In the American capital, Washington, there is a plain slab covered with the names of those who died in the Vietnam war. Families flock to it to see the names from their own family. They touch the area with their loved ones. They even have a picnic nearby. Far more people go to it than any other war memorial in Washington, no matter how spectacular in design they are. Perhaps it is a sign that people, not flags, are important.
This Mass is a memorial of names, like those on the slab, of people. The people we remember experienced the time of the Irish Famine and we place them before us and Our Lord. They died, they sought exile, or were survivors who remained in Ireland. Many of us here tonight have ancestors from the Famine and we remember them as names, as people.
In 1845 there were over 8 million people in Ireland. By 1851 one and a half million emigrated from Ireland and over one million had died from the Famine. They all were people with names. My family survived the Famine and stayed in Ireland until the 1880s and 1890s. My ancestors saw the changes the Famine brought to Ireland. They experienced those changes. Some were for the good and some for the bad. I remember tonight my ancestors.
We remember those who died. How many unmarked graves were there? How often do people who are alive today walk over them without knowing it? We remember them.
We remember those who left Ireland, especially those who came to Newport. In 1846 there was an Irish woman in the docks area (Pillgwenlly) of Newport, begging and carrying a child who was dead for four days. We remember her and her child.
Newport had a significant Catholic population prior to the Famine. The Irish who came after 1845 enriched the spirit of the faith, by their piety and what they did. For instance, many of the Famine survivors were involved in the 1880s in the building of St. Michael’s Church in Pill (Pillgwenlly). The foundations of that church lie on soil that came from Ireland and the stones it is made of likewise came from Ireland. My grandfather came over just as they were building St. Michael’s Church and told my father about the planks and saying of Mass while the church was in construction.
Here at St. Mary’s, built before the Famine, the Irish community provided the funds for the building of St. Patrick’s side altar. St. Mary’s is unusual, for a neo-gothic church, to have Our Lady’s side altar followed by the Main altar followed in turn by a St. Patrick’s side altar.
So, thinking of their faith and works, we remember them.
My grandparents came to Newport in the 1880s (Pillgwenlly) and in the 1890s (Barnardtown) and found a vibrant community which still contained many survivors from the Famine. They in turn passed on their experience to my father and he to me. For many of us we share a similar tradition and connection to those who lived at the time of the Famine. Thus we are at the monument with our families. In a way seeking those names and in a way letting them live in us.
The question we need to ask ourselves is, “What will we do after tonight?” Just go home? Or do we make the monument alive? Famine still exists. Just look at Eastern Zaire as one example. How can we help them?
We heard in the first reading how the Jews in exile were badly treated. Do we treat foreigners with contempt? How about those who live near us? Do we help them?
All the answers that we make from our heart will make this Mass more than a memorial of names that attracts families. It becomes a memorial of healing, a memorial of loving, a memorial of sharing; something that many of our ancestors needed and pleaded for.