International Great Hunger Commemoration

In recognition of the considerable significance of The Great Hunger, the Irish Government established a National Famine Commemoration Committee, chaired by TD Eamon Ó Cuív, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in 2008. The first National Memorial Day was held on 25 May, 2008 in Dublin. It was so well received that the following year it was extended to an International Commemoration and it was established that the National Memorial Day in Ireland would revolve between the four provinces.

On May 17, 2009, the Irish National commemoration took place in Skibbereen, Co. Cork with parallel events held in Canada, Australia and other Irish communities around the world. International participants were encouraged to hold their own local events to commemorate the Great Hunger while, in Ireland, all public and sporting events observed a minute’s silence on that day. The AOH National and NY State Boards produced a onehour, four-part DVD on the tragedy, especially for teachers, entitled The Reasons For Learning as the AOH part in the international commemoration.

In 2010, the Irish National commemoration site was in Murrisk, Co. Mayo on 16 May and even more members of the Irish Diaspora around the world celebrated masses and/or sponsored events on that date as world-wide interest grew. Masses International Great Hunger Commemoration 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.

This year, 2011, the international commemoration is scheduled for May 21 and 22. Our National President has urged local AOH divisions to schedule some type of public activity in their local areas and to alert the media to the event. For those without access to the Internet, and who would like a copy of the DVD on the Great Hunger, it is still available at only $18. from the AOH Charities by contacting F. Kearney at (203) 980-9324.

There is nothing else in the history of the Irish people that can be likened to the Great Starvation of 1845 and beyond, either for its immediate impact on Ireland, its legacy of emigration, its effect on the United States, its cultural loss or the decline of the Irish language. The population of Ireland, which exceeded 8 million in the Census of 1841, was reduced by millions through death and emigration. In honor of those who died, those who refused to abandon their faith and those who fled Ireland in order to survive, articles can be submitted to local media and educational workshops can be held to inform people about the official apathy that caused a potato blight to become a man-made tragedy. Historians have proclaimed Ireland’s Great Hunger as the worst social disaster of the 19th century when people starved outside the gates of prosperous farms as tons of food was exported. Let’s remember the victims on May 21-22.

Share

Thomas MacCurtain

January 30, 1920 was a happy day for Tomas MacCurtain. He had been elected Lord Mayor of Cork. Born as Thomas Curtin in Ballinknockin, Co. Cork, on 20th March 1884, he began using the Gaelic version of his name, Tomas MacCurtain, when he joined the Gaelic League in Blackpool, Cork City in 1901. By 1902 he was the group’s Secretary. He was also a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (American Alliance) in Cork City and rose to be the Division President. Tomas was interested in Irish history and was a bagpiper as well as an accomplished violinist and often played in an orchestra. This brown-haired, blue-eyed Irishman had great determination.

After he left school he worked at Marks Mills in Crosses Green and in his spare time he taught the Irish language to those wishing to learn. He met Eilish Walsh, also active in the Gaelic League, and they married on 28th June 1908. They had 5 children and lived at 40 Thomas Davis St in the northern part of Cork City.

By 1911, he was involved in the running of Fianna Eireann, and he became a Volunteer in 1914. He fought for Irish freedom and for that cause served prison terms in 1916 and 1917 in Wakefield, Frongoch and Reading Jail in England. He became Commandant of the Cork Brigade of the IRA which grew so large that on Jan 5, 1919, it was divided into 3 Brigades with Michael Collins presiding over the meeting. Commandant MacCurtain was left to command Cork Brigade No 1 and Tom Hales became Commandant of Cork Brigade No 3. The following day, MacCurtain presided over a meeting in Mallow to form (North) Cork Brigade No. 2.

Under a policy of ignoring institutions established by the British, the Irish used the legal elections held by the Brits to elect their own representatives, and establish their own Parliament instead of sitting in Westminster or accepting Crown appointed officials. On January 31, 1920, elections were held in Cork City, and Sinn Fein dominated local councils. Tomas was elected by his Ward and was chosen to be Lord Mayor of Cork City. The Brits were furious. Tomas began implementing changes with a mind toward the dream of a free Ireland.

