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Speech by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys T.D. at the Tulane University Symposium – The Irish Famine - Development and Recovery at Home and Abroad

A aíonna agus a chairde uaisle, is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo libh inniu ar an ócáid seo. Distinguished speakers and friends I am delighted to be here this afternoon in the St. Alphonsus Art & Cultural Centre here in New Orleans. I want to congratulate Laura Kelley in particular for organising the symposium and for doing so much to promote Irish history and heritage at Tulane University and across New Orleans.

We are here today to commemorate the victims of the Great Irish Famine but also to celebrate the lives of those who emigrated from Ireland to this great city and forged new lives here and across the USA. Today, we reinforce the enduring links between our communities which live.

The Famine was characterised by suffering, sacrifice and survival, experiences the people of New Orleans know only too well. The world watched in horror as the citizens of this great city suffered greatly as the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina unfolded in 2005 leaving lives and communities utterly ripped after. But like the survivors of the famine, the people here have shown strength beyond belief and the thriving city of New Orleans today is a testament to that spirit of resilience.

History of the Great Irish Famine & the Irish Diaspora

The history of the Great Irish Famine is a tragic one. As we've heard from previous speakers, during the crisis years of the Famine, it is estimated that over one million Irish perished, from hunger or, more commonly, from hunger-related diseases. In the decade following 1846, more than 1.8 million Irish emigrated, with more than half of these fleeing during the famine years of 1846-50 - more as refugees than as emigrants, as the historian Peter Gray has remarked.

There are real stories of tragedy associated with this time in our history – stories which have surfaced over the last number of years as we commemorate the victims of this time though the National and International Famine Commemorations. For example, the story of the poor family of four from the Ballina area in distant Mayo who arrived in Drogheda having been three weeks on the road. They travelled in the hope of a bowl of soup, a bed in the Workhouse or a ship for Britain or the United States. Predictably, the long journey across Famine-stricken Ireland on foot, coupled with lack of food had taken its toll and tragically, the two children collapsed and died on the street when they arrived in Drogheda. Or the fate of the poor orphan girls who were sent from Ireland to lesser populated areas of Australia to try and make new lives for themselves. Also – this year the National Famine Commemoration was held in Strokestown Park, Co. Roscommon – formerly the Mahon estate during the famine - and we learned that many poor families living on the estate perished at sea in the dreaded 'coffin ships' following a forced migration initiative by the landlord of the day.

However, we must also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the individuals and communities whose compassion and generosity sustained the lives of those who suffered during the famine when they were most in need. I was particularly glad to hear Professor Christine Kinealy's earlier contribution on the 'kindness of strangers' as it ties in with the National Famine Commemoration Committee's recent efforts to honour those who provided assistance to the victims of the famine. I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Kinealy just a few weeks ago in a former Famine workhouse in my home county of Monaghan. Carrickmacross Workhouse, which was one of 130 workhouses built across Ireland between 1841 and 1843, has been restored to act a poignant reminder of the plight of Ireland’s famine poor. Through her work with Quinnipiac University Professor Kinealy has played a huge role in educating people of all ages and backgrounds about the Great Hunger.

While Professor Kinealy speaks of the ‘kindness of strangers’, my predecessor Jimmy Deenihan highlighted the ready and unstinting help which the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers provided. Indeed the Choctaw Indians also sent $170 to the Irish people during the famine despite the challenges they themselves were facing at the time. It is only right that we include this generosity in any narrative of this time in our history.

As a direct result of the Great Famine, the population of Ireland, which was close to 8.5 million in 1845, had fallen to 6.6 million by 1851. It would continue to fall – due to the relentless drain of emigration – for many decades to follow. The emigration tide in the decade following 1846 resulted in a continuing and unremitting 'flow of blood' from Ireland, and as the generation of the famine emigrants settled in their new countries, they created networks of Irish communities overseas to receive, assist and sustain the chain migration of Irish emigrants, following their family and neighbours across the Atlantic to start a new life and find new opportunities. This pattern was widespread here in New Orleans and I know it contributed to the rapid development of the Irish Channel here in the city.

The determination of these immigrants to survive and to succeed was passed on to later generations of the Irish Diaspora, and must have inspired them as they made their mark and reached the top in every area of the new countries in which they settled. We know that many of these people created successful lives in business, politics, sport and the arts across the globe. Among those who gained fame in the United States were the automobile magnate, Henry Ford – grandson of Famine emigrants from County Cork, and the Kennedy family of County Wexford whose descendant John Fitzgerald Kennedy was to grace the esteemed office of the President of the United States. One cannot underestimate the bravery of these people, as thin, undernourished and often diseased they set sail to new shores leaving family, friends and communities behind forever. Their poignant story is deeply embedded in our traditional laments, ballads and song. The links between Ireland and the Diaspora created by this mass exodus are links which still bind us today.

