imaginations to drift across Walden, across the Atlantic, all the way back to Ireland, even as their starving countrymen began sailing westward in the dark holds of equally dubious vessels.

Thoreau wrote “a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land [exclaimed], ‘What, is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?’ Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”

I waded into the shallow and plunged into the pond to begin the half-mile swim back to my wife and friends. Back to the 21st century. I am now another ghost of Walden; one who never built a railroad, a shanty, or even a simple raft. I am digging with my pen, as poet Seamus Heaney wrote; I am building my railroad on sleepers of words.

Along the shores of Walden
once home to shanty Irish workers
on the first day of September in the heart of New England
my ripples disappeared.


“Forgotten era” is the section title for the immigration period 1700 to 1840, in Jay P. Dolan’s The Irish Americans: A History, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008. More than one million people left Ireland in the 30 years before the Famine (p. 35), and up to 60 percent were unskilled laborers (p. 37). Irish workers helped to build America’s canal system in the early 19th century, then shifted to railroad work as that mode of transportation became more practical and profitable to commercial interests. In both cases, migrant Irish laborers lived in shanty communities near the project sites (pgs. 42-46).

‘Born at Sea’ talk is Sept. 15 in Baltimore

September 2018. IRWM photo.

Thanks to Luke McCusker of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum for inviting me to make this presentation, and for those who attended. Contact me via the “Leave a reply” function if interested in a talk on this subject, or my other Irish work. MH  

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I am giving a talk about “Ireland’s Famine Children Born at Sea” this Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore.

The presentation is based on my story in the Winter 2017/18 issue of the National Archives & Records Administration’s Prologue magazine. It includes additional research since the piece was published earlier this year.

Register for the free event, which begins at 11 a.m. The museum is located near downtown Baltimore at 918 Lemon St., a group of five alley houses where many Irish immigrants lived from the mid-19th century.

Here’s my earlier post about the museum, which is worth visiting anytime.

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

‘Born at Sea’ talk coming Sept. 15 in Baltimore

I’m giving a Sept. 15 presentation at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore about “Ireland’s Famine Children Born at Sea.” It is based on my story of the same headline in the Winter 2017/18 issue of the National Archives & Records Administration’s Prologue magazine.

The talk will including additional research that I’ve done since the story’s publication earlier this year. Register for the free event, which begins at 11 a.m. The museum is located near downtown Baltimore at 918 Lemon St., a group of five alley houses where many Irish immigrants who worked for the nearby B&O Railroad lived from the mid-19th century.

Here’s my earlier post about the museum, which is worth visiting anytime.

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

Blogiversary: Six years, and a summer break

July marks the blog’s sixth anniversary.

Before publishing my next post, which will be my 600th, I want to thank my readers for their support. I appreciate those who subscribe to the blog via email, share the posts on social media, or just drop by from time-to-time. Special thanks to Angie Drobnic Holan, my lovely wife, who contributes to the effort as volunteer editor and webmaster.

The Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited project, which dominated my work the first half of this year with over 40 posts, was well received. January through June traffic on the site was 70 percent of the 2017 full-year total.

Over the next two months, I’ll be posting less frequently in order to enjoy the summer and work on several long-term projects. The latter includes:

  • Preparing for a 15 September presentation at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum, in Baltimore, based on my Prologue magazine story, Ireland’s Famine Children ‘Born at Sea’.
  • Additional research and editing of the Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited, project for an e-book version.
  • Planning for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in November, and the following Irish War of Independence centenaries. I will attend the Newspaper & Periodical History Forum of Ireland‘s 10th Anniversary Conference, 9-10 November, in Galway. It will explore the 1918 British elections under the theme “The Press and the Vote”.

I will post a few history stories on the blog over the summer, including a new serialized version of my “Nora’s Sorrow” project, and keep up with contemporary events, such as Brexit and Pope Francis’ August visit to Ireland.

For now, however, thanks again for all of your support since 2012. Keep coming back!

Vintage presses displayed at the National Print Museum in Dublin, February 2018.

Ireland’s Famine Children “Born at Sea”

An 1868 illustration by Henry Doyle.

Anne Kerny wailed and moaned as the Garrick sailed to America during the worst winter of Ireland’s Great Famine. Somewhere in the Atlantic, before the ship reached New York City on January 20, 1848, the cries of the baby she delivered also filled the steerage compartment.

Bridget Kerny was not the only newborn of the 40-day journey from Liverpool. The Garrick was nearly a nursery, with 33 children born at sea among the 478 aboard, according to the Famine Irish Passenger Record Data File held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Two of the babies died before the ship nudged the dock.

The online database shows 8,075 births at sea among more than 410,000 Irish passengers to arrive in New York from January 1846 through December 1851, the teeth of the Famine years. Of these newborns, 452 died, among 2,883 total reported fatalities. That’s a nearly three-to-one ratio of births-to-deaths, and an extra 7,623 passengers who did not embark from Irish or English ports.

Read the rest of this story, which I just published in Prologue Magazine, the official publication of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

An Irish shrine in the heart of Baltimore

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at 918 Lemon St. in Baltimore.

I visited The Irish Railroad Workers Museum and Shrine at the edge of downtown Baltimore.

The museum is dedicated to the tens of thousands of Irish who began immigrating to the city during the Great Famine and continued to the middle of the 20th century. Many worked at the nearby Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The museum is contained within two row houses typical of the West Baltimore neighborhood of the period. There is a nice introductory video narrated by Martin O’Malley, former Baltimore mayor (1999-2007) and Maryland governor (2007-2015) in the museum welcome center, which also contains artifacts from the nearby St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church (now a Baptist worship space) and B&O rail yards. The adjoining house is restored as a typical workers’s home of the period.

The Memorial Garden in the rear features the shrine mural by artist Wayne Nield. The image depicts three phases of the Irish experience: the famine of the 1840s (right), the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic (center) and the new life in America (left), where the predominantly rural immigrants remade themselves as city dwellers.

Museum Board Member Barry Larkin and Managing Director Luke McCusker were very friendly and informative during my visit. I hope to return soon.

The shrine mural by Wayne Nield.