Category: Archive

Famine curriculum stirs spirited debate

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

The New York State Famine Curriculum, soon to be released to the state’s public schools, is stirring debate on both sides of the Atlantic — even before its formal publication.

The curriculum has been under development at Hofstra University on Long Island for the last two years.

Depending on which Sunday newspaper an individual spent time with last weekend, the curriculum is either 1,071 pages thick or 1,800 pages from cover to cover.

And it is either strongly critical of the Famine-era British government or lets London off the hook.

The Famine curriculum, which will be offered as a social studies course to all grades in New York public schools from fourth grade up, is derived from legislation passed by Albany legislators and signed into law by Gov. George Pataki in late 1996.

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Two years later, once necessary funding was secured, the task of developing the curriculum was assigned to Dr. Maureen Murphy of the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hofstra.

Joe Conway, press spokesman for Gov. Pataki, said this week that the curriculum was now ready and would be unveiled in the not too distant future.

"Sooner rather than later," Conway said, though he was unable to pinpoint a specific launch date.

The curriculum’s birth was marked from the start by controversy, beginning with a testy exchange of letters in 1996 between Pataki and then British ambassador to the U.S., John Kerr.

The core of the debate centered on British culpability for the mass starvation and forced emigration from Ireland in the late 1840s and early ’50s.

When he signed the bill, Pataki pointed to a "deliberate campaign" by the British government of the day to deny huge numbers of Irish people the food they needed to survive.

Kerr, in his riposte, took umbrage at what he saw as a comparison between the Great Hunger in Ireland and the Holocaust of World War II.

Kerr Wrote Pataki at the time that it was "insulting" to equate the sufferings of those who had suffered and died in Nazi concentration camps with the plight of the famine-era Irish who had, by contrast, been hit by a "natural disaster" as opposed to anything man-made or inspired.

The Daily News in New York was not impressed by Kerr’s position at the time and accused the British envoy of having a "hissy fit."

The Daily News was at the center of the argument again last Sunday when James Mullin, who authored the New Jersey public schools Famine curriculum, took Dr. Murphy’s work to task for not focusing enough on repressive British policies in the years, indeed centuries, leading up to the Great Hunger.

"History is as much about what is omitted as it is about what is included," Mullin wrote in an op-ed article, while adding that there was no explanation in the curriculum as to why the Irish had become so utterly dependant for survival on potatoes.

It was Mullin who counted the pages in the curriculum and came up with the total of 1,071.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the Sunday Independent was reporting a curriculum that was an "1,800-page, three-inch thick" document, and one which, in contrast to Mullin’s assessment, was intended the give the British a fair bit of stick.

This document, the paper reported, "is being sent to New York State schools to teach American youngsters how the British caused the Irish potato famine."

The Independent — a paper that has a part-antecedent the Freeman’s Journal, a paper published during the Famine years — reported that the "Great Irish Famine Curriculum" was passed by the New York State legislature in 1996 despite intense British opposition.

The paper reported that "the resolution, given impetus by the 150th anniversary of the famine," was enshrined in the New York school curriculum and "pulled no punches" in apportioning blame to the British for the Famine which claimed the lives of more than a million people between 1845 and 1850.

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