Great Hunger MemorialUnderstanding the past helps us understand the present and allows a glimpse into understanding how the future may unfold. It's important to look at the past so we can learn lessons from it in hopes of building a brighter tomorrow. With this in mind, you'll see how the Irish Potato Famine affected people in the 17 and 18 centuries, but how all its affects carry through to today. The Great Hunger Memorial certainly has a purpose in Westchester.

The Past - 17th and 18th Century Ireland
The natural beauty of Ireland is belied by a poor soil and harsh climate, and poverty was never too far away. Beginning in the 17th century, the British government imposed the Penal Laws resulting that an Irishman, whether Presbyterian or Catholic, could not become a physician, soldier, or lawyer, and could not practice his religion. The great British humanitarian Edmund Burke characterized these laws as “one of the most frightful engines of oppression that the perverted ingenuity of man could conceive."

The Great Irish Famine
Poorly clad and terribly housed, the Irish peasants were entirely dependent on the potato for sustenance--out of 8 million, some 3.5 million ate little else, consuming 12-14 pounds per day. This dependency was to become fatal. Famines were nothing new in Ireland by the I840s, but a fungus virtually destroyed the potato crops. During 1840-50, 1.5 million died from hunger and related diseases. The few doctors working among the poor were unable to cope. Children were most susceptible to the famine fever. Yet in one year alone, 1847, four thousand ships carrying peas, beans, rabbits, salmon, honey, arid potatoes left Ireland for English ports. Also, 9,992 Irish cattle, 4,000 horses, and 1,000,000 gallons of butter were sent to England, too. In 1847, 400,000 Irish died due to starvation. 

Between 1845 and 1855, 2 million Irish emigrated. During 1846-51, over 600,000 entered the port of New York. The 1850 U.S. Census shows 7,068 Irish-born living in Westchester. In Irish history, this period is called An Gala Mar, the Great Hunger. It is the single most important event in Irish history.

The Atlantic Crossing
So many perished on the ships bound for the New World that these filthy, fever-ridden vessels became known as "Coffin Ships." For every death on American ships, three died on British ships. Where there was one diseased person on American ships, there were five on British ships. What propelled the Irish on these ships? According to Evelyn Waugh, a new start in America was the difference between two realities: “Hell and the United States." The first Irish to arrive were rejected and perceived as an alien culture that could not be assimilated. Eventually, they were able to find their place in American society, without losing their cultural heritage.

The Irish and Westchester County
Where they went, they were known as “Diggers.” In Westchester County, they were largely responsible for the building of the railroads, dams, and aqueducts. The early Catholic parishes in the county were built by and for the Irish. They made their mark in the Civil War and soon began to prosper. For those who were willing to persevere, the United States offered the best opportunity for success. 

The Present
Hunger is not alone as a scourge on the planet: Unicef reports there are one billion illiterate people in the world--one sixth of the world’s population. Seven billion dollars is estimated to be needed to eliminate illiteracy -- roughly what Americans spend on cosmetics. Furthermore, one fifth of the world’s population has at its disposal four fifths of the world's resources. Churchill remarked that those who are unaware of history, or ignore it are doomed to make the same mistakes as those who preceded them. This is the current applicability of this memorial.

The Mission of the Hunger Memorial
The Great Hunger Memorial Committee of Westchester County erected a monument not only in memory of those who perished 150 years ago, but to call attention to the homeless, the indigent hungry, or anyone, whether in this county or across the land, who feels they do not have the means for a meal. The committee created a living memorial by running a series of events to benefit local not-for-profits in Westchester who provide assistance in feeding the hungry. 

Learning the Lessons
The Irish Famine is only recently being scrutinized and elevated throughout curricula to the status of the greatest tragedy of the nineteenth century. Like the Holocaust, many watched while others perished; governments pursued policies at the expense of peoples’ lives.  

The Irish Hunger Memorial Committee
Hon. Louis Mosiello
Mr. James J. Houlihan
Mr. Thomas A. Connor
Brother Harry Dunkak