irish famine memorial

In memory of Irish tragedy, U.S. history

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PROVIDENCE – A Mass celebrated 12 years ago at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine ignited a dream that was finally fulfilled last weekend.

The idea to memorialize the victims of that tragic famine and honor the survivors who escaped starvation and started a new life in Rhode Island, eventually brought together many of Rhode Island's Irish-American population, including Nancy and William Gilbane, the president of the large construction company, who donated funds and expertise to the project and former Governor J. Joseph Garrahy. An artist was commissioned, the perfect location finally found, and just the right tone – somewhere between solemn and celebratory – was set for the project.

The sound of bagpipes greeted those who attended the Mass on Saturday at the Cathedral to dedicate a memorial to victims and survivors of the Irish Famine. Father Daniel M. Trainor, pastor emeritus of Assumption Parish, Providence, and a descendant of Irish emigrants, celebrated Mass. He shared his personal memories of visiting family in Ireland and called on the congregation to imagine life in Ireland during the famine and the strong faith of those who survived.

“I know that many of us have become wealthy, famous, very sophisticated, but it was the simple faith of our ancestors that sustained them,” he reminded the mostly Irish-American congregation.

Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, from Newport, attended the Mass, which included a pipe and drum-playing band dressed in their regalia of yellow kilts and green sweaters.

After the Mass, a large crowd gathered at the site of the memorial, near the intersection of Dyer and Pine Streets, for the dedication ceremony. Dr. Scott Molloy, the education chair of the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial committee, emceed the nearly three-hour long event that included speakers, music and the presentation of a donation to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

The chilly temperatures didn’t keep anyone away from the dedication, more than 300 people gathered for the ceremony. “We’ve brought together the shanty and the lace curtain Irish and everybody in between,” Molloy proclaimed at the start of the ceremony.

Rhode Island political leaders including Providence mayor David Cicilline, former Governor J. Joseph Garrahy and Attorney General Patrick Lynch were among the noted speakers. Lynch’s father, former Pawtucket Mayor Dennis M. Lynch, was also in attendance. He died suddenly the following day at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence.

Mayor Cicilline, who was jokingly renamed “Mayor O’Cicilline” by Molloy in honor of the Irish event, spoke about the important impact the Irish people who fled Ireland during the famine and came to Rhode Island made on the state. “The history of this city is written, in part, by the history and energy and spirit of the Irish," he said. “This monument is a great gift to this city," the mayor added, “I proclaim today, in Providence, Irish Famine Memorial Day.”

The president of the memorial committee, Raymond J. McKenna, spoke about the 12 year-long process of bringing the memorial from a simple wish to commemorate the important piece of history into the beautiful and thoughtful monument.

The memorial, he and the other members of the committee hope, will preserve the memories of those millions of Irish men, women and children who were affected by the famine. “We feel that visitors to this monument will not just have an emotional experience, but they’ll have an educational experience.” Part of the monument includes a wall that recounts the history of the Irish famine from the potato blight to the “coffin ships” on which thousands of emigrants died trying to reach the shores of America, Australia and Great Britain to other important events in Irish-American history. “(Visitors) will learn that the story of the famine entails not just Ireland’s loss, but America’s gain,” McKenna said.

McKenna, along with Molloy, then presented a gift of $2,500, which was matched by a donation from the Alan Shawn Feinstein Foundation, to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Lisa Roth Blackman, the director of development at the food bank, accepted the check whose funds she said will go to the food bank's general operations costs. The food bank serves tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders each month through their numerous member agencies and in 2006 distributed 8.4 million pounds of food, she said. “It was very wonderful of them to include us and to make that connection between a tragedy in the past ... and hunger that exists today,” Blackman said.

When McKenna presented the check, he reminded the audience about the importance of ending hunger today. “Unfortunately, as long as hunger raises its head ... we as Irish men and women want to be sure that we are doing some thing about that,” he said.

The event's keynote speaker, David Barry, a representative of the Council General of Ireland, based in Boston, spoke about the importance of memorializing the tragic famine, called An Gorta More, the great hunger, in Gaelic. “The tragedy of An Gorta More is as significant now as it was then,” he said. “The memorial also, and rightly so, reminds us of the many stories of survival,” Barry added. He also read a statement from Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, of Ireland: “From such tragic beginnings the story of the Irish in Rhode Island, and indeed throughout America, was forged.”

After the speaking program, the statue and wall were finally unveiled. Local sculptor Robert Shure designed and created the memorial statue, which features an Irish family and represents the journey from starvation to success in America. The second large piece of the memorial, a bronze wall, features vignettes that trace the history of the Irish who left Ireland for a brighter future in the United States. The small park that accommodates this memorial also includes a brick walkway that is inscribed with the names of families and people who emigrated to Rhode Island from Ireland and large inscribed granite benches sponsored by organizations from across the state.