Dedication of the Western New York Irish Famine Commemoration Monument, August 23, 1997

Western New York's Irish-American community dedicated its monument to the victims of Ireland's Great Famine of 150 years ago in ceremonies Aug. 23 on Buffalo NY's waterfront. The stark stone monument is at the foot of La Rivière Street on a slight rise at the edge of Erie Basin. The site is ringed by trees and is separated from Erie Basin by a walkway. The monument serves two purposes, according to Chuck Treanor, president of the sponsoring Western New York Irish Famine Commemoration Committee.

"First, it commemorates the millions of people who suffered and died in the Famine years. This monument is part of the world-wide observance of the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine. And it also honors the many people who came to Buffalo to form the present Irish community."

A procession led by the Erie County Sheriff's Department Pipe Band marked the start of the dedication ceremonies on Saturday, August 23, 1997.

 Other highlights of the morning, according to Mike Flynn, master of ceremonies for the event, included:

 The singing of the U.S. and Irish national anthems. Patricia DeLaney Coppola of the Town of Tonawanda will sing the Star Spangled Banner and Bill O'Connell of the Olean Ancient Order of Hibernians will sing the Soldier's Song.

A blessing by the Rev.William Roche, chaplain of the United Irish-American Association.

A description by Chuck Treanor of the committee's efforts to build the monument. He also will recognize the committee's 18 founding organizations.

A talk on world hunger by Erie County Sheriff Tom Higgins.

Dedication of the memorial by the Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell, bishop of Buffalo

The singing God Bless America, led by Common Council Member Bonnie Kane Lockwood.

Also attending the ceremonies were a delegation from Cork City, Ireland, including Lord Mayor David McCarthy, City Manager Jack Higgins, Chief Legal Officer David O'Hagan, and City Engineer Brian Parsons. Cork provided invaluable assistance with the monument.

The monument, designed by Rob Ferguson, combines tradition with symbolism. A 12-foot-tall granite stone is the key element, recalling the ancient standing stones that dot Ireland. The stone is set in a well to symbolize the great silence that fell upon Ireland when the Famine struck. Fanning out from the monolith is a field of granite memorial stones inscribed with the names of individuals or families. It was the sale of those stones that provided much of the funding for the project. Forming the outer ring of the monument are 32 limestone blocks, representing Ireland's 32 counties, and four larger blocks representing the four provinces.

The monument carries two inscriptions, one in Irish and one in English. Engraved in the stone around the edge of the well is this verse by local poet Tim Daly:

 "Our hearts are with them in the Earth,

and they with us within our hearts.

Now we, together, live forever.

We are the harvest of the blight,

let us not fail our seed."

A plaque at the base of the central stone is inscribed in Irish with a verse from the Book of Luke. Translated, it reads: "If they were to keep silence, I tell you the very stones would cry out."

The city of Cork donated the monument's 36 rough-hewn limestone blocks. For more than 100 years those blocks were part of Penrose Quay in Cork harbor, where so many Irish took their last step in Ireland. The standing stone is from Carraroe, County Galway.

More than 800 memorial stones have been reserved. The stones are still being sold. Each stone costs $125. Information forms are available by mail from Craig Speers, Treasurer, 140 Winston Road, Buffalo, N.Y. 14216. Most of the larger stones have been sponsored. Each will have a plaque with the name of the donor organization or individual. A few of the stones are still available, at $1,000 each.

 The monument is near what was once the western end of the Erie Canal, a major route from the ports of the Northeast to the American Frontier. Buffalo played an important role in the lives of refugees from the Famine. Many settled in this area. For many more, Buffalo was the gateway to new lives farther west.


Immigration: Buffalo's Famine Memorial


In August, a crowd gathered on Buffalo's waterfront to rededicate the Irish Famine Memorial. Many speakers had wonderful things to say about those who contributed to help make a dream become a reality. One speech in particular, truly from the heart and soul of one of Ireland's brilliant sons, brought tears to those listening to the beauty and truth of his words. As requested by many who attended, justice would not be served for such eloquence unless his speech was reprinted in its entirety and with full permission ...

Cuir suas duit féin comharthaí bóthair,

Ardaigh clocha críche;

Tabhair suntas math don tslí,

An tslí ar imigh tú.

One hundred and fifty years ago there were people standing over there, along where that famous canal is buried, who would have understood these words of Jeremiah if they had heard them in the language I've just spoken - the Irish language.

Down there was the old Eighth Ward and southwest of it the breakwater where many Irish families clung to a close but precarious existence. Many of these would have understood those words.

Ed Patton reminded me that up there, were the double span isn't, was Fort Porter, where the Irish boys shipped out for war in Virginia. Many of them would have understood those words because we know they said their prayers in Irish before they entered the Bloody Wheatfield or stormed Marye's Heights. When they returned they had to fight their way on old Erie Street over there, where you drove in, to get to the polling booths and vote. They were arrested for their pains.

Most of all, in this place, I think of Jeremiah's words from the Book of Consolation, Leabhair an tsólas, being understood by many of the tens and tens of thousands who passed on canal barges behind you, heading for Cleveland, Chicago, Nebraska.

If all these could hear me now, they might indeed be consoled to know that six generations after An Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine, Yahweh's command to his shattered people has been obeyed:

Set up your signposts,

Raise yourself landmarks,

Fix your mind on the road,

The way by which you went.

