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So, why an 1847 Commemorative Run Now?


Ireland is in the midst of its Easter 1916 Rising Commemoration. However, at times historical dates do not converge with modern political realities. In doing research for the run, in speaking with historians, a quiet murmur arose suggesting that, due to political tensions, commemoration of the sesquicentenary anniversary of the Great Famine was perhaps tempered, given the Good Friday Agreement was not yet signed. 


Indeed, in 1996 while in Australia, Fine Gael minister Avril Doyle, during a speech marking the Great Famine, cautioned that "Irish people needed to develop a mature relationship with their past, to view the famine as a moment in history which defined a sense of vulnerability and not as a weapon for modern political conflict." 


Further entanglement ensued during a Manhattan luncheon in 1996, when the contemporary governor of New York, George Pataki, who had recently signed a law mandating that state schools provide a course on "mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850", linked with studies on "the inhumanity of genocide, slavery and the Holocaust", declared:


"History teaches us the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive".


It was, again, minister Avril Doyle who would interject and state that in speaking as "a member of the Government...I don't call the Famine genocide...historians have disproved that". Rather, she characterized the Famine as exacerbated by "an appallingly inadequate response by the British administration."


As late as 2013, the eminent historian Tim Pat Coogan, in his The Famine Plot, caused a furor in academic circles by arguing that the famine was genocide perpetrated by the British. Challenging Coogan's scholarship in a particularly vitriolic exchange, Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of Economic History at Queen’s University Belfast, accused Coogan of "providing junk food for the wilder reaches of Irish America."


A deft arbitrator, reviewer Peter Behrens, likening the inaction of the Bush administration regarding Hurricane Katrina to the British response during the famine, summarily remarked, "Natural forces cause hurricanes. And crop failures. In Ireland and in America, however, it is history that shapes a government’s intellectual, practical and political response, when Mother Nature flexes her sovereign power."


Make of it what you will, but in the almost two decades since the 150th anniversary, historical academic research has emerged that further reveals the story of the Famine, especially the nearly forgotten immigration to Canada in 1847. Personal diaries of the clergy and laity provide a firsthand account of actual events and contextualize the effect of so many immigrants descending on Canadian shores.


The Canadian response is to be lauded and figures as one of the great humanitarian endeavors to stave off disease and minster to the sick. The heroics of ordinary Canadians are legion and their stories have emerged in the recede of passing commemorative dates as public interest is drawn elsewhere. Yet, their collective stories beg telling.


The Irish Diaspora 550 mile Run is dedicated not to advancing one agenda over another, but simply to highlighting these findings and the efforts of those custodians of Irish history who continue to uncover the voices of the past that encompass the totality of the Irish Diaspora.

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