IN Glasgow’s east end yesterday a simple ceremony took place signifying the triumph of hope over despair. After several years of opposition, fuelled by political cowardice and cultural hostility, a lasting memorial to An Gorta Mor, Ireland’s Great Famine, was unveiled in the grounds of St Mary’s Catholic Church in the city’s Calton district.

From 1845 to 1852 the famine claimed the lives of more than one million people. Most of them were already impoverished by Britain’s attempts to erase their culture through the forces it always brought to bear when subjugating other countries in its lust for empire: brute force and economic oppression.

And so, one of the most important human convulsions in the development of Scotland’s largest city is finally granted the memorial it deserves. Glasgow became a refuge and eventually a home to 100,000 Irish seeking survival and something better for their children. In time, after a chilly welcome, this city began gradually to open its big arms to these people and their descendants. They responded by providing much of the labour that made Glasgow the UK’s engine-room and many of the ideas that drove forward the struggle for equality and social justice.

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The organisers of the campaign to build a memorial to An Gorta Mor began their efforts following 18 months of fruitless and depressing discussion with Glasgow City Council. The local authority, slippery in its subterfuges, had contrived all manner of spurious reasons to deny space in this sprawling city for a memorial occupying a mere few feet. New York, one of the 140 other cities where the Famine survivors settled, granted a half-acre site 20 years ago to the Irish Hunger Memorial. All those cities where the Irish settled, similarly built memorials to the apocalyptic event that brought them to their shores. Not Glasgow; not really.

The council hurriedly stitched together a plan that side-stepped the outcome they seemed desperate to avoid: having to recognise the Irish as a community in its own right and the terrible event that brought them here. Thus, in a move that served merely to insult the memories of this experience, they fashioned a monument of sorts – designed to be walked over – on Glasgow Green. This conveniently hitched Ireland’s Great Famine disaster to the potato blight in the Highlands at around the same time.

The overwhelming majority of those who perished in the Great Famine were Irish Catholics but a significant number of poor Protestants suffered too. This was why the council was approached to provide a site – preferably on the Broomielaw where the refugees pitched up – that didn’t have exclusively Catholic connotations.

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Yet, several influential people on the council seemed determined to ensure that no specific memorial to the Great Famine will ever darken its estate. Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian, said at the time: “Despite the prejudice and hostility the Irish faced when they came to Scotland – especially in the 1920s and 1930s – the third and fourth generations have gone on to make a massive contribution to the development of the modern Glasgow and to Scotland as a whole. The Great Famine stands alone in terms of death, suffering and the movement of people to Scotland, especially to Glasgow.”

The attitudes that underpinned Glasgow City Council’s conduct in this issue still permeate dark corners of civic Scotland. Celtic Football Club which rose out of the poverty and suffering of those first waves of immigrants is still criticised for daring to fly the flag of Ireland at its ground. The Sunday Times last week quoted an unnamed politician who contrived to suggest that this memorial to endurance and the kinship of a community could cause tension and division. It reflected the antipathy that still exists among Scotland’s political classes for Catholic schools: that by being, well ... too Catholic they contribute to anti-Catholic attitudes. Unravel that one.

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It’s impossible to overstate the sheer scale of deprivation and social alienation my forbears faced when they first stepped ashore here. Yet, it’s also important to stress how much good people of other faiths and traditions stepped forward. During this time they resisted the prevailing mood of fear and resentment to help the poor Glasgow Irish make significant contributions at all levels of Scottish society.

That my generation of those descended from Ireland now feel entirely comfortable in our Scottish skins says good things about Glasgow and its people. Within a few decades of being reviled and viewed as little more than animals the Irish are now prominent in politics, the media and the trade union movement. In those sectors which once strove to exclude them such as the law and business they now thrive.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the words of Nicola Sturgeon in 2018 in a speech to celebrate the centenary of Catholic education. “We value the contribution that Catholic schools make to modern Scotland. We want that contribution to continue in the years ahead,” she said.

Jeanette Findlay, the academic who chairs the Famine memorial committee, recalled the narrative of her own family in the booklet produced for yesterday’s event. She spoke for many of us. “Almost all of them were illiterate; their marks used in the marriage and death certificates recorded in the years to follow. Almost all of them died young – the death certificate of my great, great grandmother, Ellen Deighan – recorded for all time that at the age of 59 she died of decrepitude or in other words she was simply aged beyond her years by poverty.”

It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the experience of the Glasgow Irish and those today fleeing war, famine and oppression who are seeking sanctuary in Britain. The UK Government has built a climate of hostility towards these people, despite its historic role in creating the chaos that ravages their homelands. Let none of us who are descended from immigrants similarly menaced ever withhold our aid and compassion for them.

The memorial which now stands beside an old Calton church should offer hope for all the latter-day oppressed of all faiths and traditions. All of Glasgow should be proud of it.

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