In the autumn of 1995 Anne Burns arranged for a memorial Mass to be celebrated at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in remembrance of the million or more Irish who died in the Great Famine, a calamity that began 150 years earlier in 1845. Over one thousand people attended this sesquicentennial event. In its aftermath Irish American volunteers created the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial Committee, an umbrella group derived from ten distinct local Irish organizations. With almost a half-million dollars to raise, the committee’s effort took twelve years, twice as long as the Famine itself.
The project was led from start to finish by the late Raymond McKenna, an eloquent and tenacious schoolteacher from Warwick. His sizable and dedicated committee, which still meets to maintain the memorial, included vice president Pauline Grant, recording secretary Claire Barrett, corresponding secretary Catherine Miller (who succeeded the late Anne Burns), treasurer John F. O’Gara, finance director Thomas P. Gill, fundraising chairman Michael P. Doran, monument design chairman Dr. Donald Deignan, education coordinator Dr. Scott Malloy, and the group’s unofficial chaplain, Father Dan Trainor. The committee has held dozens of meetings since its establishment.
The committee selectedsculptor Robert Shure, who had created Rhode Island’s Korean War Memorial and the George M. Cohan Memorial near Cohan’s birthplace on Wickenden Street in Providence. Shure designed an impressive granite and bronze sculpture depicting three destitute yet courageous figures that express the strength and determination of the Irish people. The sculpture is the centerpiece of a park in which commemorative bricks, flagstones, and benches honor those who funded the endeavor. Also prominent are two huge bronze tablets whereon Dr. Molloy summarizes the experience of the million-plus Irish immigrant survivors who fled the Famine, and Dr. Deignan, successor to Ray McKenna as president, recounts Ireland’s experience during the disaster.
My wife Gail Cahalan-Conley and I took a strong interest in this project, contributing $30,000 in cash and raising $19,850 through a postdedication benefit party that we sponsored at our Fabre Line Club and an additional $5,000.00 via memorial donations for Gail’s late son, Brad. For our efforts we were designated “patrons” and honorary co-chairs of the endeavor along with former Governor J. Joseph Garrahy, prominent builder William Gilbane Jr., and Bill’s wife Nancy.
The monument’s dedication took place on November 17, 2007, adjacent to Dyer Landing at the Providence River’s head of navigation. Gail and I arrived in our tour boat, Providence Piers, accompanied by several dignitaries and famine committee members. Our journey to the site by water was symbolic of our ancestors’ journey across the ocean.
The lengthy program, directed by Scott Molloy, followed a Mass at the Cathedral celebrated by Father Trainor. The dedication had a legion of presenters and speakers, including Congressman Patrick Kennedy, Attorney General Patrick Lynch, Governor Garrahy, and David Barry, the Irish consul general. I gave the following remarks:
Irish Council General David Barry, Father Daniel Trainor, Governor Garrahy, Mayor Cicilline, Attorney General Lynch, Famine Memorial Chairman Ray McKenna and Your Tenacious Committee, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Since the speakers at this dedication are more numerous than at any similar event since the groundbreaking for the Tower of Babel, I will be mercifully brief.
At the beginning of this week, on the opposite side of this Providence Riverwalk, military veterans dedicated a World War II Memorial to the 2,562 Rhode Islanders who died in that great global conflict. They were the unfortunate ones among the more than 92,000 Rhode Islanders who served their country in that epic struggle. These men and women, and those who supported them on the home front, have been dubbed by some as “America’s Greatest Generation.”
Today, a hundred yards distant from the World War II Memorial, we honor Ireland’s Greatest Generation–especially the million who died from starvation and disease and the million-plus who were uprooted from their homes by the Great Hunger and scattered by the ocean’s winds to every portion of the globe.
I am proud to state that I am an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame. That connection provides me with a theme for my brief remarks on this solemn, yet joyous, occasion. As its name suggests, Notre Dame was founded by French missionary priests. From the end of the nineteenth century onward, however, Irish American boys from Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and other Midwest cities–many the sons or grandsons of Famine refugees–dominated the student body. When they chose a college nickname early in the twentieth century, Notre Dame became “The Fighting Irish.”
In effect, the student body selected a pejorative, disrespectful term used to describe those immigrant Catholic Irish who responded in kind to the violence heaped upon them by Anglo-Protestant nativists, and who did so with a pugnaciousness that earned many a ride in the “Paddy wagon.”
These Famine Irish were fighters, indeed! They fought for life against the ravages of hunger, and at least a million of them lost that battle.
From 1845 through 1851 well over a million more fled their “unhappy isle,” not only to escape starvation but also in search of the opportunity, the self-determination, and the liberty denied them in their homeland by a repressive foreign ruler. The Irish diaspora sent some to Scotland and England, others to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and a few journeyed to South America and South Africa; but most came here to the United States. The latter are our immediate ancestors, and we are their biological and their spiritual progeny.
Upon arrival in this land of the free, those Irish of Catholic faith had to fight again for their liberty and equality. They battled ethno-religious bigotry and economic discrimination, epitomized by the then popular slogans “To Hell with the Pope” and “No Irish Need Apply.”
In Rhode Island–alone among all states–the Famine Irish also battled against a nativistic constitution specifically designed to prevent naturalized Irishmen from voting and holding office unless they acquired real property. Thankfully, all those battles have since been won!
Despite their often hostile reception, the Famine Irish were also expected to fight in a war to preserve the unity of their adopted land. Many heeded President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers, while others were conscripted; and those who fought and survived wore their “red badge of courage” as proof of their Americanism. Chalk up another victory for the Fighting Famine Irish!
We, the beneficiaries of those victories, have not forgotten. With the rotted root of the ubiquitous potato as our negative reference, we have nourished our own roots by honoring those whose sacrifices brought us to our present place. The Famine Memorial is an elegant and poignant proof of our gratitude: it is our lasting tribute to Ireland’s Greatest Generation.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley