BRITAIN should acknowledge Ireland’s greatest tragedy by erecting a famine memorial in the English capital and adding the period to history curriculums in schools and universities.
For Professor Christine Kinealy, who has spent 30 years researching, writing and teaching about the famine, the lack of British attention to the impact of the potato blight from which Ireland never fully recovered must now be addressed.
“By any standards the Irish famine was the most lethal famine in modern history,” Ms Kinealy said.
“What also makes it remarkable is that the Irish population has never recovered. To this day its smaller – that makes Ireland unique, and it also shows people something about the destruction and the enduring impact of that famine.”
Since 1995, the 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger, as it is often referred to in the US, there has been a revived interest in the period worldwide, according to Ms Kinealy, Director of the new Great Hunger Institute based at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Famine memorials have sprung up across the States, while the Great Hunger Museum – also based at Quinnipiac – has since been founded and boasts a growing collection.
Memorials now exist in Australia and Canada, but in Britain – the Government which ruled Ireland during the devastating blight that saw more than one million people die and a further million emigrate – there is only one monument marking that great loss.
“It’s amazing when you think that the only famine memorial in England is in Liverpool,” said Ms Kinealy, a Liverpool native born to parents from Mayo and Tipperary.
“If you go to America, there are famine monuments in prime locations all over the country. In New York, Philadelphia, Boston, everywhere. That tells you that Irish Americans have arrived in America; they are visible and want people to know about their background.”
She added: “So why is there no monument to the famine in London, the capital of Britain?
“Ireland was governed by London at the time, the fact that there is no memorial there tells you something about the Irish in Britain and how they see their history, it’s very different from the Irish in America.”
As Ms Kinealy prepares to take up her Directorial role at the newly founded Institute in September, she plans to push famine focus even further to the international forefront, by organising global seminars and conferences on the topic, while inviting academics and scholars to share the space to undertake further research.
The academic also believes the balance could be redressed in Britain if a famine memorial was erected in London and the period was added to the curriculums on modern British history.
“It’s very flattering to be offered the role of Director,” Professor Kinealy admits. “It’s also very satisfying in that I have been researching this topic for 30 years and when I first started there was very little written about it and very little interest.”
She said: “This period changed the history of Ireland, of America and of Britain and in particular the modern history of Britain cannot be understood without understanding Irish history.
“This tragedy is interlinked with Britain – the blight could not have been prevented but the treatment of the Irish by the British could have been better, there were so many unnecessary deaths.
“Another part of the tragedy of the famine is that the British Government refused to keep records of the deaths in Ireland.
“So we don’t know precisely the number of people who died and we don’t know their names, we say approximately one million died and one and a half million emigrated, but they are just cold statistics that disguise the fact that each one of those people represented a human life.
“To not keep records of their deaths really says something about the way they were regarded by the British establishment.”
But it’s never too late to address those tragedies, according to Ms Kinealy, a mother of two, who moved to the States six years ago.
“It would be a great achievement to see more Irish history taught in British schools, and see Irish history integrated more into British history,” she said.
“And I would love to see some sort of monument to the famine, if not an Irish museum, in London, as the capital of Britain. So, yes a permanent monument, erected now, would be wonderful – it should be there already.”