Boston's Irish Famine Memorial

By Levi Clancy for לוי on

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There are several Irish Famine Memorial sculptures throughout Boston. Along the Freedom Trail is perhaps the most famous. Boston's Irish Famine Memorial has two sculptures and eight plaques.

boston irish famine memorial bronze sculpture

boston irish famine memorial bronze sculpture


An Gorta Mor

The great famine which ravaged Ireland between 1845-50 was the major catastrophe of the 19th century. It brought horrific suffering and loss to Ireland's 8.5 million people. Over one million died of starvation and disease. Another two million emigrated, seeking sanctuary in Boston and other North American cities. Those remaining in Ireland suffered poverty, eviction, and the decimation of their culture. This memorial remembers the famine, known in Irish as AN GORTA MOR (THE GREAT HUNGER). It depicts the Irish exodus from their homeland, their arrival in Boston and ultimate triumph over adversity in America. It was dedication on June 28, 1998, as pat of the 150th anniversary of THE GREAT HUNGER.

Lest We Forget

The commemoration of THE GREAT HUNGER allows people everywhere to reflect upon a terrible episode that forever changed Ireland. The conditions that produced the Irish famine -- crop failure, absentee landlordism, colonialism and weak political leadership -- still exist around the world today. Famines continue to decimate suffering populations. The lessons of the Irish famine need to be constantly learned and applied until history finally ceases to repeat itself.

Dying of Hunger

Starting in 1845, a virulent fungus devastated the potato crop, depriving poor Irish families of their main source of food and subsistence. Ironically, as thousands of Irish starved to death, the British government then ruling Ireland callously allowed tons of grain to be exported from Ireland to pay absentee landlords their rents. "The stranger reaps our harvest, the alien owns our soil," wrote Irish poet Lady Jane Wilde.

The People Were Gaunt

Starvation and disease spread across the Irish landscape, claiming one million lives. Half a million people were ruthlessly evicted from their homes. Many died on the side of the road, their mouths stained by grass in a desperate attempt to survive. "The features of the people were gaunt, their eyes wild and hollow, and their gait feeble and tottering. Pass through the fields, and you were met by little groups bearing home on their shoulders a coffin," wrote Irish novelist William Carleton.

Boston Sends Help

Citizens of Boston, of all faiths, responded to the desperate plight of the starving Irish. On March 27, 1847, the U.S.S. Jamestown, commanded by Capain Robert Bennet Forbes, sailed from Boston harbor with 800 tons of food, supplies and clothing. Fifteen days alter it put into Cork Harbor, Ireland. "Deeply are we indebted to the good citizens of Massachusetts," Robert Hare of Cork told the ship's crew. "We will forever cherish their generous solicitude for Ireland in her hour of trial and suffering."

Crossing the Bowl of Tears

In a frantic attempt to outwit death, nearly two million people fled Ireland. "Many thousands of peasants who could still scrape up the means fled to the sea, as if pursued by wild beasts, and betook themselves to America," wrote Irish patriot John Mitchel. THe emigrants boarded vessels so unseaworthy they were called Coffin Ships. So many passengers died at sea that poet John Boyle O'Reilly called the Atlantic Ocean upon which they journeyed "a bowl of tears."

Arriving in Boston

In 1847 alone, 37,000 Irish refugees landed in Boston, on the edge of death and despair, impoverished and sick. "Native Bostonians might have been willing to send money and food to aid the starving Irish as long as they remained in Ireland," wrote historian Thomas H. O'Connor, "but they certainly didn't want them coming to America." The newcomers moved in along Boston's waterfront, packed together in damp cellars and overcrowded hovels. "Children in the Irish district," wrote Bostonian Lemuel Shattuck, "seemed literally born to die."

The American Dream

Despite hostility from some Bostonians and signs of NO IRISH NEED APPLY, the Famine Irish eventually transformed themselves from impoverished refugees to hard-working, successful Americans. The leadership of Boston Irish like John Boyle O'Reilly, Patrick Collins and Richard Cardinal Cushing culminated in a descendant of the famine generation, John F. Kennedy, becoming the nation's first Irish Catholic President in 1960. Today 44 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, leading the nation in Medal of Honor winners, and excelling in literature, sports, business, medicine and entertainment.

In Cambridge there is another Irish Famine Memorial.

Cambridge An Gorta Mor Boston Irish Famine Memorial

Cambridge An Gorta Mor Boston Irish Famine Memorial