From: The Irish Times – Monday, May 7, 2012
President’s Famine speech enraptures listeners
Mr Higgins received standing ovations as he recalled the ‘salient facts of the calamity’, writes LARA MARLOWE
PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins delivered his monumental reflection on “An Gorta Mór; the Great Famine of Ireland” at Boston’s Fanueil Hall, the mid-18th century landmark that served as a meeting place for American colonists who fought the British.
“It is truly humbling to be speaking in the same spot as such pivotal figures as George Washington, Daniel Webster, Susan B Anthony and of course Frederick Douglass,” Mr Higgins said, surrounded by statues, white columns and oil paintings.
There was not a single narrative of the Great Irish Famine, the President said. It was necessary to revisit, revise and include “much that has been forgotten or perhaps deliberately avoided in a great silence amongst the survivors at home and abroad . . . We must . . . be open to amending what we have taken as the iconic event, the master narrative, and add in some missing bits, drawing on the new scholarship . . . ”
It was one of those rare occasions when time and distance seem to collapse. For the rapt audience that gave him four standing ovations, Michael D Higgins was the embodiment of their link with the auld sod. The President summarised “the salient facts of the calamity”: the deaths of more than one million Irish, mass evictions and the flight of another 1.8 million people.
In Britain, where the government decided famine relief was the problem of Irish local authorities, not London, “the London Times had, together with Punch and others, consistently developed a stereotypical version of the Irish as insatiable in their demands, ungrateful and disloyal”, Mr Higgins said.
But the Famine also inspired goodness. Samuel Tuke, a British Quaker, died of illness contracted while helping Irish refugees. In 1847, Bostonians convened in Fanueil Hall – the very place where Mr Higgins spoke – to agree on the dispatch of Famine relief ships under Capt Robert Bennet Forbes. The US navy lent two warships – precursors of modern rescue missions to Somalia and Haiti – loaded with 800 tonnes of food for distribution in Cork city, Cobh, Kinsale and Skibbereen. Forbes’s great-great-grandson, a history professor, received a Certificate of Irish Heritage from Mr Higgins.
At the Irish Famine memorial a few blocks away, Mr and Mrs Higgins were greeted by a police pipe band in kilts. Hundreds of well-wishers watched from behind the police line as the President contemplated two bronze groups – children and an emaciated woman in rags, raising their hands in a beseeching gesture, and a happy, healthy family – representing the Irish before and after their arrival in America.
Michael Blanche, a Dublin taxi driver and the founder of the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims, had travelled from Dublin for the occasion. Blanche recently staged demonstrations accusing Minister for Justice Alan Shatter of denying Famine victims because he did not include them in a commemoration of the Holocaust.
“You’re not going to protest here,” Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan warned, as Blanche followed the President down the line, shaking hands. “There is no record of the Famine in the National Museum of Ireland,” Blanche complained to me.
“The first national commemoration happened in 2005. Why did it take 165 years?” Blanche was pleased with Saturday’s events: “The amnesia is lifting. The hall was full. The President gave a great speech. He’s the people’s president, elected overwhelmingly by the people. He’ll do the country proud.” At a reception for the Irish community, Mr Higgins noted that if guests looked from the hotel ballroom, they could see Deer Island in Boston Harbour, once the quarantine station for Irish emigrants. “Many of them, weakened by their experiences in Ireland and the rigours of the difficult voyage, died. Some 800 of our countrymen and women are buried out there on the very edge of the New World,” he said.
Mr Higgins closed his American journey with a tour of the John F Kennedy presidential museum and library. He stood a long moment in the replica of the Oval Office, while JFK’s 1963 address on the civil rights movement played on a monitor.
Kennedy’s use of language impressed the Irish leader most. “The speeches on human rights were a mixture of prophecy and the utopian vision of what an inclusive society could be.”
After Ernest Hemingway’s death in 1961, JFK arranged for Hemingway’s widow Mary to travel to Cuba, which was under a travel embargo, to retrieve his belongings. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis later obtained Hemingway’s archives, which Mr Higgins asked to see, for the Kennedy Library.
The Irish president did not say what aspect of Hemingway’s life intrigued him: the power of Hemingway’s prose, his engagement in the Spanish civil war, or his affection for Cuba.