August 15 is a special day for Catholics around the world because it is the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. It is also special for our AOH cousins in Ireland who march that day to show pride in their heritage on ‘Lady’s Day’ as it’s called. However, on that day in 1995 an historic event also took place in Derry as the American AOH and LAOH joined with the AOH Board of Erin (BOE) to march in that parade. Our National Presidents, Ed Wallace and Kathy Linton led the line of march behind the American and Irish flags alongside Hibernian leaders from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. It was an incredible show of unity, but only part of the reason for the American visit.
It all began at the Louisville, KY National Convention the year before when Ed Wallace was elected. He authorized a joint project between the two Boards and BOE; BOE Treasurer Frank Kiernan was in attendance to carry the word home to Ireland. The project was to be the first ever memorial in Ireland to the victims of the Great Hunger of 1845 – 52. Significantly, it was to be dedicated on August 20th the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the blight that killed countless millions and forced into exile millions more. A committee led by immediate Past President George Clough and Massachusetts AOH leader, Dave Burke liaised with BOE representatives and members of the Clare County Council as it was decided that the memorial should stand across from a deserted workhouse and mass grave on the Road between Ennistymon and Lahinch. The memorial was funded and erected by a combined effort of all three after a Mass in Ennistymon and a parade to the site. After moving speeches by Presidents Wallace and Linton, they unveiled the monument. Minister of State, Donal Carey, representing Dail Eireann, noted that this was the first national monument in all of Ireland to the victims of the Great Hunger and it took the AOH to do it. It was a proud moment for the AOH, and a visible indication of what can be done when the Irish at home unite with the Irish Diaspora.
The journey to that memorial was long and costly, but the AOH felt that it was worth the effort to erect a meaningful remembrance to those who suffered just as the Jews remember the victims of the Holocaust. Every Irish person, at home or abroad, lost a relation in that tragedy, whether they knew of them or not, and the story of how their descendants remember their ordeal and commemorate their memory is a moving one, indeed. The monument was created by Alan Ryan Hall from Valencia Island, Co. Kerry, and depicts an account found in Book 4 of the Workhouse papers preserved in the Ennistymon Library. The account centers on a note pinned to the torn shirt of a barefoot orphan boy left at the workhouse door on the freezing morning of February 25, 1848. The note read:
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about being buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve” signed by Constable Robs.S.
One side of the memorial depicts a child standing before the workhouse door, while across from that is the head of an anguished mother and two hands clenched in frustration or anger above the sorrowful text of the pleading note. If you are fortunate enough to visit the memorial, breathe a prayer for the unnamed souls it commemorates and if you are a Hibernian, stand a bit taller!.