National Famine Commemoration Day
The National Famine Commemoration Day ( Lá Cuimhneacháin Náisiúnta an Ghorta Mhóir) is an annual observance in Ireland commemorating the Great Famine on the 3rd Sunday in May. The commemoration is held in a different place each year, rotating among the four provinces of Ireland that had been affect by the famine.
A local commemoration was held on May 21st 2023 at Marine Hospital & Quarantine Station Staten Island, New York, where Irish immigrants were led as they exited the famine ships.
Using historical facts and images, Lynn Rogers (Abandoned and Forgotten Cemeteries of Staten Island) and Loretto Leary took us back in time on this inaugural “Famine Walk” and painted a clearer picture of the Irish Famine emigrant experience in America.
John Foley, President of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield, addressed the group in Staten Island and recounted his experience visiting the mass grave in Macroom, Ireland.
Pictured: Cathy Fahey, Loretto Leary, (Event Organizer), and John Foley (President, Ireland's Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield).
“Ladies and gentlemen,
Today, we gather in this sacred place, a mass burial ground for the Irish victims who sought refuge in America from the horrors of the Irish famine. Here, amidst the echoes of their pain and the weight of their loss, we are reminded of the power of empathy and the significance of their journey. Today, I stand before you to share a deeply personal experience that forever changed my perspective on immigration and the value of empathy.
In the year 2000, I had the privilege of visiting a mass grave in Macroom, Ireland. From a distance, the sight of an old iron gate caught my eye, standing as a testament to the passage of time. The stone walls flanking it were adorned with thorny briars, symbolizing the struggles and hardships endured by those who were buried beyond.
As I approached, a field stretched before me. At first glance, it appeared like any other field, with heavy, wet grass upon a gentle slope. However, my attention was drawn to the tall, leafless trees at the lowest point. They stood as solemn sentinels, inhabited only by black crows, their caws breaking the silence, paying homage to a generation lost. In that moment, I felt an undeniable aura, an understanding that this place held stories and sorrows beyond compare.
The townfolk spoke of it in hushed tones, warning me, "You'll understand when you go, just don't stay too long." The weight of their words lingered as I approached the gate. With each step, a sense of trepidation mingled with curiosity. And when I finally pushed open the gate, its wail seemed to mirror the anguish of the crows taking flight, their sorrowful screams resonating in my very core.
Those crows, with their ghostly presence, were guardians of a painful history. They witnessed the starvation and suffering endured by countless Irish families. Children with empty bellies were laid to rest without even the dignity of a marked grave. Their crime? Being poor and Irish, victims of circumstances beyond their control.
Closing the gate behind me, I stood with my head bowed, consumed by a sorrowful silence. Tears streamed down my face, fueled by anger and shame. Anger at the injustice inflicted upon these desperate souls, and shame for the indifference and apathy that allowed such suffering to persist. The weight of their struggle, their resilience, and their lost dreams bore heavily upon my heart.
And here, in this hallowed ground, I feel that weight once more, as the spirits of the Irish victims intertwine with our presence. But it is not just this place that reminds us of their enduring legacy. It is also the Great Hunger Art Collection that echoes their stories, etching them in the annals of history.
As I stood before the Great Hunger collection for the first time, that same feeling enveloped me. The paintings, sculptures, and artistic expressions became vessels of empathy, transporting me to the depths of the Irish famine. Through each brushstroke, each chiseled form, the artists breathed life into the experiences of a generation haunted by hunger and destitution. Their work told tales of sorrow, resilience, and the unbreakable human spirit.
It is for these reasons that I emphasize the paramount importance of preserving and utilizing the Great Hunger Art Collection. We have an opportunity—a responsibility—to create Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, where the next generation can bear witness to the stories of the past and learn from the trials faced by our ancestors.
The Great Hunger collection is a testament to the struggles endured by immigrants throughout history. It transcends mere art, serving as a bridge between generations, cultures, and experiences. By safeguarding this collection, we can ensure that the sacrifices and resilience of those who sought refuge in America during the Irish famine are never forgotten. The Great Hunger Museum will stand as a beacon of remembrance, educating and inspiring future generations to embrace empathy, compassion, and inclusivity.
Through the museum, we can provide a space for reflection and dialogue. It will serve as a platform to engage visitors, young and old, in conversations about the profound impact of immigration and the importance of understanding the experiences of others. The Great Hunger Art Collection will be at the heart of this educational journey, inviting viewers to connect with the emotions, struggles, and triumphs of those who came before us.
In creating Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, we ensure that the lessons learned from the past are not lost to time. It will be a testament to the resilience of the Irish people and a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It will remind us of our shared humanity and the importance of compassion and empathy, not just towards those who have faced similar hardships in history, but also towards those who seek refuge and a better life today.
We have the power to shape the future by understanding the past. The Great Hunger Art Collection and the museum we create will be instrumental in cultivating empathy and fostering a society that embraces diversity, compassion, and acceptance. By sharing the stories of the Irish victims and the lessons they teach us, we inspire future generations to create a world where no one is judged by their origins, where everyone is given the opportunity to flourish.
Today, as we stand in the presence of the Irish victims who found their final resting place in this land, let us honor their memory by committing ourselves to the establishment of Ireland's Great Hunger Museum. Let us preserve their stories and the stories of countless immigrants who have faced similar trials. Through education, understanding, and empathy, we can forge a brighter future for generations to come.”
The Historic Irish Famine Walk takes place each year on the third Sunday of May, and all are invited to join us next year on this walk back in time to retrace the steps of your Irish ancestors on land and water during the years of The Great Hunger.
Wreath and flowers laid at the mass grave and memorial at Marine Hospital & Quarantine Station Staten Island, New York.