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Echo Profile: Learning from history

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
George Pataki was born in 1945, 100 years after the outbreak of the Great Hunger in Ireland.
Fifty years later, as Irish America steeled itself to mark another solemn anniversary, Pataki was governor of New York, a state that had been a crucial lifeboat in a storm tossed sea for the Famine Irish.
There might have been a heavenly reason for this, or no reason at all.
But it was fortuitous. The Famine was an end to an era in Ireland but a beginning for Irish America as we have come to know it.
And much of that Irish America had taken root and flourished in the Empire State.
So when it came to marking the 150th anniversary it didn’t matter a whit that Pataki’s name was Hungarian. He had Irish on his mother Margaret’s side.
And besides, the man born on the banks of the Hudson seemed ready and more than able to grasp the significance of an event that was bitterly remembered by some, but sidelined and largely ignored by mainstream America.
More than that, it turned out he was ready to call people to account for it.
George Pataki’s rise to prominence in the Republican Party had a lot to do with his habit of bucking tradition and challenging the accepted ways of doing things.
This wrapped Pataki in an aura of freshness in the eyes of voters who gave him the nod to replace Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo in the 1994 gubernatorial election.
For Irish Americans loyal to both parties, the arrival of Pataki brought with it a moment of uncertainty.
When it came to Ireland, Irish American Democrats and Republicans in New York tended to aim for common ground. Cuomo had drawn plaudits from both camps for his Irish positions, not least his support of the MacBride Principles campaign.
Cuomo’s predecessor had been Hugh Carey, one of the Four Horsemen.
In the wake of both these men, Pataki, who didn’t hail from a New York City borough but from Peekskill in Westchester County, was a largely unknown quantity on Ireland.
This state of affairs wouldn’t last for long.
Albany can be a murky place when it comes to politics and odd things can happen.
In 1995, someone in the capital’s bureaucracy inserted an obscure provision into Pataki’s first budget that, if implemented, would have terminated the state’s MacBride compliance law.
But the provision was spotted and Pataki, who had voted for the MacBride bill as a state legislator, struck it from the budget.
Support for the fair employment guidelines might have been the high point of Pataki’s Irish policy but the freshman governor was now on a collision course with the British government, not over jobs in Northern Ireland, but over an historical wrong about to be writ large once again.
For years, Irish-American educators and activists had been urging inclusion of the Famine as a social studies subject in New York’s public schools curricula.
The 150th anniversary placed the issue front and center and when legislation was drawn up in Albany, Pataki, in the fall of 1996, had no problem signing the legislation into law.
He did not content himself with a moniker, however.
At the signing ceremony, Pataki accused British authorities during the Famine years of carrying out a “deliberate campaign” aimed at denying the starving Irish the food they needed to survive.
Pataki’s words prompted a furious letter from then British ambassador to the United States, John Kerr.
The ambassador’s broadside and the governor’s response turned into arguably the biggest dustup between New Yorkers and the British since the Battle of Saratoga.
Kerr lambasted the governor, stating that it appeared Pataki was equating the Great Hunger with the Holocaust, confusing a natural disaster with a man-made one.
The Daily News soon got into the middle of things, accusing Kerr of being pompous.
Pataki held his fire for a time; indeed three months were to pass before delivering a response.
Pataki stood his ground. He had not equated the Great Famine with the Holocaust, he wrote Kerr. It was merely the case that the two would sit side by side along with slavery and genocide as human rights subjects for New York public school students.
Pataki wrote that the lofty perspective Kerr had assumed in his letter had been entirely indefensible.
Pataki again focused on the “gross inadequacy” of British relief efforts and argued that the suffering and death in Ireland were in part the result of “all to prevalent British beliefs in the inferiority of the Irish.”
In outlining his view, Pataki worded his case like the lawyer he was, drawing on statements from the Famine period by British officials as evidence to back his position.
“But although we are not obliged to take offense on behalf of our great-grandparents, we are obliged to learn from history,” Pataki wrote.
“I want the truth above all to be taught. If it is, children in New York schools will learn that the Great Irish Hunger was no mere natural disaster.”
Just over four months later, Tony Blair wrote a letter of his own.
British politicians during the Famine years, he acknowledged, had stood by while a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain had turned into a massive tragedy.
The British Prime Minister’s letter, read out to a Famine commemoration in County Cork, was seen in Albany as a vindication of Pataki’s determined stance.
“Blair obviously is cut from better cloth than Kerr and his ilk,” the Daily News sniffed in an editorial.
A couple of years later, Pataki would walk through Irish fields that had once known only the scent of death.
And from that visit, according to Jack Irwin, Pataki’s long serving liaison to the Irish American community, would spring the Great Hunger Memorial in Lower Manhattan, opened by Pataki and President Mary McAleese in July 2002.
The memorial is a replica of a West of Ireland field.
George Pataki seems to have a thing for fields, and pastures new. He lives in bucolic Garrison rather than urban Albany. And right now he’s checking out the cornfields of Iowa, contemplating a presidential run in 2008.
Not a few Irish Americans will be taking an appreciative interest in his progress.

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