Of course, the cultural, economic and social effects of the famine on Ireland cannot be underestimated. For a significant number of the Irish of the diaspora, the famine was an important part of their self-awareness. Some retained a close interest in their homeland and sought to contribute to its progress and development. This would mean, in some instances, support for movements dedicated to achieving an independent Irish state, or for strengthening the various strands of Irish cultural identity (the Gaelic League, the Literary Revival, the Gaelic Athletic Association and so on). In more recent times, economic co-operation and investment, and philanthropic work, have marked the continuing interest among the diaspora in maintaining the links with their ancestral homeland. In particular their descendants have played a vital, innovative and continuing role in the ongoing Irish Peace Process and through a range of cultural and philanthropic organisation and the American Fund for Ireland they have helped foster reconciliation, co-operation and mutual understanding within Northern Ireland and between the two parts of Ireland.

The Irish presence can be felt strongly here in New Orleans and it is a credit to those generations of Irish families who kept the spirit of their homeland alive in their children.

New Orleans and Ireland

By the mid-1800s, the Irish had developed a strong presence in New Orleans. In the 1830s, huge numbers of Irish immigrants died digging the New Basin Canal that ran from Lake Pontchartrain to a point near what is now the Union Passenger Terminal. Many more Irish men and women continued to arrive in New Orleans, however, often travelling on cotton ships making return journeys from Liverpool, and from 1840-1860 New Orleans had a higher per capita Irish population than Boston or Philadelphia.

We know that many Irish immigrants, fleeing the devastation of the famine, arrived in New Orleansin that tragic period of the late 1840s. The cheapest and most popular departure port for the Irish coming to New Orleans was Liverpool. Those that managed to scrape together the fare and survived the perilous journey often sent money back home to help other family members make the outward journey showing the strength of the family ties that meant so much to these people and this practice continued for many years afterwards.

After many weeks at sea, in gruelling conditions, one can only imagine how these poor Irish immigrants felt on arrival into this bustling city with its colour, strange languages and exotic smells– so alien to them at this time. As Laura herself has written, New Orleans was the most "Un-American" city in the United States. There were Americans, Germans, Spanish, English , and French Creoles all living in New Orleans and trying to build a life and a community there. It was into this melting pot that the Irish emigrants had to carve a space. In fact, by the 1860s, an entire Irish community had developed near what is now known as the Garden District, including churches and schools. This community was the largest Irish constituency anywhere in the Old South. Perhaps as many as 250,000 Irish entered the United States through New Orleans and by 1860 there were some 38,000 Irish – a sixth of the population- living in this city.

The Irish population in New Orleans were active in the local economy and actually dominated key economic activities in the port – which was the second largest port in America, post 1840. As was the case throughout the Irish Diaspora, these new Irish emigrants literally dragged themselves up from grinding poverty and exclusion to enter the trades and professions. By 1892 they had prospered to such a degree that a John Fitzpatrick became the first Irish-American Mayor of New Orleans. Also, in the highly competitive labour market as unionisation spread, Irish dock leaders co-operated with their black counterparts both in work-sharing and in a number of hard-fought strikes for better conditions. As the historian, Tim Pat Coogan observes, in New Orleans the Irish and black union leaders realised that, in an ethnically diversified society where racism was sadly rife, unity was strength.

The area in New Orleans where the Irish community settled became known as the Irish Channel. Although no longer a fundamentally Irish neighbourhood, I understand the Irish Channel remains the centre of St. Patrick’s Day festivities today. I am looking forward to visiting there later this evening and then, tomorrow, seeing displays of Irish dancing and the start of a GAA tournament – true examples of how Irish culture and heritage is still thriving in this great city. While other cities in the United States maintained relatively high levels of Irish immigration post-famine era, this was not sustained in the case of New Orleans which makes the strong Irish identity still manifestly in evidence here all the more remarkable.

American Civil War

I want to take the time as well this weekend to acknowledge, on behalf of the Irish Government, the enormous numbers of Irish emigrants who lost their lives in the American Civil War. It is estimated that between 170,000 and 200,000 Irish fought in that defining conflict of these independent United States. The vast majority of Irish combatants – probably more than 150,000 - fought with the Union troops, with the Irish in the Confederate ranks possibly numbering 20,000. Many thousands of Irish lost their lives on both sides – in fact, the very first person to lose his life in the war was a Tipperary man, Daniel Hough. He was just 36 years old. Many other Irishmen would rise to the very highest ranks – individuals like Thomas Francis Meagher and Patrick Cleburne, whose reputations and legacies have echoed through the ages. But my thoughts this weekend are more with the tens of thousands of what have been termed the “forgotten Irish”, who lost their lives or loved ones on the battle fields of this great country and whose sacrifice history has too often overlooked. Men - and women too - who in many instances fled the Famine which tore Irish society apart, only to arrive into a war which was, incredibly, of comparable suffering and heartbreak.

