Speranza is an Italian word meaning ‘hope’ and it was also the pen name by a most fascinating woman.  Her name was Jane Francesca Elgee, born in Dublin on 27 December 1821.  She later married Sir William Wilde and had a special interest in Irish Fairy Tales which she compiled.  Though she was from a loyal Protestant background, she became an ardent supporter of Irish independence and wrote for the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, publishing pro-Irish and anti-British poems in The Nation newspaper under the pseudonym Speranza.   When her writings called for armed revolution in Ireland, Dublin Castle shut down the paper and brought the editor, Charles Gavan Duffy, to court.  Duffy refused to name who had written the offending article and was about to be sentenced when Lady Wilde stood up in court and boldly claimed responsibility.

Her life was not easy.  She had three children: Willie, Oscar and Isola.  Her husband was accused in a sensational court case for seducing a co-worker who also brought an action against Lady Wilde for libel when she defended him.  The case cost the Wildes £2,000.  Then their daughter, Isola, died of fever at the age of nine and in 1876 Sir William died leaving her virtually bankrupt.  Lady Wilde went to London and joined her sons, Willie, a journalist, and the author Oscar Wilde.

She lived with her eldest son in poverty, supplementing their income by writing for fashionable magazines and books based on her researches into Irish folklore.  She contracted bronchitis and died at home on 3 February 1896.  Willie, her eldest son, was penniless and Oscar paid for her burial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.  A headstone was too expensive so she was buried anonymously in common ground.  A monument, in the form of a Celtic cross, was later erected to her memory by the Oscar Wilde Society in about 1999.

Lady Wilde was a patriot who should never disappear from memory for the legacy she left in documenting the folk and fairy lore of Ireland and most especially for her brilliant poetry.  No voice that was raised in the cause of the poor and oppressed,  Martin MacDermott wrote, none that denounced political wrong-doing in Ireland was more eagerly listened to than that of the graceful and accomplished woman known in literature, as ‘‘Speranza’’ and in society as Lady Wilde.  In a review of her poems in the Fenian Irish People in 1835, it was stated: No Irish writer of our time, except perhaps, Thomas Davis, has been praised so highly, nearly all the Young Ireland leaders offered incense at her shrine.  Fenian leaders added their praise: Doheny wrote an essay on her; Mitchel quoted her poetry in his Last Conquest and Meagher quoted her in his speeches and called his boat ‘‘Speranza.’’ Who cannot marvel at the emotion in her verse entitled, THE FAMINE YEAR:

Weary man, what reap ye? — “Golden corn for the stranger.”
What sow ye? — “Human corses that wait for the avenger.”
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see ye in the offing?
“Stately ships to bear our food away amid the stranger’s scoffing.”
There’s a proud array of soldiers — what do they round your door?
“They guard our master’s granaries from the thin hands of the poor.”
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? “Would to God that we were dead —
our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread!”

Little children, tears are strange upon your infant faces,
God meant you but to smile within your mother’s soft embraces.
“Oh! we know not what is smiling, and we know not what is dying;
but we’re hungry, very hungry, and we cannot stop our crying.
And some of us grow cold and white — we know not what it means;
but as they lie beside us we tremble in our dreams.”
There’s a gaunt crowd on the highway — are you come to pray to man,
with hollow eyes that cannot weep, and for words your faces wan?

“No; the blood is dead within our veins – we care not now for life;
let us die hid in the ditches, far from children and from wife!
We cannot stay to listen to their raving famished cries —
Bread! Bread! Bread! and none to still their agonies.
We left an infant playing with her dead mother’s hand:
we left a maiden maddened by the fever’s scorching brand:”
Better, maiden, thou wert strangled in thy own dark-twisted tresses!
Better, infant, thou wert smothered in thy mother’s first caresses.


“We are fainting in our misery, but God will hear our groan;
yet, if fellow-men desert us, will He hearken from His throne?
Accursed are we in our own land, yet toil we still and toil;
but the stranger reaps our harvest — the alien owns our soil.
O Christ! how have we sinned, that on our native plains
we perish homeless, naked, starved, with branded brow like Cain’s?
Dying, dying wearily, with a torture sure and slow —
dying as a dog would die, by the wayside as we go.

