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Boston Irish Fight Today’s Famines

By Michael Quinlin, Contributor
January 2000

After building a $1 million memorial park last year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine, Boston’s Irish community is turning its attention toward people suffering from contemporary famines throughout the world.

A proposed Irish Famine Institute that blends social activism and academic research is currently in the planning stages in Boston. Organizers want to create a permanent endowment to send food, medicine and supplies directly to African and Asian countries chronically experiencing famine and pestilence. The Institute also plans to support field research that will forecast and prevent famines in the future, and to educate the public about the hunger and suffering still occurring in the world.

The effort is being led by the founding chairman of Boston’s Irish Famine Memorial Committee, Thomas J. Flatley, a successful real estate developer who emigrated from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo in 1950. Flatley has pledged the initial $1 million, and hopes to grow the endowment to $5 million over five years.

“The Irish have a long-standing tradition of helping those in need, as witnessed by the highly disproportionate number of Irish relief agencies and religious groups working in Africa, Asia, South America and elsewhere,” he said. “Irish Americans have also been extremely generous in funding a variety of programs in Ireland and Northern Ireland. We hope the Institute, based in America’s most Irish of cities, will continue this worthy tradition of reaching out to those who need us.”

Even though the Institute is not yet formally established, it has already made several donations, helping hurricane survivors in Central America. In May, the Institute made a $40,000 contribution to University College Cork’s International Famine Center, a well-regarded program that combines fieldwork and activism with scholarly research and public awareness.

Stephen Jackson, director of the UCC Center, is currently working with Kevin O’Neill, co-chairman of the Irish Studies Program at Boston College, to co-sponsor a major international conference on global food security, to take place at UCC next April.

Organizers want the Institute to serve as a “living memorial” to Ireland’s Great Hunger. That mission is permanently inscribed on the eighth and final narrative plaque that encircles the Boston Irish Famine Memorial in downtown Boston. The plaque reads: “The conditions that produced the Irish Famine — crop failure, absentee landlordism, colonialism, weak political leadership — still exist around the world today. Famines continue to decimate suffering populations. The lessons of the Irish Famine need to be continually learned and applied until history finally ceases to repeat itself.”

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