On Tuesday 16 July 2002 a unique memorial to the Great Famine in Ireland (1845‑50) was opened in New York.
At this special dinner, attended by Governor Pataki and other distinguished guests, President Mary MacAleese of Ireland delivered this remarkable speech in which she linked Ireland’s 19th century disaster with the tragedy of September 11 and then went on to appeal for a compassion arising out of awareness of both calamities towards those who still endure poverty and hunger in other parts of our world.

Dia dhaoibh a cháirde. Tá an-áthais orm bheith i bhur measc inniu ar an ócáid speisialta seo.

Governor Pataki, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be back in New York and to be here as we celebrate a great, but poignant occasion. Poignant, because the Irish Famine represented such a wrenching disturbance of the course of Irish history, and poignant because of our proximity to the devastation of the World Trade Centre. Doesn't it seem almost prophetic though, that the site for the Irish Famine Memorial should be in the memory‑shadow of that tragic absence that is the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre.

The spirit of the people of this city now fills that space with their courage, generosity, kindness, resilience and decency. That spirit took the tragedy visited upon this country by the poison of human hatred and turned it spontaneously into the triumph of love.

There can be no better next‑door neighbour for the new memorial, for this is now an area where a bustling noisy city, silently but powerfully holds its most sacred memories. Against that backdrop both physical and psychological, the Irish Famine Memorial evokes memories of a dreadful time in nineteenth century Ireland that is tragically repeated today in so many parts of our 21st century global homeland. The monument is an outward call to conscience and to responsibility, daring us, challenging us to care about the stranger in far off lands who is dying right now of hunger, who is wondering does anyone care and who despairs for his or her children and their future.

Human solidarity could not give life back to those who died on September 11th but it gave hope to those who survived.

Human solidarity cannot recreate the millions of lives wasted through poverty, hunger and disease but it gives us hope that we can together consign them to history – we can by our efforts and our care help our world to reveal its truest strength, its truest potential when all its children are nourished, educated, housed and living through times of peace and prosperity.

An illusion, a pipe dream? Only if we walk past on the other side and when this city was tested there were none who walked on by.

Many people have worked with a real passion to make this event possible. Each is a champion of those far‑off strangers who is hoping for a new and better day. Each, is a champion of our own Irish famine dead whose sad lives seemed then to be so shrouded in indignity and worthlessness.

You have vindicated their suffering, made it a resource for good, conferred on them not just a righteous dignity but an opportunity to be the provokers of global change, the bringers of global care.

I would like to thank Governor Pataki, in particular, for the personal interest he has taken in this remarkable venture. It demonstrates, not just his deep appreciation for things Irish, but also in a wider context, his commitment to raising awareness about world hunger, both through the teaching of the famine curriculum in New York public schools, and in supporting the magnificent memorial which we will dedicate tomorrow.

I would also like to congratulate, Jim Gill, President of the Battery Park City Authority, and CEO, Tim Carey, who, along with their dedicated committee, have been the driving force behind this project.

I commend all of those who have worked so hard, both here in the US and in Ireland, to realise this splendid work of public art.

The Slack family from Attymass, Co. Mayo, who donated the cottage for the memorial, and who are with us this evening surely deserve special mention as does Brian Tolle who has transformed the cottage into a new conscience at the heart of New York for the suffering, hungry people of our world.

Little did those who first built that little humble cottage dream that it would grace such a different quarter acre site, on the banks of the Hudson river and in the absent shadow of the tragic World Trade Centre.

The reaction in Ireland to that awful September 11th day carried with it manifest traces of the past we share from those grim famine days when so many of our people came to this city with nothing but the breath in their bodies, the memory of death and the hope of the desperate.

Generations of their children have prospered and we in Ireland are immensely proud of the success of our Irish family here.

We are grateful too for the unfathomable contributions they have made to life at home in Ireland. Your success gave us faith in ourselves. Your support gave us a lifeline to a new future. Your showcasing of Irish identity and Irish culture gave us renewed pride in our heritage and with your help that heritage is deepened, enriched and widened in every generation.

Ireland was once cursed by starvation and poverty in the same way that so many still are cursed today. The folk memory of our own loss has never faded from the Irish psyche which is why you will find Irish men and women working in every part of the world where there is famine, working to bring hope where there is only despair. But there is a job to be done in building up the conscience, restoring the memory, ensuring that we do not forget, putting the sorry state of our brothers and sisters in front of us where we can see it, where we can reflect and respond. That is the job this memorial is about.

W.B. Yeats put it so well:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

Those who tread the half acre will meet the strangers on whose dreams they tread and as they make their way home we hope that in their hearts will be lodged a new and unforgettable memory and a new vision they each can commit to a world where hunger is a memory and where happiness is in the grasp of all.

Go raibh maith agaibh! Thank you all very much!

Transcript provided by the Consulate General of Ireland (New York).

Obtained from and forwarded by The Wild Geese Today

New York’s Great Famine Memorial.


President Mary Robinson at Grosse Île, Canada

Leathanach Baile / Hafan / Home Page