Volume 23, Number 3 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 28 - June 3, 2010
Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds
Cara Dennehy, 8, from Peekskill, NY with Ireland’s President Mary McAleese at the Hunger Memorial in BPC last Sunday.
Visit from Irish pres sheds light on hunger there and here
BY Aline Reynolds
Twenty-two third graders anxiously awaited Irish President Mary McAleese’s arrival at the Action Center to End World Hunger on Sunday. McAleese made a special visit to hear them sing a song they composed in memory of the Irish Potato Famine, a period in the mid-1800s when a million Irish died of starvation and disease after blight destroyed their main food source, the potato crop.
The students from P.S. 158, the Bayard Taylor School on the Upper East Side, then recited a poem for McAleese and an entourage of dignitaries, who praised the students for their “evocative” tribute to the victims of the devastating famine.
“They told me more about the famine than I could ever have known myself,” McAleese later told a crowd that had gathered at the Irish Hunger Memorial, across the street from the Action Center.
President McAleese, introduced by former Battery Park City Authority Chairman James Gill, described the hardships endured by the nearly one million Irish who immigrated to the United States to escape the famine. The President compared them to the people in her homeland today, “the first [Irish] generation to truly know peace and partnership.”
“This memorial ensures that those voices silenced all those years ago cry out in our time, even in the heart of a very busy city,” she said, as she praised New Yorkers for remembering their ancestors’ pain and suffering.
The memorial is a stretch of land on which lies a 300-million year old limestone block from County Kilkenny, in Southeastern Ireland, along with a roofless, two-room Irish cottage from Attymass County Mayo, a parish in Northwestern Ireland.
McAleese poignantly described the travails of those initial emigrants to America. “What they would not have given to see the Irish fields, even if they left those fields behind in terrible circumstances,” she said. “The absence of them, being away from them, broke their hearts for many years, generations to come.”
The famine, she continued, is proof that food supply remains a critical issue, even today.
“Her visit…reminds us that, right now, as we stand in the greatest, richest city in the world, a million people go to bed tonight in our five boroughs not knowing if they have enough food to feed their families tomorrow,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a speech after McAleese’s.
Speaker Quinn has pushed legislation to combat the city’s hunger epidemic. In March 2008, she backed a bill assigning permits to street vendors that allow them to sell fresh fruit and vegetables on the city streets. She also supported a law passed in December 2009 that increased access to fresh produce through new zoning regulations and gave developers incentives to create grocery stores.
Quinn stressed the importance of sustaining the strong ties between America and Ireland to foster peace and economic growth in both nations.
“If we want to help the peace process moving forward, we have to recommit on a regular basis to keep the connection between our City and Ireland strong,” she said.
The Speaker thanked President McAleese for her visit to the Shearith Israel Synagogue on the Upper West Side.
In another talk, William Thompson, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, called the Irish Hunger Memorial “a testament to those who believe and who are trying to educate the world about the blight of the Irish famine and how starvation was used as a political weapon.”
Following the speeches, a group from the Fallen Angel Theatre Company recited second-hand accounts of the Great Hunger from descendents of Famine survivors, unearthed by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1940s.
Aedin Moloney, artistic director of Fallen Angel Theatre Company, dramatically read aloud “An Gorta Mor — Flowers of Humility”), the song written by Irish poet, Denise Ryan, which recounted the adversities of those who endured the Great Famine. The poem-song is narrated by the first-person protagonist, who carries with her “a million white roses to sew and heal the pain.”
Cathy Maguire, a resident of Sutton Place, moved to New York from Dundalk, a town in Northeastern Ireland, in January.
“I really identify with the early emigrants,” she said, particularly because lots of people are now leaving Ireland, a country that has felt the strong effects of the European recession.
“There are good opportunities in New York, just like there were 150 years ago.”
“It’s the first time since I lived here that I ever got a reminder of my heritage,” said David Martin, a Battery Park City resident.
Mary Byrne, Martin’s nanny, was visited by former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in Dublin on Saturday, an Irish tradition. In her absence, President McAleese wished Byrne a Happy Birthday, which Martin sent via his cell phone directly to Byrne’s computer.
McAleese was in New York on a four-day visit to “acknowledge educational excellence, improve economic ties with Ireland, and forge closer relations with New York’s Irish American community,” according to The Irish Emigrant.