An tslí ar imigh tú, the way by which you went. This signpost and landmark, this stone monument sent from Ireland, marks the way by which we went.

Like Jeremiah's people, we were lost, scattered, oppressed, broken, our ways and history and beliefs and language shunned and despised, our spirit mangled and darkened by a previous 150 years of exclusion, coercion, and penal laws. Over half our people had been reduced to existing on a single, vulnerable subsistence crop. Over 800,00 had fled their homes for America in the previous 45 years, homes said to be equaled only by the hovels of the poor in Calcutta.

Still they lived the laws of their communal lives and amazed the horrified travelers from abroad with their hospitality and kindness to strangers, until a darkness and terror and despair came that was a kind of final solution, a kind of holocaust visited upon a land and people that lived in the backyard of the largest and richest empire the world had known. In five years, 1845 to 1850, three million poor souls were dead or fled. Then came the Great Silence.

Maybe all the birds' eggs had been eaten. Maybe the dogs that hadn't been eaten had slunk into the hills. No song. No bark. No word. The land lay like a stone. Deep within the silence, in south Kerry, incised on a flat stone: "1847. Let none meddle hear."

The Great Irish Famine was unique in its scale and ferocity and duration in modern world history, and it left after it a frightening silence. Political and economic causes were suggested, but what words could measure the indescribable effects? Mass graves and mass evictions. Numbers numb with zeroes. The terror years of exodus. The loss of song, music, names, place names, a whole language. But more sinister than all this was the silence brought on by the dark and bitter shame of any people deemed dispensable, considered expendable, economically unviable, better off dead.

150 years later, on February 2nd, 1995, the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, broke the silence in an address to the combined houses of the parliament of the Irish Republic. She called on all her scattered diaspora around the world, 75 million now, 43 million in this country alone, to launch a global and local commemorative effort to remember and understand An Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine, so that he healing could begin and the people be united, so that the gaping wounds could be salved and sutured, so that the hurt silence could ring with the voiced of a diverse people who had assumed their proper dignity, and so that the experience of such a healing could serve as a beacon to people suffering hunger and political and economic breakdown in the present, and to those who might be unaware of disasters yet to come.

She said: The weight of the past, the researches of our local interpreters and the start of the remembrance of the famine all, in my view, point us towards a single reality: that commemoration is a moral act, just as our relation in this country to those who have left it is a moral relationship. We have too much at stake in both not to be rigorous.

To commemorate means to call to remembrance. A monument is a structure of stone erected so that the dead will be remembered perpetually. But it's also something that serves to identity, to locate, to mark, to indicate, even something that gives a warning, as a portent does, of dangers and disasters to come. This mute monolith is indeed then, in Jeremiah's words, a signpost, a landmark on the way by which we went, the first word in a new language of care.

It is the gift to us from the city of Cork, along with the 32 county stones from the quay in cork upon which tens of thousands of famine emigrants trod before they boarded the boats that would bring them here. In the eloquence of these stones, Ireland touches us, comes to us, joins her voice to ours. Here, we live again in Ireland, in Western New York, in the world, and Rob Ferguson's design incorporates the displacement westwards of a centre and an origin. The field of names whispers to us not only of those who have gone before, but testifies that his monument was built by the ordinary, the extraordinary, people of Buffalo and Western New York.

Like the ancient, eloquently silent standing stones of Ireland, which invariable stand in or by a spring, this granite signpost emerges from a well of silence and so breaks that silence. The Irish words within it are those of Jesus when he is warned by the authorities to silence his followers on his last journey to Jerusalem: "If you shut these people up, the stones themselves will scream it out."

For hundreds of years Ireland had a Pale, behind which a well supplied and defended authority dedicated laws and values to the mere Irish outside. The Pale is much, much larger now, but outside it are hundreds of millions of mere humans in Africa, in Asia, and in the Americas --the dispensable ones, the expendable, the economically unviable, the better off dead.

Let this monument on Buffalo's waterfront rise from the well of silence to say this far and no farther to the forces of erasure and forgetting and indifference.

I hope you will take care of it, and that the names of the people who built it will never fade.

And I hope it will always remind you of the too often unheard principle on which it was built: that all are as one.

Go n-éirí an bothair libh go léir.

--- Speech given on the occasion of the re-dedication of the Western New York Irish Famine Memorial on the Buffalo Waterfront, August 28th, 1999, by Laurence J. Shine

The Famine began in August 1845 as a blight began killing the sole subsistence crop, the potato, and the Irish people fell victim to catastrophe. During the next five years about 1 million Irish people died of starvation or disease and another million were forced to leave Ireland.

 The committee is sponsoring a Famine Mass to commemorate each of the five years of the Great Famine, 1845 to 1850. Each memorial Mass features Irish music, poetry readings and the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Irish. The Mass for 1997 was October 4 at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.

 The committee also is working to fight the hunger that continues to plague Western New York and the world. As a living memorial to the Famine victims, committee members collect food and cash at each public event for hunger relief. Since that aspect of the committee's Famine commemoration began, hundreds of dollars and hundreds of pounds of food have been collected for the Western New York Food Bank.

 The Western New York Irish Famine Commemoration Committee is a non-profit organization in the State of New York. For more information contact: Edward J. Patton, The Western New York Irish Famine Commemoration Committee, P.O. Box 192, Buffalo, N.Y. 14208-0192. The telephone number is (716) 662-4300.