By Ray O’Hanlon
New York school students will soon be tackling the highly charged issue of the Great Hunger in Ireland, the reasons for the Famine and the profound effects it had on the growth of the United States.
As first reported in the Echo, the task of drawing up a curriculum has been handed to Hofstra University on Long Island.
The Hempstead college has until the end of June 1999 to develop a "Curriculum Resource Guide" dealing with the mass-starvation in Ireland in the years 1845-1849.
In its winning submission to the New York State Education Department, Hofstra’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching, headed by Dr. Maureen Murphy, identified several areas that would combine to make up the curriculum.
Hofstra’s proposal was based on four broad questions: How did the "Columbian Encounter" and British colonialism contribute to conditions that created the Famine and the Irish diaspora? Was the Famine an act of nature or of man? How did the Famine reshape Ireland and the world? How can the lessons of the Great Famine shape thinking about the world today?
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"Columbian Encounter" refers to European contact with the Americas and also that relationship in reverse — an example being Sir Walter Raleigh’s introduction of the New World’s potato into Ireland.
The Hofstra submission also outlined a planned link between the Famine curriculum and another human-rights subject, slavery, through an examination of the connection between abolitionism and Famine relief.
"It [the curriculum] will present a balanced approach to issues . . . and will enhance students’ understanding of their role in a democratic society by being sensitive to the identities and experience of all peoples," the submission stated.
The formulation of the curriculum is being underwritten with $200,000 from the New York State budget. It will be applied to all grade levels from fourth grade up, so kids as young as 9 will be getting to grips with a historical occurrence that spawned one of the largest single surges of immigrants to the United States from a western European country in the 19th century.
The curriculum plan emerged from a law passed by New York legislators in 1996 and signed into law by Gov. George Pataki. That move prompted considerable debate, some of it heated. This was particularly evident in an acrimonious exchange of letters at the time between Pataki and the then British ambassador to the U.S., Sir John Kerr.
Pataki supported the Famine education bill while saying that there was more to the Great Hunger than potato blight. As far as he was concerned, the mass death and forced emigration of the late 1840s had more to do with British perfidy, indeed a deliberate campaign by the British government to deny the Irish masses the relief they so badly needed.
Kerr was irate. "Such interpretations of Irish history are increasingly disputed," he wrote Pataki.
Citing "revisionist" Irish historians, Catholic and Protestant, Kerr pointed to the traditional view of the Famine as being romantic, parochial "theme park stuff."
With, perhaps, an eye on the inevitable, Kerr wrote that when it came to actually teaching about the Famine, he hoped New York schools would do so while taking the position that the Famine in Ireland "was not deliberate, not premeditated, not man-man, not genocide."
The Hofstra submission, however, would appear to indicate an emphasis on questions and debate rather than pre-determined positions.