Monday, May 17, 2010

The Written Record

They came in their hundreds, in their thousands. Over one million.

The Great Famine changed the world by scattering the Irish all over the globe. They fled to England, in search of work and food. They came to America in droves aboard the coffin ships, seeking any sort of life that held out hope of survival. They were sent against their will to Australia as convicts, guilty of stealing food to feed a starving child, and if they took their impoverished family with them, so much the better.

Within the ancient archives of Stewart and Kincaid, prominent solicitors of long standing in Dublin, were discovered a veritable treasure trove of documents from the Famine years.

James Adams auctioneers has been charged with selling the collection, and they've reported strong interest from America. The Irish might not have been welcomed when they arrived in New York or Boston or Baltimore, but they flourished. And they never quite forgot why their ancestors had left home to begin with.

Senator David Norris has noticed that this important piece of Ireland's past could very well end up like so many of its America. Clearly this is the sort of material that should remain at home, where scholars might have access to it. The Great Famine is so very much a part of Ireland's ethos, and what better way to explore the mindset of the landlord or the desperate tenant than with source documents?

The collection of letters and documents belongs in the National Archives, but the owner is interested in a return on an investment rather than investing in the public's knowledge of their past.

Nothing wrong with making a euro, but the Irish government is flat out broke. There's no money to pay for luxuries like source documents from the Great Famine, and there surely isn't enough money to compete at auction with descendants of Famine immigrants who made good in America and can afford to possess a fragment of their history.

Col. Wingfield pens his annoyance at having to spend lavishly to ship his tenants off to America. A tenant pleads for understanding with his landlord that the seed money was spent on food. A solicitor advises his client that the tenant has no money to pay back rent or pay to emigrate, so he's accepted transportation for his entire family.

Taken together, the documents paint a complete picture. Scattered among private collectors and public archives, the continuity becomes difficult to trace.

Will anyone step up and purchase the letters so that they can be donated back to the Irish people? Or will it be all about the money, the greed of possessing that which others cannot have...even if those others are historians who might create a more comprehensive record of a time that changed the world.

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