On March 19, 1920, at 11 PM, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary was shot and killed on Pope’s Quay, Cork. Some hours later (just after 1 AM, March 20) men disguised with blackened faces burst into the MacCurtain home and shot the Lord Mayor in his bed. In the house at the time were Mrs. MacCurtain, her children, her brother, 3 sisters, 2 nieces and a nephew, and her invalid mother Mrs. Walsh. Tomas’ sister-in-law Annie came down the stairs with a Crucifix and holy water. They knelt down and prayed by the lifeless body, Annie holding her arm under Tomas’ head. He was bleeding from around the region of the heart. Annie described how they remained praying until the priest came in response to Mrs. MacCurtain’s telephone call. I called on the Sacred Heart to spare him, at least until the priest would come, Annie said. When the priest came I went away for a few minutes, but came back then to see him die. His last words were: “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”.

Tomas died just after receiving the Last Rites. Such was public reaction, that the funeral on Monday 22nd March, from the North Cathedral was the largest ever seen in Cork city. Tomas MacCurtin, musician, pioneer of the Gaelic revival movement, Commandant of the Cork Brigade, Sinn Fein member, AOH President, founding member of the Irish Volunteers, was laid to rest in St Finbarr’s Church graveyard, in a plot facing the main gate. His personal pistol was given to his friend, Michael Collins. The Cork City Council held an inquiry and indicted the British government for MacCurtain’s murder. Among those involved in the murder was RIC District-Inspector Oswald Swanzy, who was secretly transferred to Lisburn in Northern Ireland to safeguard him from retaliation.

However, retaliation was the order of the day as far as Collins was concerned. It took a few months to locate him, but In August, Collins handed Tomas MacCurtain’s pistol to a hand-picked team who went north and on August 22, 1920 dealt justice to Inspector Oswald Swanzy from MacCurtain’s own gun. Swanzy’s death so infuriated the Brits that the entire Catholic section of Lisburn was burned to the ground.

MacCurtin was succeeded in office by Terence MacSwiney – and that’s another story.

Michael Collins

One of the most controversial figures in Irish history is Michael Collins. To those who loved him, he was The Big Fellow, Ireland’s greatest hero. Yet some believe that in settling for the Irish Free State, he betrayed the Republican cause. You be the judge.

Born at Sam’s Cross, Co Cork, on Oct 16, 1890 – (120 years ago this month), he was the youngest of 8 children. His father, 75 at the time, was a farmer with an enviable command of Greek, Latin, and French, who also excelled in math. He gave his youngest son his name, and a love of reading. As Michael grew to manhood, he read the prose and poetry of Nationalism, listened to patriotic discussions about O’Connell, Davis, and Emmet, and heard first hand accounts from his grandmother Johanna O’Brien of people starving on the roads during the Great Hunger. He started school at the age of 4-1/2, and was taught by an old Fenian named Denis Lyons. By the time his father died in 1897, the 6-year old well understood his father’s last words: I shall not see Ireland free, but in my children’s time it will come, please God. Michael finished school and left for London in 1906 as an apprentice clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank. In London, he joined the Gaelic League, the GAA, and the Geraldine Football and Hurling Club. He was sworn into the IRB in 1909, and later, the Volunteers. In 1915, he got a job as a clerk in the London office of the Guarantee Trust Company of New York. Then, on a trip to Dublin he met Tom Clarke and Sean MacDermott who convinced him that something big was about to happen. He returned to London, quit his job, and sailed for Ireland the next day. The something big was the Easter Rising, and Collins was a part of that historic event as a soldier in the GPO.

When the Rising failed, Irish prisoners were rounded up and marched to a grassy knoll opposite the Rotunda Hospital where they were surrounded by British Officers. The officer in Charge, Capt Lee Wilson, recognized 58-year old Tom Clarke as one of the leaders, and pulled him from the ranks; he publicly stripped him nude to the taunts and jeers of soldiers and passers-by. Collins was unable to stop the brutality, but years later he found Capt Wilson serving as an RIC inspector in Wexford, and had him shot. Collins and his comrades were bundled off to a prison camp at Frongoch in Wales where his natural ability as a leader emerged. When all were released in a general amnesty at Christmas, 1916, Tom Clarke’s widow, Kattie, gave Collins the funds and information entrusted to her by the IRB Supreme Council before the Rising. Collins reorganized the Irish Volunteer and gave financial aid to the returning men. He made valuable contacts with Republicans all over Ireland, and they in turn knew that if they or their families ever needed anything, all they had to do was to see Mick. The reorganized IRB and its political party Sinn Fein renewed the struggle for independence. Sinn Fein members were elected to Parliamentary seats and, instead of going to Westminster, they met in Dublin calling themselves Dail Eireann – the Assembly of Ireland. England tried to disband them and Ireland’s war of independence was on, with Collins leading the resistance. Hunted day and night, he led a guerrilla war with many close encounters and daring escapes. In July, 1919, he formed a squad of trusted men for special assignments who were known as the Twelve Apostles. They were an intelligence unit built to infiltrate British agencies and execute special assignments. Collins was Minister of Finance in the new Dail as well as Director of Intelligence, Director of Organization, and Adjutant General of the Army. He was the most hunted man in Ireland.