“One by one they’re falling round us, their pale faces to the sky;
we’ve no strength left to dig them graves — there let them lie.
The wild bird, if he’s stricken, is mourned by the others,
but we — we die in Christian land, — we die amid our brothers
in the land which God has given, like a wild beast in his cave,
without a tear, a prayer, a shroud, a coffin, or a grave.
Ha! but think ye the contortions on each livid face ye see,
will not be read on Judgement-day by eyes of Deity?

“We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
but God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now in your hour of pleasure — bask ye in the world’s caress;
but our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
from the cabins and the ditches in their charred, un-coffined masses,
for the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
A ghastly spectral army, before great God we’ll stand,
and arraign ye as our murderers, O spoilers of our land!”

International Hunger Remembrance

Where did it all begin?  Remembering the victims of Ireland’s artificial famine has been an ongoing event since it occurred; although at first, it was mostly in quiet, private and prayerful recollection.  Then, in 1859, workers constructing Montreal’s Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River discovered a mass grave.  It was the final resting place of Irish immigrants who had been released from the Grosse Ile Quarantine Station in 1847 and sailed on to Montreal, carrying early stages of Typhus.  Some 75,000 had been released and Montreal erected fever sheds at the water’s edge to house them.  By year’s end, 6,000 were buried in mass graves near the sheds.  The bridge workers, many of Irish descent, created a make-shift memorial with a 30-ton granite boulder over the spot to ensure the grave would not be forgotten.  Erected on Dec 1, 1859, that Black Stone Memorial was the first international monument to the victims of Ireland’s Great Hunger.  The City of Montreal installed an interpretive plaque, which states that 6,000 Irish immigrants were buried on the site in 1847.  A Mass and wreath-laying ceremony has been held at that memorial each May since 1904 and the AOH in Canada is the leading participant.

Then in 1909, another international memorial was added as the AOH erected a great Celtic Cross on Grosse Ile in memory of all the victims of An Gorta Mór, especially the more than 5,000 who never left the island and died there in 1847 alone.

The American and Canadian AOH made pilgrimages to Grosse Ile in 1997 on the 150th anniversary of the tragedy and in 2009 on the 100th anniversary of the Great Cross.

In 1995, the American AOH and the AOH Board of Erin collaborated and erected yet another memorial to the victims of the Great Hunger – this time in Ireland.  Located in County Clare, it was the first ever memorial of its kind to be located in Ireland.

In March of 2008, the AOH in America introduced the An Gorta Mór Awards to encourage individual jurisdictions to contribute to those less fortunate in memory of those Irish who suffered during Ireland’s greatest tragedy.   At the same time, Dublin resident, Michael Blanch, who had been pushing for a national commemoration in Ireland since 2003, led his annual procession from Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance to the sculptures of famished Irish along the Liffey.  The Irish Government finally established an annual memorial day in Dublin in May 2008.  Apparently May was selected since it had been the month of the oldest international commemoration at the Black Stone Hunger Memorial in Montreal.

An Ad Hoc International Committee was founded with 3 members of the AOH, two members of the Irish American Unity Conference and two others including Michael Blanch in Dublin.  The Committee works to raise awareness and coordinate international commemorations with the Irish Government and get the word out to the Irish Diaspora.  The Committee waits for the Irish Government to announce their dates and coordinates from there.

In May 2009, the Irish National commemoration took place in Skibbereen, Co. Cork with parallel events held in Canada and Australia. International participants were encouraged to hold their own local events to commemorate the Great Hunger.  The AOH National and NY State Boards produced a one-hour, four-part DVD on the tragedy, especially for teachers, entitled The Reasons For Learning as the AOH part in the international commemoration.

