Sunday, May 07, 2006

A memorial to immigrants...

Yesterday morning I attended the dedication of a memorial in the nearby city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Here is a short description that I wrote for a local publication. Somehat different than what I usually post.


Between the years 1845 and 1850 over one million Irish people died as a result of the Great Potato Famine. During this five year period two million left Ireland to avoid starvation. Some of these people were part of the first wave of immigrants to settle in Lawrence, Massachusetts. On a beautiful sunny morning, last Saturday, hundreds of Irish-Americans and their friends gathered in “the Immigrant City” to dedicate a monument honoring those who died, suffered from and survived the Irish Potato Famine. I was privileged to be part of that celebration.

The setting was a hillside in historic Immaculate Conception cemetery. Various speakers recalled the heroism and generosity of those original immigrants as the flags of the United Stated, Ireland and the Vatican fluttered in the background. One speaker recalled how those original immigrants made huge personal sacrifices so that they could send support to their families left behind in Ireland. It was an inspiring ceremony.

The memorial is a project sponsored by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish Foundation of Lawrence, Massachusetts. It is one of four memorials to the Great Famine throughout the United States dedicated in recent years. One of these has become a “must visit” site for many visitors to downtown Boston.

The tone for Saturday’s gathering was set by keynote speaker, former U.S. Ambassador Ray Flynn. Flynn pointed out how his own empathy for the underdog grew out of his roots as a descendent of Irish immigrants and his own religious convictions. He pointed out that the people of Ireland today are extraordinarily generous when it comes to providing financial support to people experiencing starvation in other parts of the world. He suggested that that this generosity is a legacy of the suffering of the Irish people during the Great Famine.

What I found interesting was the fact that Ambassador Flynn, a former Mayor of Boston, tied the plight of the Irish who fled starvation in Ireland and came to Lawrence and other New England cities in the 1840’s with the plight of the latest wave of immigrants now struggling for a place in American society. He said, "As we remember the past, we should become sensitive and empathetic to the new immigrants and those who will follow in the future." It was a theme picked up by several speakers.

Much has been written about the suffering of those who fled the Great Famine to find survival in the New World. We know that many thousands died on ships en route to the United States and Canada. The memorial in Lawrence, called “An Gorta Mor” (“the Great Hunger”), will serve as a reminder of that sad chapter in Irish history. But in a larger sense it will serve as a tribute to all who have come as immigrants to America. And at this critical time, it will serve as an inspiration to those who are now seeking a place in our American society.