Higgins to lead Famine commemoration in Boston

It is the most Irish of American cities.

And today in Boston, President Michael D Higgins will lead a poignant commemoration of the Great Famine.

In the famous Faneuil Hall in the heart of the city’s historic district, Mr Higgins will deliver an address on the Famine and be conferred with honorary membership of the Charitable Irish Society of Boston.

Established in 1737, the society, which counts John F Kennedy among its past members, is the oldest Irish organisation in the Americas and played a leading role in Famine relief efforts.

It has also played a leading role in the selection of Boston as the venue for this year’s overseas Famine commemoration.

The State selects a venue in one of the four provinces for the annual National Famine Commemoration, with Drogheda chosen this year and Sunday May 13 next the day on which the event will be held.

But in recent years, international commemorations have also been held, the first being in Canada in 2009, followed by New York in 2010 and Liverpool last year.

This year, Boston has been selected, and while today will see the official commemoration, led by Mr Higgins, a whole series of events will take place throughout the year.

At the heart of them will be the society, founded 275 years ago for the purpose of providing aid and assistance to newly arrived Irish immigrants.

A second purpose, according to Catherine B Shannon, Professor Emerita of History at Westfield State University and the first woman president of the society, serving in 1990 and 1991, was to “cultivate a spirit of unity and harmony among all resident Irishmen and their descendants in the Massachusetts colony”.

It was originally a Protestant organisation, with the founding members being predominantly Presbyterians.

But that changed, with Protestantism as a requirement for membership dropped in 1760, some 60 years before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts dropped its bar on Catholics holding public office.

The society, therefore, was ahead of its time, and became known for its inclusive tradition of Protestant and Catholic members and helping those of both religions.

“It’s a unique society in the American tradition in the sense that it’s very, very inclusive,” says Ms Shannon.

It was no surprise, then, that when news of the Famine reached Boston in November 1845, the society responded rapidly, with a former president, Rev Thomas J O Flaherty, establishing a charitable fund which within weeks raised $19,000 — a significant sum then.

The efforts of the society, and the wider Boston-Irish community, continued in subsequent years, with two shipments of food and supplies delivered to Ireland in 1847 courtesy of the USS Jamestown and the USS Macedonian.

But of course, the ships also came the other way. It is estimated over one million people died in the Famine, with another one to two million emigrating, and Boston was one of the places where the tired and poor arrived in their droves.

But unlike the sentiment expressed in the famous poem on the Statue of Liberty, the huddled masses who immigrated to Boston did not receive an overwhelming welcome.

“The first two decades after the Famine were extremely difficult times for the new immigrants in Boston and indeed for those already in the city,” Ms Shannon recalled in an article for the Boston Irish Reporter earlier this year.

“The huge influx of 130,000 Irish immigrants in the years between 1846 and 1853 provoked a resurgence of nativist hostility against Boston’s Irish population.

“The Famine immigrants were poorer, less skilled, and often in poor health compared to earlier immigrants, and their presence caused resentment not only among Boston’s native working class, but also among the city’s governing elite, who attributed the rising rates of crime, disease, and poor-relief costs to the arrival of the Irish.”

The society, however, got on with its work, and the US Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, proved a turning point, because “many of the society’s members proved beyond doubt that the Boston Irish could be patriotic Americans while simultaneously taking pride in their Irish roots”.

In 1885, another former president of the society, Hugh O’Brien, made history when becoming the first Catholic mayor of Boston, going on to serve four consecutive terms. Irish influence would steadily grow from that point on.

The society, meanwhile, continues its work to this day, giving individual grants to Irish immigrants facing personal emergencies.

Irish emigration returned with a vengeance in the 1980s, and returned again with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

But according to Ms Shannon, the numbers of Irish people coming to Boston now are nowhere near as high as they were in the 1980s — a sign, perhaps, of America’s own economic misfortunes.

“We’re definitely not seeing the same numbers, because there are no jobs here,” she says, adding that Australia is proving a more popular option now.

“I think the young people in Ireland - and I’m back and forth all the time - they’re seeing that America isn’t the place to go, which is kind of sad in some ways, but who can blame the kids for going where the opportunities are?”

When Mr Higgins receives his honorary membership today, he will be following in the footsteps of a select few — Parnell, Davitt and former US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt were among the small number of other recipients.

In addition to the speech at Faneuil Hall, Mr Higgins will lay a wreath at the Boston Famine Memorial, also located in downtown.

Tomorrow, meanwhile, Ms Shannon will deliver a talk relating the voyage of the Jamestown to Cobh in the spring of 1847, when it delivered 800 tons of food and supplies.

But the commemorations won’t stop there, and one of the most tragic events of the Famine exodus will be remembered in October.

The event in question was the sinking of the Brig St John, the coffin ship which set out from the west of Ireland for Boston in 1849 only to go down within reach of the coast of Massachusetts. At least 100 people lost their lives.

“The story itself has tremendous personal resonance for me because I can look out from where I live down there (in Cohasset Bay) at the site of the wreck,” says Ms Shannon.

“My parish church developed out of the connections that were made then. And the wreck happened within 18 months of when my paternal grandmother’s family left Newport in Co Tipperary in three stages -10 kids and the two parents, and they all got there safely. And I keep thinking about that, in terms of these other people and the tragedy that befell them, and thinking how lucky and blessed we were.”


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