His intelligence network was extremely effective, and his masterful stroke of identifying 14 top British secret service men operating undercover in Dublin, and eliminating them all at the same time on Sunday morning, Nov 21 1920, displayed a daring and organizational ability that shook the Empire to its very foundation. It also boosted sagging Irish morale for the war had been particularly brutal and demoralizing. Then in mid 1921, Dail President Eamon deValera was invited to London to confer with Lloyd George. On July 9, a truce was announced to explore the possibility of a peace. However, the British had made it absolutely clear that no treaty would entertain an Irish Republic. Dev knew that when he returned to Ireland to select a delegation to negotiate terms. He startled his comrades by refusing to lead the delegation himself; instead he chose Arthur Griffith. Griffith, a journalist and economist, was not a militant republican, and would have been happy with any reasonable offer as long as the fighting was over. The delegation included Erskine Childers, a former member of British Intelligence who had converted to the cause; Childers cousin, Robert Barton; George Gavan Duffy and Eamon Duggan – two lawyers; John Chartres, another former member of British Intelligence; Emmet Dalton, another ex-British Officer; and Michael Collins. The selection of so many men of English background to negotiate Irish freedom leaves many questions to this day, but one thing is certain: Michael Collins as the lone militant would have little voice in establishing terms. The Irish delegation was no match for the English delegation which included such trained statesmen as Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead, Sir Austin Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill. The British offered an Irish Free State – a 26-county self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. The question of the other 6 counties would be resolved by a border commission after the Brits were able to pull their interests out. The Irish refused, but the English, with a seasoned army just returned from World War I, offered no alternative but total war. Collins know that the Republican movement was almost broke and out of ammunition. They had bluffed their way to the negotiating table and now would have to bluff their way to any concessions. After months of negotiation the treaty was accepted. Collins considered it a stepping stone to full freedom, but realized many would not accept the fact that Ireland, though a self-governing dominion, was still under the Crown.

In Ireland, deValera, as President, repudiated the treaty after learning that a new election was one of the conditions. He claimed it was not the Republic that they fought for, but Dail Eireann put it to the people for a vote. In a general election, a war-weary people accepted it and elected Arthur Griffith President. DeValera and the anti-treaty Republican forces took up arms in protest, and in June 1922 a civil war began. Anti-treaty forces steadily lost ground, and by August, most cities and towns were in Free State hands. On August 12, President Griffith died, leaving Collins responsible for bringing the war to an end. On August 20, Collins headed for Cork to meet and negotiate a peace with his dissident former comrades – not as a conqueror, but as a fellow Irishman. He would offer positions in the Free State Army to those who wished them and give their leaders positions of importance in Free State service. Those who chose to continue fighting could go up north and fight the Orangemen who, at that time, were killing Irish Nationalists and burning them out of their homes. In a few years, when the new army was trained and equipped, Collins would dismantle the treaty bit by bit. It was a compromise none but the British could oppose – but they would not know. Unfortunately they did. According to a 1982 book THE SHOOTING OF MICHAEL COLLINS by John Feehan, when the Irish took over Dublin Castle, documents were found naming a British spy – code name Thorpe – who had been placed among the Irish. Just before going south, Collins learned Thorpe’s identity, and said he would deal with him when he returned. Sadly, he never did for in his own native county, he was the victim of an ambush by Republican forces. The invincible man was dead. In Kilmainham Jail hundreds of Republicans prisoners dropped to their knees in prayer for the man who had led them for so long, though now on the opposing side. The saddest part of the entire story is that one of the finest leaders Ireland ever produced was killed by an Irish hand – a hand that he would rather have held in friendship.

