Hundreds of miles off the coast of Ireland, I felt our Delta jet rumble and drop rapidly in altitude as we approached Dublin Airport. It was a golden sunrise over the patchwork of pastures bordering the Irish Sea. Thoughts of Irish ancestors flooded my mind. More than a hundred years had passed since the Griffins, O’Briens, Murrays, and Keatings fled the ravages of a deadly potato famine and landed in the hostile environment of Puritanical Boston. Now I had returned for a tour of the Irish Republic along with 23 other pilgrims. We were blessed to have a young priest, Father Brian Morris, as our spiritual director.
Whisked away on a 50-seat bus, our delightful and knowledgeable tour guide, Ann, enlightened us to the history of Dublin. Soon into the ride I saw statues honoring victims of the Great Famine. Dedicated in 1997, the Dublin Famine Memorial is a haunting reminder of the disaster that overtook the Irish people. The six large figures are scrawny and ragged as they stumble toward the ship that will take them to a new life in America.
During the Great Hunger (1845-1852), one million people starved to death and another million immigrated, many to America. The population of Ireland declined from 8 million to 4 million.
On Friday of our tour, we arrived in Galway. We visited Croagh Patrick (Saint Patrick’s Holy Mountain), where the famous saint fasted for the 40 days of Lent in the year 441. A short distance away is another memorial to victims of the famine. The National Famine Monument, dedicated in 1997, is the largest bronze sculpture in Ireland. As I stood under the shadow of the ship, I was moved by this somber work of art, entitled The Coffin Ship, that depicts immigrants as skeletal bodies.
What happened next on this tour? Well of course, we all went into Campbell’s Pub where the Guinness flowed and spirits were uplifted, inspired by the courage and faith of our ancestors, gone but not forgotten.