Irish historians like Damien Shiels and David Gleeson deserve great credit for bringing these stories to Irish and American audiences. And often, it is only with the generosity of time lapsed – and so much water and bloodshed under the bridge - that a sacrifice of this scale can be properly appreciated and acknowledged. So it has proved with World War 1 in Ireland, where we are only now – in 2014, 100 years afterwards - coming to recognise fully the service of perhaps as many as 350,000 brave Irishmen. This year is also, of course, the 150th anniversary of 1864, the penultimate year of the American Civil War. I could not let the occasion pass this weekend without acknowledging the sacrifices and bravery of so many Irish who fought – and too many who lost their lives – in that great conflict.

Hurricane Katrina

The hardships New Orleans endured during and after the Civil War did not represent an end to the adversity this city has had to overcome. In 2005, we watched with you in horror as nature sent one of its deadliest storms in the direction of this city. We will never forget the impact that Hurricane Katrina had on the people of New Orleans – I remember seeing the news at home in Ireland and being truly horrified at the devastating havoc wreaked by what would eventually become the worst national disaster in the history of the United States.

Although many were evacuated in preparation of the coming storm, we know 1,500 people still tragically lost their lives. Tens of thousands were displaced and forced to take refuge elsewhere. We remember those victims here today and we remember those that were left behind to pick up the pieces of their own lives and who dauntlessly faced the challenge to mend a broken community.

Such is the enduring strength of the links with the Irish diaspora here in New Orleans, that , the Irish Government committed €1m to disaster relief immediately following the storm with contributions given to the Red Cross for immediate use along the Gulf Coast. Contributions were also given to various community and civil service organisations, via our Consulate. Just as New Orleans gave shelter and support to emigrating Irish in our many hours of need following the Famine, so too were the Irish government and people determined to offer our assistance to the people of this great city when you need it most in the wake of Katrina. We donated grants to organisations in New Orleans like St. Dominic School, St. Mary’s Dominican High School and the Archdiocese of New Orleans for the restoration of libraries in 5 diocesan schools. I was honoured to be invited to meet the students and teachers at St. Mary's Dominican High School earlier today and they gave me such a warm welcome which is further testament to the ties we have between us. I have also had an opportunity on this visit to learn of the tremendous work of Irish people in the city of New Orleans today in tackling hunger, homelessness and poverty with organisations like Cafe Reconcile and Lantern Light – work befitting our shared history and worth especially celebrating as we remember our Famine and its victims.

Irish Aid

Given our famine experience, it is no surprise that hunger has a deep resonance with the Irish people today. Our experience of famine has echoed through the generations and has shaped the values and principles that are embedded in our development programme today. Ireland’s aid programme, known as Irish Aid, is based on a partnership with the developing world. It is clearly focused on poverty reduction in sub-Saharan Africa. The programme prioritises the poorest and most vulnerable communities, building self-respect, dignity and hope.

A major priority of the programme is to support global efforts to reduce hunger. In addition to addressing the immediate needs of those who are victims of natural and manmade disasters, Ireland is also working to address the root causes of hunger. I am proud to say that Ireland has become a leading global advocate in the fight against hunger and in addition to Government efforts, Irish non-governmental organisations are leading the way in ensuring that the issues of hunger and under-nutrition are placed on the global agenda.

Ireland and the US have developed a strong collaboration on reducing poverty and hunger for the world's poorest people. The US and Ireland have led the 1,000 Days of Action to Scale Up Nutrition since 2010 which aims to prevent the irreversible effects of undernutrition on children during the critical 1,000 days between pregnancy and age two. We want to continue to work with you to drive real progress on hunger and nutrition globally. I would like to congratulate the American Government on the recent launch of a new USAID strategy which embraces all development agencies and aims to work more effectively in providing humanitarian aid and crisis assistance.

I know that Ireland’s vision of a hunger-free world is shared by the American Government and we will continue to work together in a global context to improve the lives of millions of people in developing countries.


The journey for those emigrants was by equal measure both treacherous and momentous, but the instinct for survival, the will to live, which had seen the famine emigrants survive that great calamity and the ocean crossing, must have been extraordinarily strong. It must have been one of the main factors that enabled them, and in time their children, to put down firm roots in their adopted countries. This determination to survive and to succeed was passed on to later generations of the Irish diaspora. It inspired them as they made their mark and reached the upper echelons in every area of work, commerce and civic leadership new societies in which they settled. The links between our countries, although forged out of tragic circumstances, have endured and will continue to endure through the strength of our shared experiences and vibrant communities.

As the old Irish saying goes "Bíonn súil le muir ach ní bhíonn súil le huaigh.", there is hope from the mouth of the sea but there is no hope from the mouth of the grave" – it was with this in mind that many poor Irish immigrants departed a famine ravaged Ireland to set sail for a new life.

In New Orleans they found it.

Go raibh maith agaibh.