In May 2010, the Irish National commemoration site was in Murrisk, Co. Mayo and even more members of the Irish Diaspora around the world celebrated masses and/or sponsored events as world-wide interest grew.  Masses were also celebrated and services held at Great Hunger Memorials across America.  The DVD Reasons for Learning was put on the AOH.Com national website for free download with a number of lesson plans and exercises in support of the DVD.  A number of divisions held public showings of the DVD on that weekend.  The Committee also got the Irish Consulates in NY, Boston and San Francisco involved and coordinated activities with them.

This year, a delay in establishing the date from Ireland was caused by the change of Government and the redistribution of Departments and the Committee couldn’t wait to establish dates.  Based on years past, the month of May was chosen and participants were asked to choose their dates within the month.  The main thing is that something be done in as many places around the world as possible.

In Dublin, Michael Branch has been in contact with Glasnevin Cemetery on establishing an appropriate marker near the mass grave of 40 to 60,000 victims lying beside babes of innocence in the Angel’s Plot.  There is also a mass grave with 30,000 victims approximately 50 yards from O’Connell’s grave to be marked as well.

In 2011, the 8th annual Dublin Famine Victims and Emigrants Memorial Day took place on May15th with a procession of people dressed in rags leaving the Garden of Remembrance led by a lone piper down O’Connell Street and up to the Famished Sculptures at Custom House Quay where the Lord Mayor of Dublin laid a wreath to their memory.  Bouquets of flowers were laid at the individual famine sculptures, a bouquet of flowers in the shape of a ship was lowered into the River Liffey to remember the Emigrants past and present and the Victims who died on the Coffin Ships at sea.  In the final part of the ceremony, singer/songwriter Pete St. John and Friends sang his composition, The Fields of Athenry, from on board the Jeanie Johnson Emigrant Ship in memory of the survivors of An Gorta Mór.

Among the American commemorations , The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Hudson County dedicated an 18-foot tall Celtic cross with various images and symbols representing Ireland and An Gorta Mór at Lincoln Park on May 7; on May 14th a commemoration in tribute to those who lost their lives during the Great Hunger took place on the steps of the Hackensack, NJ Court House; on May 21-22 in San Francisco, the California Irish Cultural Society and the Irish American Unity Conference coordinated with Consul General of Ireland Gerry Staunton to hold the Second Annual An Gorta Mór Commemoration to support Saint Anthony’s Dining Hall which feeds the homeless in honor of the victims of An Gorta Mór.  In Michigan’s Irish Hills, the AOH led a Mass and commemoration ceremony at the Great Hunger memorial that they erected to the memory of the victims of the tragedy and on May 22nd, a Mass and wreath-laying ceremony was conducted by the Massachusetts AOH at the Great Hunger Memorial in Boston.  In New York on May 22, the National Board of the AOH, assembled in lower Manhattan to remember the 175th anniversary of their Order, took time out to celebrate a Mass and lay a wreath at Ground Zero for those AOH members who lost their lives the World Trade Center and then went to the Great Hunger Memorial to hold a ceremony and wreath-laying at the Great Hunger Memorial at Battery Park City as part of the International Commemoration of the Great Hunger.



Canada Invests To Protect Grosse IIe

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced an investment by his government in Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site of Canada to restore and improve the site’s surrounding buildings and thus preserve an important chapter in Canadian history. As part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan, the Government of Canada is making investments to protect and preserve national parks and historic sites across the country.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the dedication of a Celtic cross built by the AOH, which was erected on the island in 1909 to commemorate the Irish immigrants who are buried at the former quarantine island in the St. Lawrence Seaway near Quebec. A number of members of the Canadian Parliament had joined the AOH for the centenary commemoration on Grosse Ile this past summer.

“This investment is a great tribute to our long-lasting relationship with Ireland,” said Prime Minister Harper.  “Many Canadian hopefuls lost their lives on this island, but those who survived contributed greatly to the foundation of our great country.  By investing in projects to improve our historic sites, our government is fulfilling its duty to educate the public about events that have marked our history.”

While no official figure was mentioned, it has been estimated that several million dollars will be dedicated to the site.  Victor Boyle, president of the AOH in Canada, noted that the united commitment by the AOH in Canada, the US and Ireland to our Irish heritage made a huge impact on the Parliament’s decision.