Irish Famine Commemoration Day

Workhouses, Coffin Ships, and Mass Famine Graves:
Places Where People Disappeared

By Loretto Leary

For Irish Famine Commemoration Day, May 19, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield reminds us that the past has relevant lessons for the present and the future. An Irish Famine Commemoration Slide Show Presentation will occur on Friday, May 17, in the Carolan Room at 7 pm. The Presentation is Free and Open to all. There will also be a Wreath Ceremony at the GAC on Sunday, May 19, at 12 noon in recognition of Irish Famine Commemoration Day. This year’s National Commemoration Day in Ireland will be held in Edgeworthstown, County Longford.

September 13, 1845: a watershed moment in Irish history. This was the day The Gardener’s Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette stopped the press with regret, announcing that the “potato murrain” had arrived in Ireland. “Where will the Irish be in the event of a potato blight?” the author of the article asked. Where indeed.

169 years later, with a diaspora of over 70 million around the globe, we now know where.

The Irish were the unwanted immigrants of the mid-1800s. After facing coerced starvation at home, our ancestors forged ahead on foreign soil, making new homes and better lives in America, Canada, Australia, and England. And here we are, 169 years later, struggling to talk about it and face the truth.

Photography was invented in 1839, but only the rich had access to it. Without photographic evidence to display the hardships experienced by Irish Famine victims, we must rely on newspaper accounts of 1845 – 1852 to tell us the cut-and-dried truth. Rich people leave photos and legacies, poor people leave memories, and some of these poor Irish Famine victims vanished. There are no traces of them left behind. The only visuals we have to remind us are workhouses, coffin ship replicas, or mass famine graves—places where people disappeared.

May 19th, 2024 is Irish Famine Commemoration Day. This year’s National Famine Commemoration will take place in Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford. It is not widely advertised, and few people are aware of their own local commemoration ceremonies. Wreaths are laid, and a minute of silence is observed. Silence is fine, but we need to talk more about the relevancy of what transpired politically, economically, and universally to the Irish between 1845 and the years that followed.

Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield, chosen by Quinnipiac University as the future custodian of the Great Hunger Collection, has over 170 pieces of art depicting the Irish Famine. Faces of starvation, coffin ships, and skeletal people tell their stories. Here, we find our ancestors staring back at us from a canvas, bronze, or bog oak.

This new museum in Fairfield will use innovative digital imagery to bring the story of the Irish Famine to their descendants and anyone who identifies with the relevancy of that turbulent time. There are lessons to be learned and stories to be heard.  Artists infuse paint, stone, and bronze with emotions. Their truth will not allow us to look away, and we should not.

Rowan Gillespie b. 1953 Statistic I and Statistic II 2010 Bronze 49 in (124.46 cm)

Famine Family, by Rowan Gillespie, treads a perpetual immigration path to the Jeanie Johnston on the Quays in Dublin. Gillespie uses bronze as his medium, creating a family without ethnicity or skin color. A universal memorial which has now been adopted by exiled Ukrainians in Ireland. It is here on Holodomor, November 23, that they leave flowers to commemorate those lost during the Ukrainian Famine, 1932-1933.

Gillespie’s memorials stand on the waterfront in Ireland Park, Toronto, Canada, Hobart, Australia and in Dublin. But for the millions who bypass the long wait lines to visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, instead choosing to take the Staten Island ferry for a photo op with Lady Liberty, they remain unaware of the fact that thousands of Irish Famine immigrants are buried just a short walk away from the ferry terminal in Staten Island.

Gillespie’s Statistic 1 & 2, in the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield collection, reminds us that they “died like flies” when they reached the Staten Island Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station during 1845-1852. The site was burned to the ground in 1858, but a hill in front of the St. George Courthouse has a small headstone to mark the spot where some of the Irish Famine immigrants are buried.

Kieran Tuohy’s Thank You to the Choctaw in bog oak, also part of the collection, stands as a reminder of the charitable giving from a people who had faced their own hardships. A shared history that the Choctaw Nation deemed important enough to donate money to during the Irish Famine.

A minute of silence on Sunday, May 19th, is appropriate for Irish Famine Commemoration Day. However, for the rest of the year, we need to talk more about the Irish Famine, referred to in the US as Ireland’s Great Hunger. Each painting and sculpture in the new Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield will give voice to the silent dead. It is time they had their say.

To donate to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield, please visit our website donate | IGHMF. Please help us to reach our goal to open the doors to Irish Famine History in 2026.

About the Author:
Loretto Horrigan Leary, a native of Portumna, Co. Galway, Ireland, and now a resident of Norwalk, CT, is a published freelance feature writer. Her contributions to Irish Central, Yahoo News, The Irish Echo, and other prestigious publications have included stories of the Irish diaspora. Drawing from historical records, letters, and diaries, Loretto gives voice to those who endured The Great Hunger in Ireland and America. Loretto is a board member of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield and a member of the Gaelic American Club.

Loretto is passionate about Irish History, especially the Great Hunger. Her vast research into historical records, letters, and diaries has given a voice to those who endured the Irish Famine. This passion has fueled a series of articles about the counties of Ireland and how they were affected by the Famine of 1845-1852 (Stories of the Famine). Loretto has also created a Famine Commemoration Day Slide Show Presentation (taking place at the GAC on May 17, @7pm) to honor the memory of the millions who suffered and acknowledge their descendants in America.