- Ireland’s Great Famine in Irish-American History: Enshrining a Fateful Memory by Mary C. Kelly
In fourth grade, my two best friends, twins named Nolan, told me their ancestors came to the United States during the Irish potato famine. While I was very aware of being Irish, this was my first encounter with the mid-nineteenth century Great Hunger, the devastation that brought my own family to America. It is this disconnect that Mary C. Kelly explores in her fascinating and important study, Ireland’s Great Famine in Irish-American History: Enshrining a Fateful Memory.
In her examination of the legacy of the Great Hunger in the United States, Kelly, professor of history at Franklin Pierce University, explores how famine memories survived amid a collective public silence and how, 150 years later, the famine is now publicly commemorated. She argues that the seminal point for both Irish America and modern Ireland is the famine, the term itself contentious as Kelly points out, since many argue that the four year potato blight did not cause a famine; rather, it elicited government sanctioned starvation of the Irish by the British. She then explores the formation [End Page 66] of the Irish American identity of the famine immigrants and their descendants from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century. In her observation of the 150-year public silence about the famine in both the United States and Ireland that launched her on this study, she concludes that survivors of the hunger on both sides of the Atlantic experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome and public shame so profound that only public silence could accommodate the trauma, yet the effects of the experience remained and decisively shaped Irish American identity.
Kelly’s five chapters move chronologically through a review of the famine and the post-famine Irish American story. She presents and defends a three part theory on the formation of Irish American identity. Phase I began with the Ulster Protestant migrants of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, migrants who remained rural and who quickly assimilated into the colonial and early American republic as patriots.
The 1.5 million mostly Catholic and mostly starving famine refugees changed the face of the Irish immigrant in America and began Phase II. Kelly devotes two chapters to this middle phase of the formation of the Irish American identity. She states that these famine refugees very quickly suppressed their trauma with starvation and displacement to distance themselves from the negative associations of poverty, defeat, disease, and death. The Irish latched onto the urban trilogy of the Catholic Church, politics, and law enforcement; they embraced stage and the sports arenas: all to prove themselves successful and empowered Americans. Politicians railed against British oppression rather than starvation. At the turn of the twentieth century, “rough and ready Bridget” morphed into the “softer sweeter form of Rosie O’Grady” and Phase II of Kelly’s theory on the formation of the Irish American identity reveals a shift to sentimentality and nostalgia for “the old sod.” Both faces of the Irish American identity, she argues, are subterfuge for dealing with the trauma of hunger and displacement. The famine could not be publicly talked about, but the impact still needed to be dealt with indirectly. [End Page 67]
It is with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, and in particular his speech in the summer of 1963 before the Dáil (Irish Parliament) on his visit to Ireland that, Kelly argues, the Irish finally became American. Not only was an Irish Catholic elected president – what office could better signify arrival? – but in his speech before the Dáil, Kennedy made public reference to the famine and the outstanding strides the Irish had made in Ireland and the lands of the diaspora since that devastation.
The dark secret given a voice, the famine could at last be confronted, and, Kelly sees Phase III beginning with the last two decades of the twentieth century, which ushered in a host...