Thomas Davis

There are few events in Irish history as tragic as the death of Thomas Osborne Davis. He was a rare man whose impact on the history of Ireland has never been truly appreciated. Born in Mallow, Co Cork on Oct 14, 1814, the son of a British Army Surgeon, he was educated at Trinity College and called to the Bar in 1838, but Davis heard another call: the call of Ireland. He heard it in the voice of Dan O’Connell when the Great Emancipator visited his home town in 1842, and asked a crowd of 400,000, “Where is the coward who would not die for Ireland?” This was a fiery young O’Connell, not the parliamentarian of later years, and he raised the consciousness of the Irish to a new spirit of nationalism. Men like Davis, filled with the fire of that patriotism, joined his cause. You see, after the brutal suppression of Ireland following the rising of 1798, the country remained depressed until O’Connell began to raise the issue of Catholic emancipation. It was then that the Irish people began to raise their heads again, but when they did it was not the voice of O’Connell they heard, but the voice of Thomas Davis and the ‘Young Irelanders’.

O’Connell fell short of the goals he inspired in other men when he chose to negotiate in the Parliamentary arena. Davis, on the other hand, fired by O’Connell’s early speeches against the tyranny of England, never changed direction as his mentor had. The young Protestant barrister with two colleagues, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon, founded The Nation, a newspaper that would propagate patriotism and a love for Irish national literature like no other tabloid of its time. It was then that the doctrines and principles of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen were resurrected, and Tone was finally recognized as the Father of Modern Irish Republicanism. As the spirit of nationalism once more began to beat in Irish breasts, a poem appeared in the April 1843 edition of The Nation. It was called the ‘Memory of the Dead’, and it read:

“Who fears to speak of ‘98? Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate, who hangs his head for shame?
He’s all a knave, or half a slave who slights his country thus;
But true men, like you men, will fill your glass with us.”

The Nation became a great power whose place in history is that it rekindled the dying flame of Wolfe Tone’s nationalist doctrine of Irishmen – Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, together for Irish freedom. The gallant attempt at independence by the United Irishmen of 1798, and by Robert Emmet in 1803 were all but forgotten. England’s brutal and abusive suppression after those attempted risings had all but stamped out the memory of the great Tone and his ideals. The Nation revived that memory, and the sentiment that had inspired it, and in so doing, created a nationalist tradition that has lasted to this very day, due in no small part to the writings of Davis himself.

It is truly written that the bullet of the patriot is soon forgotten while the words of the poet are immortal. Davis was brilliant with words and verse; his poetry captured the nation’s imagination. He lionized Ireland’s hero’s, and gave her some of her most inspiring ballads. His lament for the great Chieftain Owen Roe O’Neill who was poisoned by a pawn of the English in 1649, seethes with fury:

Did they Dare, Did they dare to slay Owen Roe O’Neill
Yes they slew with poison him they feared to face with steel.
May God wither up their hearts, may their blood cease to flow,
May they walk in living death, who poisoned Owen Roe.

His memorable poems about Fontenoy, the Clare Dragoons, and Wolfe Tone were on the lips of every Irishman of the age. He drew to his philosophy such talented future leaders as John Mitchel, Speranza, William Smith O’Brien, Michael Doheny, Clarence Mangan, D’Arcy McGee, and Thomas Francis Meagher. His followers became the Young Irelanders, and their impact on history was considerable for they carried Davis’s philosophy into the origin of Ireland’s greatest nationalist movement – the Fenian Brotherhood. Unfortunately they did so without the master, for Thomas Davis succumbed to a fever brought on by an exhausted condition, and he died at his mother’s home in Dublin on September 16, 1845 – 164 years ago. It was only a month before his 32nd birthday and just at the start of An Gorta Mor – the great hunger that would devastate his beloved Ireland. How he would have faced that tragedy can only be imagined, but there is no doubt that it would have been memorable.

The death of Davis, the brave young hope of his country, was a greater disaster for Ireland than she has ever recognized for he was the bridge between Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was he who insured that the nationalism of Tone was not interred with him in that green grave at Bodenstown which Irishmen cherish as their most prized possession. The only consolation we have is that his songs are with us still. Who has not marveled at the bold courage displayed in The West’s Awake; and who is not moved – to this very day – by the nationalist sentiment in the song he wrote to express his fondest desire – A Nation Once Again.

