The Great Famine – also called the Irish Potato Famine – killed a million people between 1845 and 1852 and created much bitterness towards the ruling British. Restrictive laws against Catholics who made up over three-quarters of the population, including the prohibition of owning land, had been relaxed but the majority still held only tiny parcels of land, the remainder owned by absentee British aristocracy. As a result, only potatoes could provide anywhere near enough food for their families and these were grown at the expense of all other crops. When the previously unknown disease, blight, destroyed them they had no access to other foodstuffs. At the height of the famine, enough food was being produced elsewhere in the country but this was sent for export fuelling ever greater resentment. Evictions too were common. The alternative to death was emigration and over a million left for a new life elsewhere. Pictured below is the Dunbrody Famine Ship, moored at New Ross, Co. Wexford, a replica of the original boat.
The New World was a popular destination and in 1849 Patrick Kennedy, great-grandfather of American President, John F Kennedy and whose family lived near New Ross sailed to Boston, albeit from Liverpool, England. Marrying soon after his arrival he died nine years later of cholera at the age of 35.
In 1963, President Kennedy visited New Ross and his ancestral home at nearby Dunganstown. In 2008 his statue was unveiled by his sister Jean Kennedy Smith.
Fifty years after JFK’s visit, the Emigrant Flame was lit by his sister and daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. The fire was taken from the Eternal Flame by his graveside in Arlington Cemetery travelling 3500 miles: it burns constantly to commemorate all emigrants throughout the world.