The Irish Famine in American School Curricula

Article excerpt

EXAMINING how people remember the past has become for historians as important as analyzing the events on which those collective memories are based. (1) On one level, the trend extends the established method of intradisciplinary self-critique known as "historiography" to a parallel study of changing opinions over time among the consumers, rather than the producers, of historical knowledge. On another, it exemplifies the epistemological doubts of the late-twentieth century that scholars can create histories that are accurate in any positivistic sense. What lasting role the history of memory may have in the discipline of history cannot yet be discerned. It has at least underlined how important, in any given era, the popular memory of the past is to current political discourse. It has also shown that the relationship between memory and discourse is two-way rather than one-way, and that the shaping of memory is partly a political process.

Fifty-year anniversaries and their multiples tend to be important moments in the reshaping of memories, and the sesquicentennial of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52 has generated an interesting opportunity to observe a contemporary example of the phenomenon. (2) The reshaping has reflected historians' updated judgments about the famine. In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of scholars undercut the interpretation that the famine had been a natural calamity severely aggravated by unwise social and economic practices among the Irish people. (3) With much greater nuance, they again made central to the catastrophe stories about the inadequacies and even hard-heartedness of Britain's response to the Irish crisis. Of course, the stance of the "revisionist" historians whom they criticized had been a reaction to older, nationalist arguments that had made the famine primarily the product of conscious English policy. (4)

The sesquicentennial of the Great Famine also took on special importance on account of the contemporary political contexts in which it occurred. How society observed the famine had implications for various groups involved in the Northern Ireland debate. Hard-line nationalists could use evidence of mean-spirited English behavior in the famine era as an indication of English perfidy and modern English denials of responsibility as reason for distrusting today's British government. From the English point of view, the advantages of viewing themselves as helpless bystanders inevitably blamed for misfortunes that the Irish brought on themselves were equally obvious.

In the United States, the famine commemoration occurred in an era characterized by revived expressions of ethnicity and perceptions among cultural groups that they must consciously protect the presentation of their heritages in the history of the nation. For Irish Americans from backgrounds that might be included under the umbrella terms of "Catholic" or "nationalist," it was an opportunity to present an alternative depiction to that which portrayed them as racist adjuncts to the dominant culture. (5) Although they would reject politicized charges that they were claiming "victimhood," remembering the famine allowed Irish Americans to remind the nation of their initial pariah status and prolonged period of assimilation.

Given the broader cultural context of the United States in the late-twentieth century, efforts to create a niche for the famine in the American memory not surprisingly included techniques developed in the preceding generation by African Americans eager to establish their share of the nation's history and by Jews anxious lest the lessons of World War II be forgotten. Whether or not the Irish enjoyed the irony in their use of tactics associated with their ethnic competitors is not clear. Some in those other groups, especially among the Jews, definitely did not enjoy it.

One key element of the Irish-American initiative to create a famine memory in the United States was a campaign to include instruction about it in the curricula of several school systems, especially in states with large Irish or Irish-ancestral populations. …