It Happened in June

In the early 1700s, Morris O’Brien, a native of Co. Cork, emigrated to America and settled in Kittery (near Ports-mouth), then Scarborough (near Portland), Maine. He was a volunteer in the expedition against Louisburg in 1745 which was considered one of the most extraordinary military achievements of the New England Colonies. Louisburg, on the Island of Cape Breton, belonged to the French who threatened the New England lumber industry and spent millions of dollars in erecting fortifications. The New Englanders attacked and won the fort.

In 1765, O’Brien moved to Machias, about 50 miles up the Maine coast from Bar Harbor, where he engaged in the lumber business with his six sons: Jeremiah, born in 1740, Gideon, John, William, Dennis and Joseph. When the Revolutionary War began and news came of the battle at Lexington, the people of Machias erected a liberty-pole in the town center. It was a tall pine tree with all but the very top branches stripped off, an increasingly common symbol of defiance in the colonies. Some time later, an armed BritIsh schooner, Margaretta, entered the harbor, escorting two sloops that were to retrieve lumber for British defensive works in Boston. The Captain of Margaretta threatened to fire on the town if the pole was not taken down. The citizens decided to capture the British officers while they were at a meeting on shore, but the Brits saw them coming and hastened aboard their ship and sailed down the river, firing shots over Machias as they fled. Some Machias men fired musket shots at the ship from small boats and canoes, as well as from shore. The firing lasted until Margaretta was out of range.

The next day, June 12th, 1775, 233 years ago, the men of Machias commandeered one of the lumber sloops, Unity, armed themselves with muskets, pitch-forks and axes and then set out after Margaretta. When the Brit Captain saw Unity coming, they weighed anchor and sailed off, but a brisk wind broke Margaretta’s main boom, crippling its navigability. As a result, O’Brien’s crew overtook the crippled ship. On the approach of Unity, Margaretta opened fire, but the Machias crew managed to avoid the fire and pulled alongside Margaretta and stormed aboard. Captain O’Brien’s brother John led the boarding party. In an exchange of shots, the Brit Captain fell with a musket ball to the chest. With their commanding officer down, the British quickly surrendered to Captain O’Brien. The surviving British crew were handed over to the Provincial Congress.

This was the first naval battle of the American Revolution. The armament of Margaretta was transferred to the sloop Unity, which was renamed Machias Liberty with O’Brien in command.

The Brits sent the ship, Diligence and a tender from Halifax to recapture Margaretta, but O’Brien captured them as well. This gave the Machias residents two armed ships of war.

Liberty, with Jeremiah O’Brien as captain and his brother William as lieutenant, and Diligence, on which his brother John was lieutenant, were commissioned by the provincial government and ordered to intercept supplies destined for the British troops.

The O’Briens cruised the coast for a year and a half, taking several prizes. In 1776 and 1777, different British officers received orders to go and destroy Machias, but the residents with-stood these efforts to such an extent that Machias became known as the “Hornet’s Nest” to the British admiralty. One British officer, presumed to be Sir George Collier, said “The damned rebels at Machias were a harder set than those at Bunker Hill.” Jeremiah’s brother, John, while in command of a privateer called Hibernia, also captured the Brit ship General Pattison, having on board a number of British officers returning to England. Jeremiah then assumed command of the privateer Hannibal that his brother John and others had built at Newburyport. However, while cruising off New York, his vessel was chased by two frigates and captured. He was confined for six months on the notorious prison ship Jersey in Brooklyn, and then sent to England’s Mill prison, from which, after a few months, he succeeded in escaping back to the war. In later years, he was appointed the federal customs collector for the port of Machias. A position he held until his death in October, 1818.

The capture of Margaretta is considered the first time British colors were struck to those of the United States. Even though Unity was not formally a member of the Continental Navy, the U.S. Merchant Marine claims Unity as its member and this incident as their beginning. Five U.S. Navy ships have been named USS O’Brien for Jeremiah O’Brien including the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a Liberty ship built during WWII and now a floating museum based in San Francisco.

It is the sole survivor of the 6,939-ship armada that stormed Normandy on D-Day, in June, 1944, and one of only two currently operational WWII Liberty ships afloat of the 2,751 built during the war. Appropriately built in South Portland, Maine, and launched on June 19, 1943, this class EC2-S-CI ship not only made four perilous round trip wartime crossings of the Atlantic and served on D-Day, but later saw sixteen months of service in both the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean calling at ports in Chile, Peru, New Guinea, the Philippines, India, China, and Australia, keeping the name of a proud and patriotic Irish American afloat.