On September 13, 1845, the British Publication, “The Gardner’s Journal,” announced, “We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato murrain [blight] has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland.” That date is considered the precursor of An Gorta Mor, the “Great Hunger.” Over the next five years, Ireland would lose a quarter of its population, over two million people, to death and starvation.
2020 marks the 175th anniversary of the start of the great hunger. Ironically, observances of this tragic inflection point in Irish and Irish American history are constrained as our communities fight another blight, COVID-19, which in many ways echoes the events of nearly two centuries ago. Rather than let such an important event go unrecognized, the Ancient Order of Hibernians have produced a video remembering the 175th Anniversary of the Great Hunger.
The Hibernians are reminded of the sacrifices of the first responders of that time at Grosse Ile, Canada, the destination of so many “coffin ships.” These brave men and women of Gross Ile cared for Irish immigrants who, malnourished and living for weeks in unspeakable conditions on ships never meant to carry human passengers, had fallen victim to diseases such as typhus. Forty-four of the staff of Grosse Ile would die of illness including 22 nurses and four doctors who bravely treated the infected at great risk to themselves: sadly paralleling today’s headlines.
The prolonged Covid lockdown has had a devastating impact on Irish American businesses, many of whom were struggling to survive before the pandemic. Currently, Facebook is running a series of commercials in support of small business, sadly using the recently closed “Coogan’s” is their exemplar.
Yet, it was John F. Kennedy, the grandson of famine era immigrants, who once noted, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”
From the devastation of the Great Hunger arose modern Ireland and Irish America, and that is it’s the great lesson, a lesson too often absent from our school’s curriculum. In the often tragic history of the Irish, there is one indisputable fact: that from the many, many tragedies of Irish history, the Irish have come back stronger than ever, and there is no reason to believe that with our dedication and resolve, this one shall be any different.